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February 5, 2016

Reaching the Other Ninety Percent

Well, the event was called BroadwayCon, so I took the “Con” to mean “Controversial.”

This happened on Saturday, Jan. 23, when I sat on a panel called “Why Didn’t It Run?” Frank DiLella of New York 1 did the moderating, while PLAYBILL’S managing editor Robert Viagas and I answered that question and more.

I first and foremost explained many shows’ premature closings on ticket prices (natch!). There must be a point when even wealthy people say “Enough! I’m just not paying that much money for ninety-to-one hundred and fifty minutes of entertainment – entertainment, in fact, that just may turn out to be not all that entertaining.”

The crowd gurgled with laughter when I pointed out that some years back I saw a Broadway League survey that said a HEAVY theatergoer – “we’re not talking weight here, but attendance,” I cautioned – was one who attended a Broadway show four times a year. The 300-to-500 people in the Hilton function room were giggling because, whatever the cost, they have a far greater interest in Broadway; attending only four times a year would be a death sentence to them. But to the average person who may splurge ONCE a year for someone’s birthday, anniversary or graduation, four times a year is an inordinate expense.

I gave reduced coverage as a reason, too. I recalled the days when LIFE magazine devoted pages to Broadway plays and musicals and often put them on its covers. They didn’t have to be hits, either: ILLYA DARLING, THE GOLDEN APPLE and THE VAMP all got the LIFE front cover.

Starting in 1948, variety-show host Ed Sullivan got on the Broadway bandwagon by routinely airing segments from plays in musicals. These were far more often than not the musicals that weren’t doing all that well: A FAMILY AFFAIR, DARLING OF THE DAY and DONNYBROOK! all made their way to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.

So America knew about Broadway. But LIFE stopped publishing weekly in 1970, Sullivan’s show went off the air in 1971 -- and plenty Broadway awareness went with them. “Those two outlets,” I said, “made people feel that they had a cultural responsibility to know what was happening on Broadway. If you didn’t know what was happening in New York, you were a parvenu.”

Now people don’t know, and that’s partly because of the price tag. On second thought, would that there WERE price tags. When tickets had to be printed well in advance, the price was fixed in advance. Now with computers, those prices can change with a keystroke. And as a result, with prices being so high, the POST and the NEWS have cut back significantly on their theatre coverage. Their lower-earning readers can’t afford to attend the theater, so why make them feel like waifs pressing their noses to bakery windows and only wishing they could buy what’s inside?

Would POST and NEWS readers read a column on caviar? No, because they wouldn’t be able to afford it. Why read about it and be reminded that they don’t have enough money, which only makes them feel like failures? Some people now feel the same about theater coverage. Ignore Broadway, pretend it isn’t there, and that way you won’t be reminded that you don’t have the resources to partake.

I also brought up how timing is everything – and how RAGS, a 1986 four-performance flop missed a golden chance for phenomenal publicity. It opened on August 21st, but it SHOULD have opened on July 3rd or 4th of that year – because that was “Liberty Weekend” when The Statue of Liberty was reopening after a two-year restoration project. There were TV specials galore surrounding the event, and if I’d been producing RAGS – which had an on-stage Statue of Liberty and dealt with immigrants – I would have made certain to open that weekend and bask in the media frenzy.

Okay, there’s nothing particularly controversial in any of that. But then I brought up ROCKY, a musical I admired because it deepened the film. I suggested that one reason it didn’t run was that men interested in boxing or sports at large simply don’t want to be part of a Broadway audience.

Because the perception is that Broadway musicals are solely the province of gays.

“Any business,” I said, “whose profile is aimed at 10% of the population is missing out on 90%.”

Sure, Broadway is doing fine these days. Hits run longer, premium seats are sold and plenty of incoming shows are waiting for theaters to open up. But Broadway could be more successful still and could return to the status it enjoyed when it was a big part of the American cultural fabric.

But those were the days before it perceived as a place for gays.

In 1962, the 86-performance flop ALL AMERICAN saw its cast album reach twenty-first place on the best-selling-album chart. I don’t mean that it reached twenty-first place on “the original cast album” charts that we have today; I mean that in 1962, there was a week that only 20 albums in ALL categories – rock, pop, jazz, easy listening, Hawaiian, Latin, religious, comedy, country and western, et al. – sold better than ALL AMERICAN.

But somewhere along the line, musicals were marginalized as gay.

I told the crowd that a week earlier, I’d been doing some research for a festival that I was attending. Darren Criss was to appear there, so I googled him while doing research, and guess what I found: “Although Darren likes ‘girly’ things like musical theater, he is not gay.”

This reminded me of the time I saw a Christmas catalogue for Columbia House, which sold tapes and DVDs through the mail. Because it was the season of gift-gifting, the catalogue helpfully divided its wares into “For Him” and “For Her.” The former group had such titles as THE TERMINATOR, ROBOCOP and CONAN – well, I don’t remember which CONAN it was – probably CONAN THE SUNUVABITCH.

Every musical was in the “For Her” category.

I also told of the time my friend Ken Kantor told me about seeing a re-run of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Mary was complaining to Phyllis that she was dating a man who didn’t speak much to her; as soon as they got into the car, he either turned on the radio or started playing a cassette. That night, after the date, Mary saw Phyllis and told her he’d done it again. When Phyllis asked what he’d played, Mary said “MAN OF LA MANCHA.” Phyllis said that she loved that musical and Mary said she did, too, but she hankered for some conversation.

Said Ken Kantor, “After Mary said ‘MAN OF LA MANCHA,’ I fully expected the studio audience to moan and laugh – as if to say, ‘Well, if he likes a musical, he must be gay, and that’s why you’re getting nowhere with him.’ But that isn’t what happened at all. The audience was quiet. You KNOW that if that episode were filmed today, the audience would automatically assume that the guy was gay.”

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW ran for much of the ‘70s. So when did the perception change? How did it happen? When I was in high school in the ‘60s – and the only Broadway musical fan in the entire building – I remember my classmates perceiving me to be a cut above, sophisticated and high class. That’s what Broadway meant then – at least most of the time; we did have ANKLES AWEIGH, after all.

But ANKLES AWEIGH was for another part of the core audience, and that centered on MEN -- “the tired businessmen,” as they were called. Given our workaholic culture, businessmen are probably more tired than they ever were before. Why aren’t they relaxing at the theater?

I have to admit I was nervous saying all this at BroadwayCon, because I feared that I was offending people. But I did want the point-of-view to be aired. And NONE of this was meant to imply “We’ve got to get RID of the gays so that we can get in the straights.” I’m well aware that we’d HAVE little-to-no musical theater without the participation of gays who’ve created it, performed it and have supported it.

But as Al Carmines wrote in his off-Broadway musical JOAN, an ideal situation involves “black and white, straight and gay, old and young, short and tall.” Yes, let our favorite art form be, to paraphrase a lyric from a musical that ALL can enjoy: “Something for everyone – MUSICAL comedy tonight.”

         — Peter Filichia



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