Power Struggle on Broadway
Escapist vs. Socially Conscious Shows in the 2016–17 Season
A reader who believed I was insufficiently enthusiastic in my review of the fourth Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly and of its star Bette Midler, made a comment that got me thinking:
“This show is so needed now, more than ever,” she tweeted.
It’s surely uncontroversial to call Hello, Dolly escapist entertainment. Is escapism (which the dictionary defines as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities”) what we need now more than ever?
Or do we need social engagement? The best current example on Broadway is Lynn Nottage’s play, Sweat, which tells the story of the collapse of a group of friends, family and co-workers who hang out in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania. The play won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama—given, according to the citation, “for a nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream.”
Is escapism … what we need now more than ever? Or do we need social engagement?
I’m not sure that socially engaged theatre is as easily defined as escapist entertainment. The strongest socially engaged works can be said to confront audiences with societal, political, and/or cultural issues of the day in hopes not just of informing and enlightening, but of moving us to change the world. Yet, what about an otherwise zesty or zany entertainment that just vaguely touches on, or sneaks in, something relevant to what’s going on in the world?
Applying the looser definition, one can argue that there was more socially engaged theatre during the Broadway season just ended than purely escapist entertainment.
Consider these three lists, with links to my reviews, organized chronologically by the date when they opened (omitting one I didn’t get to see, and a couple more that I did, which I’m not sure how to categorize).
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
The Play That Goes Wrong
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Shows in this third group might tilt toward escapist, but have socially conscious elements, or at least try to.
It might be worth sorting my list with the ten shows that got the most number of Tony Award nominations earlier this week:
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812: twelve nominations, including Best Musical. I put this in the third category, having socially conscious elements. An adaption of a sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the musical focuses on Natasha's affair with Anatole, and Pierre's search for meaning in his life, the latter of which may or may not be an example of social engagement. However, the first lines of the first song of this sung-through musical is:
“There’s a war going on
Out there somewhere
And Andrey isn’t here”
This is a story, then, that’s set against a background of wartime Russia, and arguably shows the effect of war on civilian life. It’s also worth noting that their slogan, up on their marquee and on a wall mural nearby is: “Are You Ready to Wake Up?”
Hello, Dolly!: ten, including Best Revival of a Musical. Purely escapist. The show, with a tuneful score by Jerry Herman, was a star vehicle and something of a throwback from its Broadway debut in 1964. It focuses on a nineteenth century New York widow who works as a matchmaker and anything else that might make her a buck, as she schemes to snag a rich second husband.
Dear Evan Hansen: nine, including Best Musical. Socially conscious. It’s a musical that focuses on outcast kids in high school, and delves into a range of issues, most obviously teen suicide and the problems of social media, but also income inequality.
A Doll’s House, Part 2: eight, including Best Play. Socially conscious. A sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House written by Lucas Hnath making his Broadway debut, which shows Nora returning home after fifteen years, with an ulterior motive. Much of the play is a debate about marriage, and conversation about a woman’s place in society.
Come From Away: seven, including Best Musical. This show, about the people of Gander, Newfoundland, taking care of the passengers of a grounded plane during September 11th, is most often described as a feel-good musical. I put it in the third category. In the comments section of my HowlRound piece about this show, a reader accused me of politicizing an “innocuous,” apolitical show. I answered that I was not sure you can set a show during September 11, 2001 without the show being inherently political, but I don't think they completely avoid politics; it's certainly political, for example, that we're shown the hostility and suspicion towards a Muslim passenger.
Groundhog Day The Musical: seven, including Best Musical. Escapist. Based on the Bill Murray movie, the musical places a TV weatherman in the (comic) hell of having to repeat the exact same day over and over.
Oslo: seven, including Best Play. Socially conscious. It’s about a diplomatic effort to achieve peace in the Middle East.
August Wilson’s Jitney: six, including Best Revival of a Play. Socially conscious. Like Sweat, this last of Wilson’s 10-Play American Century Cycle plays to debut on Broadway focuses on the lives of a group of people in a particular place, in this case a jitney station in Pittsburgh. We see them grappling with racism, poverty, and gentrification.
Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes: six, including Best Revival of A Play. Socially conscious.
Falsettos: five, including Best Revival of a Musical. I put this in the third category. I can see somebody objecting to calling Falsettos even a little bit escapist since its second act focuses on a gay man dying of AIDS.
Indeed, one can easily argue with the category to which I have assigned any number of individual shows. Isn’t War Paint inspired by the true story of two women succeeding in the man’s world of business, so why then is it categorized as purely escapist? (It’s two-plus hours of divas singing gorgeously about makeup.) How is the jokefest that is An Act of God socially conscious? (It takes on religion and politics.) Isn’t Miss Saigon exploiting the issue of Amerasian orphans to manipulate the audience into unearned emotion? (I think so, yes, but it still presents the issue.) How can you list X as purely escapist when it was pure junk and didn’t help me escape from anything? (Good point.)
Escapist fare is most irksome not when it focuses on something other than the world’s concerns, but when it demonstrates an active indifference to those concerns.
Whatever the quibbles about what shows belong to which categories, I found it a useful exercise to think of the Broadway season in this way. It helped me better understand my taste in theatre. I ultimately find shows more satisfying that have some clear connection to the larger world. Yet I also now recognize some of the appeal of shows that at their best provide audience and actors a different kind of connection—with each other in the moment. “Escapist” does not have to mean mindless or inattentive. In Hello, Dolly, the thunderous reaction to Bette Midler, who is performing in a Broadway musical for the first time in fifty years, created a gift of energy that felt passed back and forth between the auditorium and the stage.
Escapist fare is most irksome not when it focuses on something other than the world’s concerns, but when it demonstrates an active indifference to those concerns. Anastasia is lovely to look at, with a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens that builds on the songs, beloved by a generation, that they wrote for the 1997 animated film of the same name But, as I pointed out in my review, the story of the legend around the youngest daughter of the last Czar of Russia winds up promoting nostalgia for a ruler who sponsored pogroms against the Jews and violently suppressed popular Russian calls for democracy. “Russia has damned itself to eternity for what it has done,” says the Dowager Empress, the mother of Nicholas II, and it is not clear whether she just means the killing of her son and his family by Bolshevik firing squad, or the overthrow of the monarchy. (It might be worse that Mary Beth Peil is so good in the role; she was nominated for a Tony.) The only person in the musical who could contradict her (but not to her face) is a character named Gleb, a Soviet official whose mission is to track Anastasia down and kill her. Book writer Terrence McNally tries to make this villain sympathetic—he’s well-meaning, sincere, and (thanks to director Darko Tesnjak’s casting of Ramin Karimloo in the role)—very handsome. Still, it gave me pause that Flaherty, Ahrens, and McNally are the same team that created the socially conscious musical Ragtime.
Am I needlessly politicizing a fairytale for children? I believe I am pointing out something that’s already there. There is a difference between providing relief from unpleasant realities and pretending that unpleasant realities are pleasant.
Intentionally or not, Anastasia establishes an affinity with the powerful. By contrast, most of the socially engaged Broadway shows from the season identify with the powerless. In The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman sides with the powerless members of a Southern family whose dominant members are abusive and avaricious. You need not know of Hellman’s politics to realize this power struggle within a single Southern family at the turn of the twentieth century functions as a metaphor for the evils of capitalist exploitation.
Just as it is inaccurate and unfair to dismiss all Broadway shows as escapist (as some serious theatremakers who don’t go to Broadway sometimes do), so there are no easy assumptions to make about plays versus musicals. Not all musicals are escapist fare; and not all escapist shows are musicals. Not all straight plays are socially engaged. Not all socially engaged shows are straight plays. It’s true that all four of the Best Play Tony nominees this year are socially conscious, but three of the four Best Musical nominees also have socially conscious elements.
And even the most socially conscious shows on Broadway use elements most associated with escapist fare. Sweat reminds me of Grapes of Wrath, a dramatic look at a specific group of people whom we get to know. They stand in for an entire demographic trapped in a bad situation that is not of their making, but they come off as well-developed characters (at least to me) not as a demographic sampling.
I don’t know the answer to the question, which type of show is most needed in these trying times: escapist or socially conscious? I imagine it depends on the individual theatregoer, and the individual show. But I suspect we’ll be seeing more shows on Broadway like Bandstand, which is an original musical about a group of musicians who form a 40s swing band to win a song contest sponsored by Bayer Aspirin, NBC, and MGM. Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who won Tonys for Hamilton and In The Heights and was just nominated for another, the show has lots of fun, inventive dancing, and an original score that pays homage to the jazz, blues, and swing music of the 1940s. All the band members are veterans of World War II, and all have been damaged by the war in some way, and then damaged again by the indifference back home. I would guess that most of the people in the audience were drawn to the show for the promise of the music and the dancing, and maybe for the stars Corey Cott and Laura Osnes. But there was one scene when the sponsors of the contest pulled a fast one, inserting something in the contract that the band members found exploitative. One of the band members explodes: “We're goddamn United States veterans, and these people wouldn't know real sacrifice if it slapped 'em in the face.” The audience gave the line a raucous ovation; some were tearing. The character was talking about the representatives of an aspirin manufacturer and a network. But we knew who they really meant.
Jonathan Mandell’s New Crit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.