New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood had a column in the paper Dec. 10 that piqued my interest, having just returned from New York. Headlined “The Great White-Bread Way,” the piece was something of a lament for the old Broadway experience, before the “Disneyfication” of Times Square and its adjacent blocks to attract more tourists.
Broadway, Isherwood pointed out, used to be a seedier neighborhood where serious theatergoers, the vast majority of whom were New Yorkers, had to trip over colorful characters to see shows. (An aside: Aaron Fineman, the New York photographer with whom I worked on my trip, and I were amused by a line in the Chorus Line revival that refers to the 42nd Street of old, and we guessed that younger folks probably won’t get it.) Now, Isherwood says, Broadway plays to a decidedly different crowd that treats shows as just diversions on sightseeing and shopping trips.
The Broadway audience, he writes, used to be 58 percent New Yorkers. Now, only 43 percent are locals.
In some ways, I’m inclined to be sympathetic to Isherwood’s point of view. Even as an out-of-towner, I share a distaste for the Times Square shopping hub loaded with a lot of stores I can patronize in Lexington — probably for less than I would pay in New York. Why should I eat at the Olive Garden in New York City when I have one at Fayette Mall? I travel to experience different things.
But I also, with a bit of pride for New York, will brag that I can feel perfectly safe walking around Times Square until late in the night. I cannot comment with any authority on the changes Mayor Rudy Giuliani brought to the theater district. But I confess I would be far less enamored of New York if walking out of my 46th Street hotel door felt inordinately risky.
I have to agree that the theater-going experience in New York has its downsides. The product has changed so that you have numerous shows, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, that feel like pure commodities. And inside the theater, it can feel more as if you’re at a movie than a play.
At my first show on this trip, The Color Purple, I was appalled at the late seating that was allowed. Three or four numbers into the performance, people were showing up. And the ushers were bringing them down the aisle and seating them, even if it meant uprooting half a dozen seated patrons in the middle of a song. Maybe when people have paid $111 a ticket, theaters are afraid to tell them they’ll need to watch from the back or sit in the lobby for half the show. But what about my $111 experience?
And it was sad how easily I was able to grab a really good half-price seat to a Thursday night performance of Grey Gardens, a serious endeavor starring Christine Ebersole, one of Broadway’s most celebrated talents. Then it was sad to talk to some patrons who didn’t know who Ebersole was.
The Broadway experience is still exhilarating, watching levels of talent and production you don’t experience much of anywhere else. It’s well worth a trip. But there’s a lot of ancillary noise you have to put up with now, if you’re there to see some good theater.
Like Isherwood, we all are inclined to long for the old days. The dissolution of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival brought a fresh round of grinching from people who lamented it being moved from Woodland Park. Still, some people have whispered in my ear, “It wasn’t that great at Woodland Park.”
We often are inclined to remember the past more fondly than we experienced it.