Is The Theater Really Dead?

Skip Maloney

“Is the theater really dead?” – Paul Simon

When Paul Simon posed that rhetorical question in the lyrics of his song, The Dangling Conversation, in 1966, a ticket to see Mame or Cabaret, on Broadway, cost somewhere in the vicinity of $15. Today, getting a really good seat to see Kinky Boots, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, or any of the other nominated 2013 musicals, is likely to cost you in the vicinity of $115, and only if you shop around. 

The League of American Theaters and Producers notes that “the average (Broadway) theater attendee belongs to a household with more than $80,000 in annual income.” That’s $1,500 a week, roughly. A quick glance at a statistical abstract of household incomes from the US Census Bureau (by decade, from 1980 to 2007) will tell you that barely one in 10 households reach that figure. You have to wonder, too, how many of them actually in that bracket are willing to spend 10% of their weekly income on a single ticket to a Broadway show. Factoring in the baby sitters, gas to get there, the parking fees and the $10 they’ll charge you for an eye-dropper glass of wine at intermission, and it's likely to be more than 10%. Forget bringing the family these days, unless you have money to throw around, which is becoming an increasingly difficult phenomenon to encounter, although less so, one would assume, for those $1,500 a week folk.

All this said, we return to Simon’s question, which, by the way, in case you’d forgotten, was preceded by the line, “Can analysis be worthwhile?”

Theater isn’t dead, but it is definitely in need of a check-up and more than likely going to need some form of long-term treatment to revive it to the point of relevance in our American way of life. And it’s not just the outrageous cost to see it on Broadway that’s at issue. Community theaters offer far less expensive alternatives. It’s also about what the theater is offering us in terms of entertainment that brings the ‘dead’ question up for discussion time and again.

It’s not just difficult to compete with the breathtaking technology available to viewers of something like the latest Iron Man film, it is next to impossible. Aside from the fact that a ticket to see Iron Man 3, at its most expensive, was a lot less than half of a live (Broadway) theater ticket (or roughly equal to the amount of money necessary to see a live, community theater production) Iron Man 3 was visually mesmerizing. 

Theater needs to rediscover its unique ability to mesmerize. And it needs to do so in ways that are markedly different from the way they do things in Hollywood. A film doesn’t need you. It will perform its Iron Man wizardry without any cooperation or assistance from you. While your ringing cell phone is going to annoy your neighbor in the movie theatre, Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark isn’t going to miss a beat.

Theater is different precisely because the audience is an integral component of the experience and it’s this feedback loop between spectator and performer that is at the heart of theater magic. It is also, at least in part, what has been lost in recent years. Cats, originally produced in 1982 on Broadway (a year earlier in London), strikes me as the first indication that theater, as defined by the producers in its Broadway mecca, was losing sight of something essential. It was, in my opinion, the first Broadway musical which skewed the balance between pomp and circumstance; opting to, if you’ll excuse the expression, baffle its audience with bullshit, when it couldn’t dazzle them with brilliance.

Brilliance, in this context, is not characterized by a production's bells and whistles, which Cats and a variety of musical offerings since, has offered in spades, but a brilliance of the mind, which engages an audience, first and foremost in the performance of a compelling tale; what William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech called a tale of “universal truths, lacking which, any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."

"Without these," Faulkner went on to say, the writer "labors under a curse. He writes not of love, but lust. .  He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

It's this kind of brilliance that needs to be nurtured in the theater to stave off the sounds of its death knell. It is not enough these days to merely entertain an audience, because they can get that in front of their flat screen. You have to literally excite them. Stir their souls with a tale well told.

It should be noted that there is indeed brilliant theater out there. Memphis, being a case in point. Revivals are not something to necessarily gripe about, but I don't remember the Broadway of my youth doing quite so many revivals. There certainly wasn't a category for it at the Tony Awards. The Revival categories (play and musical) didn't get rolling until the 1990s. The revivals appeal, primarily, to a group of people who've seen a show umpteen times and can't wait to see it again. Or maybe missed it when it was around. A sort of guaranteed audience for the familiar. There's a good side to that coin. I'll go back to see a professional Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd any time. You'd have to catch me on a good day to get me back to see Death of a Salesman, although it's something everybody should do at least once.

We'll get them back, that vast segment of the population that used to attend theater regularly, say the producers, although it doesn't acknowledge the significantly larger crowd of people who express no basic interest, or worse, have never, and I mean never, seen a play or musical on stage, let alone a Broadway production. 

These people (Exhibit A that some sense of relevance is deteriorating), are the people the theater needs to attract, and in many cases, the burden of doing so falls on the back of community theaters, whose skill at a high level of theatrical brilliance can vary widely.

Engage us, we ask. Don’t just entertain us with extravagant, eye-popping productions, but excite us, we ask. Build us this kind of theater and even at $115 a pop, on considerably less than $80,000 per year, we’ll come.