Theatrical Indecision

Theatrical Indecision

Theatrical Indecision

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Aug. 24 1997 3:30 AM

Theatrical Indecision

Broadway is dead. No, it isn't. Yes, it is. No, it isn't.

With the opening of another Broadway season imminent, you might be wondering about the health of American theater. Is Broadway dying or thriving? Does Disney's new 42nd Street playhouse portend good things or bad things for the Great White Way? Will extravagant productions funded by the megalomaniac Canadian mogul Garth Drabinsky revitalize or destroy the American musical? Whither serious drama? According to the New York Times, the answer to these questions is yes.

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In the Times' pages, Broadway has died a thousand deaths and prospered in a thousand booms. No season has ever been plain average. Consider this classic example: a 1981 story by Carol Lawson headlined "Theater Enjoys Biggest Boom in Years." The same author assesses the 1982 season: "Broadway Is in its Worst Slump in a Decade."

Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

Franklin Foer is a Slate contributing editor. He is writing a book about the dark side of Silicon Valley.

Plotting a trajectory of Times headlines from the last five years, you begin to suspect that Broadway is mechanically acting out some dialectical process that dooms it to fall on its face every other year. 1992: "On Broadway, the Lights Get Brighter." 1993: "Broadway Blues." 1994: "On Broadway, the Numbers Are on the Rise." 1995: "Entertainment Is Killing Broadway." 1996: "A Hit Season for Broadway: Seems Like Old Times With Influx of Theatergoers." 1997: "Despite the Broadway Boom, Serious Plays Face Serious Peril."

Compounding the confusion caused by these historical fluctuations are contradictory assessments of Broadway's condition at any given moment. Take Margo Jefferson's "Good Reasons to Have Faith in the Theater" (May 5, 1996) and Robert Brustein's "The End of Broadway's Run" (April 8, 1996). Or Glenn Collins' "Broadway Pays Big Dividends" (Feb. 17, 1994) and Bruce Weber's "Make Money on Broadway? Break a Leg" (June 3, 1993).

The Times is torn constantly between touting and panicking. It takes very little to set off alarms. In 1993, when the Tony-winning Jelly's Last Jam announced that it had failed to recoup investors' money, the paper editorialized, "The Great White Way is ailing." In 1995, the cause for concern was the opening of Edward Albee and Terrence McNally plays off-Broadway: "Some of the most beautiful theaters in the world are on the brink of permanent obsolescence."

It is not just a matter of theatrical exaggeration. Reporters and critics have a deep-seated anxiety about the future of this institution they write about. A LEXIS-NEXIS search shows that the metaphor of Broadway as an "endangered species" has been reprised eight times since 1989 in the headline or lead paragraph of an arts-section piece. Last year a TimesMagazine piece titled "Broadway Is Dead; Long Live Broadway" excerpted quotes from the paper's greatest drama critics--such as Walter Kerr and Frank Rich. Apparently, for most of this century, theater's biggest boosters have been convinced that they were celebrating an antiquated institution long displaced by movies and television. In 1953, Brooks Atkinson wrote: "As usual, the theater is dying. ... From an economic point of view, the legitimate theater is like its buildings: it is obsolete." This anxiety colors these critics' assessment of Broadway's prospects. Any evidence of Broadway's prosperity is instantly and optimistically greeted as a potential watershed, an end to the perpetual crisis. All negative data merely exacerbate the fatalism.

To be fair, it is possible to argue with logical consistency that Broadway is simultaneously booming and busting. For instance, the line adopted in several recent Times pieces is that while extravagant musicals can score funding and bring in huge crowds of tourists, serious plays using experimental techniques and tackling risqué subjects languish. In other words, Broadway is thriving as a business but dying as an art form. But wait. Maybe it's thriving as an art form but dying as a business. When Rich celebrated the 1992 season, he qualified his enthusiasm for the shows by adding, "As a business Broadway remains, more unhealthily and nervously than ever, the oldest floating crap game in New York."

Whatever.