Monday, November 26, 2007

Bull's Eye on the Strike...and a Miss

Jeremy Gerard, whose previous piece on the Broadway strike struck me as petty, has written what I think is the definitive post-mortem on the strike -- assuming there is a post-mortem to be written as of tonight. Read it here. I take back what I wrote before.

Meanwhile, I just read Terry Teachout's think piece on whether, in terms of dollars and cents, Broadway is worth it as compared to 1968 -- in other words, whether we really should give a damn about the strike, or about Broadway and its demanding denizens. I have a few problems with his piece. He pegs his comparison year, 1968, to the year Peter Brook wrote The Empty Space, which is as much a totem for me as I guess it is for Terry.

(As a side note, I'd have preferred Terry focus on the more provocative part of Brook's book, in which Brook said that critics should be "part of the whole, and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way?....It is for this reason that the more the critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself." This idea, however fraught with contradictions and problems, is my idea of what a critic should be, and how I have tried to conduct my career.)

Anyway, Terry noted that the top ticket price on Broadway in 1968 was $11, or "$64 in today's dollars. Nowadays it will cost you anywhere between $51.50 and $121.50 to see 'Young Frankenstein' --unless you're prepared to fork out $450 for a premium-priced weekend seat." So the point of his essay is to ask whether Broadway is worth roughly twice what it was worth 40 years ago. It's the old "Let's quantify art through economics" trope. I mean, a Picasso that sold for $20 million three years ago just sold for $80 million -- is it really worth four times what it was worth before? Well, a conservative would say yes -- that's what the market would bear. But is the intrinsic value four times than it was before? No, of course not. When you consider the behemoth that is Broadway -- the branding, the history, the marketing -- it's a little too easy to try to boil everything down to 40 years ago versus now. You can pick any date, do all the math, and ask the same question, using a different multiple.

Even in 1968, Terry writes, "the curious, intelligent, nonconforming middle-class New Yorkers celebrated in 'The Empty Stage' could still afford -- just -- to visit Broadway often enough to feel that they were keeping up with American theater. Now they're more likely to go once or twice a year, if that. Broadway is no longer a meaningful part of their cultural lives."

This paragraph implies that Broadway's economics are to blame for people visiting the Great White Way once or twice a year. What Terry leaves out, conveniently, is that there are millions more people visiting Broadway than were sitting in those seats 40 years ago (and there were more theatres then). And speaking of the Great White Way, it is also important to note that it is less white (if less great) than it was 40 years ago as well. Indeed, if Broadway's demographics have a long way to go before we can consider attendance representative of the nation's citizens, I see no evidence that theatregoing habits have changed drastically since 1968. Certainly there are more options on the cultural palate. But it's hard for me to see how the numbers are alone to blame for shifting cultural tides.

I'm glad Terry wrote the piece. It should stir conversation. These are very large sociological issues we're dealing with. And with the strike perhaps ending tonight, it's worth asking whether ticket prices are going to come down. We all know the answer to that.

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1 comment:

Moxie said...

Terry's piece was interesting, and I think it's intended to raise questions rather than answer them, for the most part anyway. I like the final point about the way so much of the really artistically viable theater has relocated, and can now be found regionally. It's an accurate point - most of the best work on Broadway, especially new plays, are transfers from regional houses, Off-Broadway, or London. So what's to be done, if anything? What does the movement mean?