Back in July, a farsighted friend of mine summed up the likely news narrative for the fall theater season: “Small, quirky, risk-taking shows, however nobly conceived, however starrily stunt-cast, don’t work on Broadway.” Today, I’m hunting down that friend so I can drown him as a witch: It’s all come true. With Elling, La Bête, and A Life in the Theatre already signaling retreat, The Scottsboro Boys, a $5 million no-frills Kander and Ebb musical about a notorious rape trial in Jim Crow Alabama, threw in the towel yesterday. The emo-anarchist rock-comedy Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson followed suit today. Cause of death, in all cases, was economics. Seems the American people don’t come to Broadway for a social challenge or an artistic confrontation. They come for Elf. And that, to paraphrase a famous president, is what populism is all about.
The narrative is already moving on: Anticipation shifts to the spring, when a raft of massive musicals, developed with mainstream Broadway audiences in mind, will colonize the theater district and make the Autumn of Our Experimental Discontent feel like a distant adolescent phase. So what’s the lesson for producers? Don’t take chances? (Unlikely: Every musical is chancy, from the safest jukebox bet on down.) Go big or go home? (Tell that to the folks over at the Foxwoods, who may have to do both.) Cultivate niche markets for niche shows? (Sure thing: As long as the anchor tenants are former Broadway hits themselves.) There are no simple lessons here, not for cynics, not for idealists. To stop taking expensive gambles on theater is to stop producing theater, period. It’s a business that’s barely a business at all, unless you’re Disney Theatricals; most of it’s a zero-gain money-churn, just like the rest of our mostly made-up economy. I’m very glad a handful of wealthy eccentrics and hedge-fund managers made it possible for me to see The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and perhaps that’s the best I can hope for in a country that doesn’t believe in creativity subsidies; we do crazy dreams and sensational mishaps, booms and busts. That’s our specialty. So why stop gambling now, when we’re losing? That’s defeatist talk. If the American stage is gonna go out, to riff on another Kander and Ebb ditty, let it go out like Elsie. I hope for more disasters just like this mad, mad fall we’ve had. Because one of those disasters might just turn out to be the future of theater.