Broadway is not the be-all-end-all of theatre, though sometimes people act as though it is. Theatre happens everywhere. To say that New York theatre is the only theatre that matters is a misunderstanding of how the theatre community operates. On the other hand, denying the importance of Broadway is a misunderstanding of equal magnitude. Though New York isn’t the only place the theatre community talks about, it is where the largest, most centralized conversations are being had. This is a hard truth for the far-away fan, a side effect of loving a medium that draws some of its magic from being in the same location as its audience.
Which can lead those of us who don’t live anywhere near New York to wonder if we can and should be participating in the conversations about New York theatre. The can is simple. Of course we can. There’s a lot that can be said about a show without seeing it. The show’s content, the casting choices, the quality of the OBC—all of these questions can be answered from anywhere in the world.
There’s a lot, however, that can’t be said about a show without seeing it—which is where the question of should we participate in these conversations comes into play. How powerfully a person portrays a character, for example, is something that can only be judged by watching a performance. In order to treat shows and performers fairly, is it right for those of us who haven’t actually seen the show to talk about it?
The question of quality might be best left to those lucky enough to catch the Sunday matinee, but it’s important for people who don’t live in New York to help steer the conversation towards advancing the art and ensuring as many voices as possible are heard.
It’s our job to make sure people are talking about the implication of a show’s choices and not just how good the closing number is. If a white person portrays a role traditionally written for a minority, those who have seen the show may praise the actor’s take on the role and argue that he was, indeed, the right choice for the part. Those of us who haven’t seen it may focus on what this says about the production and what it means for theatre overall. Both are valid opinions, the broader one providing an outside look at what’s going on, unobstructed by the quality of the show.
And that’s important. Talking about what a show represents and the implication of a show’s choices is just as crucial as discussing how amazing the performance was. A show doesn’t have to be good to make influential choices, and sometimes being good can prevent viewers from seeing the problematic messages it presents. What’s important is to have both of these conversations, to see what a show’s saying when examined from both sides.
Broadway matters, not when taken as the only part of the theatre community, but when taken as an indicator of the business overall. What happens on Broadway—who’s getting cast and the types of shows being presented—is a reflection of what’s happening in theaters around the country. New York Theatre merely provides us with vocabulary for the conversation to happen, well-known examples to pull from when arguments ensue. It provides a common ground for us to examine one another’s experiences and push this business towards change.
Which is why it’s very important for everyone to listen and participate in these conversations.
If we want to advance this community, the loudest way to do so is by discussing what’s playing at the Palace Theatre. I’m not saying it isn’t hard to be a theatre fan a thousand miles from the Great White Way—only that it’s important we’re fans anyways, if only to remind Broadway that there are people watching who aren’t dazzled by the lights in Time Square.