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Broadway’s Most Entertaining Shows About Serious Social Issues

What is your favorite show on Broadway that explores serious issues in an entertaining way?

Below are some answers to this question, which I asked in a recent contest for tickets to a show, now ended, that I felt fit the bill — “Indecent.”  The shows are  listed alphabetically, with excerpts from the explanations.  I only include the choices in which a persuasive case was made for both elements —  that the play or musical dealt with a serious social issue and was also entertaining.

Angels in America

“Tony Kushner shows the devastating blows of the 80s HIV crisis while also exploring faith, gods, love, politics and life in a fantastical way.”

As Is

“Broadway’s first play to deal with AIDS presented its serious subject in a way that acknowledged the serious devastation but was also able to find moments of humor.”

The Book of Mormon

The show is hilarious and the writing is great, but the underlying themes of an outsider (particularly those of the white persuasion) trying to ‘save’ other cultures by imposing their will is a very serious topic, as well as a lack of understanding for ‘others’,…”

Cabaret

“The MC leads you on the journey with whimsy and fun, and then you have this realization that the moments you are laughing at really aren’t so funny. It deals with the rise of the Nazis, homophobia, politics…”

“I left the theater reflecting on societal injustices that are perpetuated through oblivious complicity.”

 

Dear Evan Hansen

This musical was the most popular choice.

“It is able to turn the dark subject matter of suicide and bullying into a well crafted, entertaining and heartfelt show.”

Falsettos

“it explores the rise of AIDS in America in song – and it uses comedic as well as caustic moments to show the tragedy”

“The music is fairly upbeat even while death is on the table.”

Fun Home

“it depicted a difficult relationship between a father and daughter, the lies that the father was living by staying in the closet, and faced with making that same decision, how the daughter rejected living a lie, and yet she later wonders if her choice (and her judgment of his choice) may have influenced her father’s suicide. The entertainment was in the music, the humor, the beauty of the story, the acting and the way it was told.”

Hairspray

“Flashy costumes, 60s style music, and big dance numbers, but it has serious moments regarding racial discrimination and body image issues.”

Newsies

“I know it sounds silly but I thought “Newsies” covered some serious issues including: child labor, worker exploitation, and anti-labor practices. And yes, it was entertaining as hell.”

Next to Normal

This musical about a troubled family was the second most popular choice.” It tackles topics like depression, drug abuse and bipolar disorder….but  I was kind of shocked at how funny the show was.”

Ragtime

“The show weaves together stories of racism, immigration, women’s rights, capitalism and class division with gorgeous songs that make you tap your foot, then make you laugh, then make you cry.”

Rent

“It did a wonderful job at addressing issues such as AIDS…with a catchy rock score

South Pacific

“Rodgers & Hammerstein’s glorious musical entertains with comedy (“There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”) while addressing racism, both overt and subtle, during World War II. The two love stories(Emile/Nellie and Lt. Cable/Liat) have both light and dark elements as they celebrate their love and confront their prejudices. The song “You’ve Got to Be Taught” still resonates powerfully today.”

Spring Awakening

“It dealt with serious issues such as suicide and abortion, and while it was certainly dark for much of the show, a lot of it was extremely entertaining, with rocking songs liked “Totally F—ed” to comedic moments such as “My Junk”,

 

For the purposes of this list, I made a distinction between “entertaining” and “enlightening,” “important” or “engaging,” but maybe I shouldn’t have. A couple of people picked “Sweat” but described how spot-on it was and how much it meant to them, rather than how it entertained them. And then there is the question of what constitutes a serious issue. I guess I use that term as a synonym for significant social issue — something facing society at large — rather than personal issues such as ambition (“A Chorus Line”) or personal growth (“Avenue Q,” “Groundhog Day,” “Wicked”) or love …which are, Heaven knows, very serious to individuals.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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