After a year and a half, Broadway is finally back. September marked the reopening of several plays and musicals ranging from classics like “The Lion King” and “Wicked” to more recent hits like “Hadestown” or “Waitress.” Broadway’s big return is especially meaningful after over one year of socially distanced theatre and the death of popular Broadway actor Nick Cordero, which sent shock waves through the theatre community. The reopening also signifies the return of about 97,000 jobs for all those employed by Broadway productions. As actors return to the stage and audiences to their seats, many are hopeful for the type of systemic change we have seen across the nation following important discussions surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion. In fact, every new play coming to Broadway this fall is composed by a Black writer. Still, Broadway has a long way to go in order to combat the systemic inequities of theatre.
Broadway has long been dominated by white actors, directors and audiences. In June 2020, around 300 prominent creators of color published and signed an open letter addressed to “White American Theater” that denounced exclusive theaters for having “rosters of white theatermakers for white audiences, while relegating a token, if any, slot for a [Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)] play.” While this fall’s lineup may indicate the start of positive change, the inclusion of Black writers does not solve for other barriers to theatre, such as economic inaccessibility. The average price paid for a Broadway ticket during the 2018-19 season totaled $122.73, which is even less than the starting cost of more popular musicals like “Hamilton.” The cost of tickets alone creates a plethora of wealthier, elder, whiter audiences while closing doors off to everyone else.
Nevertheless, there is increasing hope for accessibility in theatre communities. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many theatre companies to adapt typical production styles in order to create and release meaningful work at a distance. One of the most impactful of these adaptations is streaming — live, recorded or on-demand musicals that audiences can watch on their own devices. Streaming live theatre presents multiple opportunities for increased access to a world of theatre previously only accessible to the privileged few.
In fact, the United States falls behind in comparison to several European countries, where sustainable and equitable “digital [theatre] initiatives were made a condition for state funding,” according to The New York Times. Streaming theatre opens up a multitude of avenues to equitability, starting with closed captions. Whereas live theatre privileges hearing communities, streaming services can easily offer accurate captioning with image and auditory descriptions for differently abled audiences. Closed captions can also be offered in multiple languages, expanding American theatre to international crowds. Additionally, streaming services make Broadway much more accessible to crowds who may not have been able to afford the cost of travel, lodging or tickets to see an in-person Broadway production.
Streaming services can also provide opportunities for up-and-coming actors, offering exposure to a wide range of audiences. The upcoming movie adaptation of Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen” has recently come under fire for its casting of Ben Platt, a 28-year-old, to play the titular role of Evan Hansen, who is only 17 years old. Though Platt originated the role back in 2015, many people were quick to question the decision to rehire Platt, an established older actor, over someone like Andrew Barth Feldman, a lesser-known 19-year-old who played the role of Evan from 2019 to 2020. The trailer has also led to criticisms about the musical or movie’s representation of suicide or mental health.
“Hamilton,” another streamed musical that is arguably the most popular of the pandemic, broke streaming records for Disney+, with 80 percent of Disney+ users having watched the dramatic retelling of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The musical’s July streaming release came at a time when Broadway tickets for the show could cost as much as $849. The streaming of “Hamilton” in particular is especially meaningful considering its colorblind casting, which allowed actors of all races to play the part of white historical figures. In bringing this diversity to TV screens across the world, “Hamilton” ignited several conversations surrounding the musical’s representation of Founding Fathers, slavery and nationalism. Many young BIPOC crowds sparked “Hamilton” discussions on apps like TikTok and Twitter, debating the idealization of historically racist and sexist politicians as well as the ethics of casting Black, Asian and Latinx actors to play these white historical figures. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the hip-hop musical’s creator, even commented on the debate, saying “all the criticisms are valid.”
The release of these musicals on popular streaming services is important because it has markedly altered the discourse surrounding theatre. By expanding the reach of theatrical performances, Broadway gives a voice to younger, more diverse generations with different priorities and perspectives than typical theatergoers. “Hamilton” to the 2016 viewer is nothing compared to the 2021 viewer — how one could possibly listen to lyrics like “This is not a moment, it’s a movement” without recalling the Black Lives Matter movement is unknown to me. The use of social media in “Dear Evan Hansen” is also entirely unique to younger generations like Gen Z, and yet the average theatergoer is over 40 years old.
All this to say, theatre may be a delicacy, but it should not be a rarity. Young, nonwhite, disabled, lower-class, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities have so much to contribute to theatrical discourse that can and will change the very way musicals are written. As Broadway reopens, it must too restructure in order to make the arts widely accessible to the public for good. Until then, I feel it best to leave this off with one more “Hamilton” lyric for Broadway and theatre in general: “History has its eyes on you.”
Kaitlyn Liu is a senior majoring in English and is Opinions Editor.