In November 2016, when the progressive world was newly shocked by the prospect of Donald Trump’s victory and upcoming inauguration, the cast of Hamilton — which, at the time, was constantly lauded as one of Broadway’s most progressive shows — delivered an unscripted, post-show statement to the then-Vice President-Elect, Mike Pence. The cast rebuked Donald Trump and asked Pence to “protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”
This encounter received widespread media coverage and felt like a cathartic exercise for many liberals. What most of the coverage remarkably lacked was any reference to the Nederlander family, whose organization (the Nederlander Organization) owns the Richard Rodgers Theater, where Hamilton has played since 2015. While the New York Times celebrated this moment as evidence of Broadway’s progressive resistance, the Nederlander family was likely tucked in their upstate mansion, grins on their faces, content with Trump’s victory — they did donate over $160,000 to his campaign, after all.
The journey to a velvet-lined seat in one of Broadway’s 41 theaters is a sort of modern-day arts pilgrimage. In any given Broadway audience, 19% of attendees are international tourists, and 49% percent are from outside the New York City metropolitan area. Even for the 35% who are New Yorkers, the experience still holds a sense of magic.
Once inside the theater, travelers and locals alike gather shoulder-to-shoulder to witness the magic of the pilgrimage. Before the curtain opens, audience members thumb through their ad-lined Playbills and drink wine from plastic cups. And when the lights dim, actors make their debuts, sweat glistens from the brows of conductors, and collective laughs rumble from audiences. At the end of the show, the streets of Broadway fill with pockets of contented viewers, Playbills in hand, debriefing their experience with their theater companions. With the pilgrimage complete, the departing audiences file into cars or down the street to brave Andrew Yang’s favorite MTA stop at 42nd Street.
But, when the Broadway curtain is pulled back, the reality is anything but a liberal utopia.
For many, the Broadway experience feels like a safe space for progressives, and remarkably guilt-free. In a world of anti-labor union-busting, audience members can enjoy shows knowing that nearly everyone on and behind the stage is part of a union. Until July 2022, everyone except for actively performing actors were required to wear masks, a striking and unique nod to the ongoing pandemic and the importance of collective action in a world of political divides over simple science. And perhaps the most progressive part of the experience is the performance and performers; roles are gender bent, majority-minority casts retell colonial stories, and shows irreverently embrace secularism.
But, when the Broadway curtain is pulled back, the reality is anything but a liberal utopia. Instead, the owners of the theaters, the companies that sell the tickets, and the players who decide what shows make it to the Great White Way are by and large, pro-capitalist, corporate conservatives. The owners of the theaters skew more towards landlords than art patrons, actors are regularly subject to abuse, and the place where live stage acting comes to life is also the source of artistic stagnation as a result of the theater owners’ money-centric approach.