Robert Liebowitz has been seeing and writing plays for more than 40 years, so he is not an “emerging” artist. But Showtones requested his article for its column in the hopes that young, new, and emerging playwrights run with his words … when we are allowed to run again.
Since the turn of the last century, perhaps even earlier, there has been only one destination for any and all would-be creative artists seeking a place to live their dream.
Part I: One destination–one word, two syllables: Broadway.
Performers, designers, directors, writers..all have regarded, at some point in their lives, Broadway as the Everest of the Known Creative Universe. The place to strut your stuff, in the Capital of the Known Creative Universe, New York City.
But, by 2019 (not 2020, as the world is in a gigantic Time Out Chair), a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum…errr, Broadway–It was no longer there. It had vanished, disappeared, like on so many episodes of ‘Dateline*’. An unsolved mystery.
And, like ‘Dateline’, there had been a murder.
Broadway, at some point, had been murdered.
This was almost a cold-case. Sure, there were still Broadway ‘shows’ still lurking about, with record-breaking attendance marks and ticket prices. But where had the Broadway that one learned about in school gone to? Where was the Broadway that had driven our hope? Where would the forensic evidence lead us?
For that, we had to turn back the clock. 1980. When the world was young.
(It is important to remember–as we don our masks and latex gloves and review the evidence that has been stored away in the morgue’s freezer–that Broadway has always been about the ‘straight’ play, not the musical. The musical is the cherry on the cake; the straight drama is The Cake. While there have been perhaps 50 or 75 musicals that have left their indelible mark on Theatrical History, there have been hundreds of dramas, perhaps a few thousand, that have also reached any and all printings of Theatrical History textbooks.)
A cursory look at the list of Broadway shows that opened/played that year is highly revealing, and provides us with strong circumstantial evidence in the Death of Broadway:
There were seven musicals, and only four revivals. However, there were an astounding 23 debuts of ‘straight’ plays, headed by such Hall of Fame playwrights as Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams; 75% of the Mount Rushmore of Great American Playwrights. (Eugene O’Neil, trying not to sound too flippant, was unavailable, having passed a quarter century before). But the other three were still plying their trade…not with their best work, perhaps, but still wishing to be the Teller of Stories, to toil in the Fields of the Art of the Spoken Word.
Other next-level playwrights were also in their heyday–Harold Pinter, Peter Shaffer, Hugh Wheeler, with new works. Finally, the Grand Daddy of the Comedic Drama–the one and only Neil Simon, with new work.. In other words–using the lovely lyrics of Mr. Sondheim–‘…a marvelous moment, a beautiful time.’
[One might add Tony Kushner, Eve Ensler, Wendy Wasserstein, John Guarre, David Mamet, August Wilson, Sam Shepherd – ed.]
Fast forward to now.
Without question, ‘Hamilton’ has hit these Hallowed Boards like the Super Nova that it is. It has gone where there are no footprints in the snow, and has revealed the beautiful, other-worldly experience of a live performance to a new generation of theater-goers, people who might not have ever been interested, for not being white, in the ‘Great White Way’.
But, unfortunately, ‘Hamilton’ is not the pioneers settling ‘Oklahoma’. rather, ‘Hamilton’ is Halley’s Comet, and we won’t see another one of its kind until 2062.
What else had 2019 provided? Well, a cursory look at the shows that opened/played during this past year is also quite revealing:
Four ‘events’ that review the life/work of pop musical figures–ranging from Tina Turner to David Byrne–have opened. While they may serve as interesting, anecdotal endeavors for future historians, they can never be part of real Broadway History. They are nothing that resembles a drama, nor could they be considered a musical by any definition of the word–they are merely a group of songs strung together by the flimsiest of plots, without any structure or cohesive sense, and are passed onto the gullible public as ‘art’. This category did not exist in 1980.
Neither did children’s shows, which are more popular than ever. At least four of them, probably more. How? How did this happen? How did Soupy Sales, The Flintstones, and Wonderama actually make it to a Broadway Stage? Stay tuned for another episode of ‘Dateline’, where that question, and others, will be fully explored,
In the meantime, we have a murder to investigate…when ‘Dateline’ returns, a clue emerges, in the unlikeliest places–‘The Today Show’, with Bryant Gumble and Katie Couric, in a clip from 1994. On it, they talk about something no one had ever heard of before: The Internet. Stay tuned, when ‘Dateline’ returns…
*`Dateline’ has been a staple of the newsmagazine genre since premiering in 1992. Given how long it’s been on the air, the show has an extensive archive of in-depth news stories and investigative journalism. This syndicated version offers viewers another chance to watch some of the show’s previous content, serving up real-life mysteries and in-depth investigations from the show’s 20-plus years on the air. Cases involving murders and missing people are frequent topics on the series that has won multiple Emmys in the news and documentary category.