Jeremy Gerard has covered the evolving fortunes of Jujamcyn Theatres since it became a formidable competitor to the larger Shubert and Nederlander organizations in the late 1980s. In 2013 producer Jordan Roth became Jujamcyn’s majority owner and the Street’s youngest power broker. In this ongoing conversation they talk about the state of the industry — the only stipulation being no holds barred.
GERARD: Bells are ringing, to hat-tip the great Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Not only bells but all manner of brain-crisping ringtones that have made theatergoing a high-risk event akin to NASCAR. Patti LuPone takes matters (not to mention misused mobile phones) into her own hands, to the applause of many. On the other hand, my friend and colleague Chris Jones, of the Chicago Tribune, thinks Broadway should get with the program by installing chargers in lobbies and at seats — a notion I find as depressing and perhaps inevitable as you guys allowing customers to bring ice-clinking drinks into the auditorium. I also favor wiring the seats — not with USB chargers but with a stiff bolt of juice so house managers can instantly fry the offenders. That’s my Swiftian solution to this seemingly intractable plague.
ROTH: Does that mean we can also do that to critics when we don’t like reviews?
Theater is an act of community. A group of artists and an audience that start as strangers come together, all live, all in one space paying into an experience. It matters that we are all there. Actually, it is essential that we are all there. We enhance the experience for each other. The price for that is we can also detract from it. No doubt, the ringing, beeping, texting, coughing, unwrapping, talking can all detract. At times a lot. But I get very concerned by the severity of the responses that can happen in the moment at the theater or in posts and tweets afterwards or in, say, suggestions of electrocution. And even more concerned when those angry responses are launched not at a serial texter who won’t stop when asked nicely but at those who are deemed to be laughing too loudly or coughing too much. As if we would really prefer to be watching this alone.
What we don’t want is for people, especially those new to theater-going, to feel like they don’t belong. To feel like there are just so many rules they don’t know and those rules are all enforced with such anger that the message they receive is You just shouldn’t be here. There’s a way to ask someone not to talk or not to text without making them feel like a criminal. I’ve actually seen recent posts calling for text offenders to be arrested. I was recently at a theater where the pre-show sermon to turn off cell phones, unwrap candy, don’t leave your seat and if you do don’t come back was so aggressive that I literally felt my very presence was an unwelcome nuisance. The show hadn’t begun and I was already alienated.
We risk forgetting that we are all here and we are all live and we are all essential. As annoying as these intrusions are, Draconian responses create an even bigger threat to the theater. Our job is to find ways to make theatergoers feel more, not less, welcome.
GERARD: Next subject: So the Hamilton has landed and the Times wonders whether Broadway will embrace Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show as enthusiastically as the critics and the Public Theater crowd. I hope they will — I’m certainly in the camp that thinks Hamilton is a great show. I remember when Spring Awakening opened — first at the Atlantic Theatre Company off-Broadway, and then at the Eugene O’Neill (current home of The Book Of Mormon), where it ran for almost three years. Like Rent before it and Hamilton after, Spring Awakening was one of those shows we critics asserted would change Broadway, make it more attractive to younger audiences and herald the kind of seismic shift in the art that Show Boat and Oklahoma! and Company did in their respective eras.
Of course, we’re almost always wrong. I’m not sure Miranda’s accomplishment will start a string of rap-rooted historical musicals, because the real point is that Hamilton, Rent and Spring Awakening are simply great shows. Spring Awakening is on my mind because, along with the Hamilton launch, we have news that a revival of Duncan Sheik’s remarkable musical is heading our way this fall in a production by Deaf West, which awhile ago mounted a revival of Big River that really did something miraculous: It unmasked the slander (pace Arlene Croce) that says disability and art can’t mix. Mixing deaf and hearing actors resulted in something unique and transcendent. No one had to make any allowances for it. You got your money’s worth.
ROTH: What all of these great shows do is expand the canvas, expand the range of what’s possible on Broadway. That’s what generates the excitement and the optimism for the form. Not that they’re any one specific kind of music or story or performer. But that they’re a new possibility. That they make Broadway broader.
I remember feeling that tectonic shift as a recent high school graduate watching Angels In America, the who/what/how it could be exploding before my eyes. It felt like everything was now possible because, in the words of Prior Walter, “the world only spins forward.”
The next show then can’t just repeat the same formula and expect the same reaction. Because the reaction wasn’t to a formula, it was to the newness, to the expansion, to the possibility. What the next show can do is expand beyond it.
It’s always been interesting to me that this doesn’t seem to hold true for film and TV. American Idol can become a culture-defining hit and an array of similar talent competition shows can follow and all find great success. The formula can be successfully repeated/tweaked. That works in film and TV, but not in theater.
In theater and in other media too, the excitement of the expanding canvas is (or should be) true not just for shows but for people. One of the stars of the beautiful Deaf West Big River you mentioned was Michael Arden. Now he is making his Broadway directorial debut at the helm of the Deaf West Spring Awakening, expanding the canvas of what is possible for him as an artist. Just as Broadway is better when we allow for shows to push the possible, so too is Broadway better when we allow for people to push their possible.