Broadway Slipping Through the Cracks
Live music from the orchestra pit bursting through the auditorium speakers. Performers dancing on stage, sweating and moving to never miss a beat. Actors belting their lungs out with the sound of raw and pure talent reaching the last row of seats. A live audience reacting to every powerful line spoken and every emotion portrayed and every choreographed number in real time. This is the experience of going to a musical. This is Broadway. But where is its recognition?
Now, I recognize that I am an avid (another word for obsessed) Broadway fan who has a Spotify playlist dedicated to my favorite showtunes. But it seems that most people’s main recognition or knowledge of the Broadway world occurs when encountering a fan, visiting New York City, or praising of Idina Menzel or “Wicked.” Still, somehow, the experience of live theater continues to be underappreciated as a genre. The number one question Broadway-curious people ask me: Why do they have to break out in song?
Funnily enough, there’s even a musical, “Something Rotten,” that makes fun of its own kind by asking that same question! But besides that, with any kind of performance, whether it be on screen or on stage, the expression of strong and powerful emotions are portrayed in specific ways through the performer. The basics of crying and screaming or laughing and smiling have been performed beautifully and dramatically in so many different ways, all to move the narrative along and display the importance of the story’s message to the audience. So, when it comes to musicals, there is one main mode of expression: the combination of song and dance.
When emotions are running high or disaster has struck, the characters burst into song because this is the strongest way to bare their mind and soul in the life they’re portraying. Yes, the plots onstage run from silly to serious on the single street of Broadway, from the fun storytelling of “Kinky Boots” to the mind-blowing drama that is “Hamilton.” However outrageous the story, the music soars while audiences sit back and are amazed by the performance unfolding before their eyes.
Artists of the theater, most of whom are triple threats with their abilities to sing, dance, and act at the same time on stage, redefine what it means to be a performer. The success of each show relies heavily on such talent and high attendance, determining how long the particular musical runs on Broadway. As of right now, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s haunting “Phantom of the Opera” is the longest-running show of all time, having opened in January 1988 at the Majestic Theatre and reaching over 12,000 performances. Others including “The Lion King” and “Wicked” though neither have achieved the same kind of numbers. With every new Broadway season, a few revival shows are brought to the stage, with a whole new cast and crew to bring back an old story to a modern audience.
And let’s not forget the touring casts that travel all over the country to bring the show to as many people as possible, filling each theater with a new musical experience for weeks at a time. With this wonderful ever-turning circle of Broadway, generations of both theater lovers and newcomers can enjoy the legacy of musical theater.
Unfortunately, as talented as these performers can be, with their long-running Broadway shows or their dedicated fan base begging for a return to the stage, many of their names remain unknown to those outside the theater world. Queens such as Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and probably the most popularly known, Idina Menzel, have ruled the theater industry with their belting vocal ranges, and still, the former names can go undetected within the world of entertainment which has been overtaken by film since it came onto the scene.
This is not to say a community dedicated to Broadway is missing. That possibility is far from true. They even started a Broadway-Con three years ago, an idea brought to life from “Rent” star Anthony Rapp. Concerts are thrown to rally in support of not only for the theater, but for charity organizations as well. There is a season where all the Broadway casts compete to raise the most money for one called “Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids,” using their donations to do whatever they can to make a difference. Glee alum Darren Criss co-started a Broadway-inspired music festival named Elsie Fest in 2015 for fans and performers to join together and rock out to the music of the stage and screen. One year it even featured the kids of “Stranger Things.” And fans have never been more dedicated in supporting their favorite shows, casts, and albums when it comes to these events. But the only publications that seem to pick up on all this work and these performances are New York’s own Playbill or Broadway.com or Theatermania, media companies dedicated to the very stage and everything in relation. Reunion concerts are some of the most exciting events, celebrating shows that have been off-Broadway for several years and bringing back the original cast to sing the songs that once made the audience’s hearts soar.
Lastly, when movie producers turn to Broadway to adapt beloved musicals into film adaptations, it is common to cast actors and actresses with little to no musical experience into titular roles when there is a whole community of beyond talented performers to choose from. As fun and entertaining, and almost satisfying, it is to see shows we love come to the screen, reach people who don’t typically visit the theatre, it is rare to successfully portray the performances which make visiting the theater worth the ticket. As powerful as the 2012 film “Les Misérables” was, mixed reviews continue to surround its success, from regular movie fans complaining about the lack of dialogue (which, yes, is the whole point of this musical), to life-long admirers confused and sometimes upset about the choice of casting Russell Crowe. And original movie-musicals were almost unheard of until the magic that is the songwriting duo Pasek and Paul, creating the award winning “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman.” And still, theater fans have their complaints.
The most recent releases of “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman” have one fantastic thing in common: the music. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have flown to the top when it comes to their music, having created these two box-office movie-musicals, winning Oscars and Golden Globes, receiving acclaim from seemingly all corners of the industry. But it’s the Broadway community that will reach out and congratulate their comrades for all their achievements in the film industry, even though they’ve already been raking in adoration and love for their original, Tony-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” But despite all this, the songwriting duo continues to live in the shadows of Ryan Gosling’s piano playing and Emma Stone’s quirky dance moves, but at least Keala Settle’s chart-topping anthem “This is Me” is helping the media point to the minds behind the song.
And then there are those from Hollywood who crossover onto the Broadway stage and can actually sing! The most amazing example: Jake Gyllenhaal. He most recently starred in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” as the titular character George in the 2017 Broadway Revival, following a concert version from 2016. A cast album was even recorded, and his strong melodic voice flows through every number, acknowledging Gyllenhaal’s successful attempts in all his Broadway performances.
All this to say, there are so many people and history behind the stages of New York that deserve much more recognition than our media and society already give them. As phenomenal as film can be, musical theater involves a special kind of performance, diligence and potential that can add so much magic and passion to the entertainment industry today.
Emily Santiago-Molina is a fourth-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.