Yes, 2018 in theater was the Year of Leonard Bernstein (centennial celebrations and new movies underway) and of Andrew Lloyd Webber (who got his EGOT, published his memoir, Unmasked, and got love in a live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar) and of Lin-Manuel Miranda. (It’s been the Year of Lin-Manuel Miranda every year since 2015.)
But 2018 was also a year of theater news that added up to some unmistakable trends. These might have seemed quieter than those of 2017, which had been a year of shocks, from Harvey Weinstein to Hurricane Harvey, and of resistance. The trends in 2018 feel more transformative.
1. BROADWAY FOR EVERYBODY
The biggest theater news in 2018 that received the least attention were arguably the concrete steps taken to make theater more accessible both to audience members and to actors.
As of mid-year, every Broadway show now offers on-demand audio-description for theatergoers who are blind or have low vision, and on-demand closed captioning in real time, in one of two ways—through a dedicated device called iCaption, or with an application called GalaPro that you can install in your own smart phone.
There are remarkable changes under way that aim toward a future, as one advocate put it, when theater is seamlessly accessible for everyone, all the time.There is no denying some continued public resistance to incorporating accessibility into every performance, some seeing it as an inconvenience (See my article Hastened by Technology, Hindered by Public Attitudes.) But as Lauren Ridloff put it: “The more diverse the audience is, the better we all are.”
Ridloff was the Tony-nominated star of the revival of Children of a Lesser God, which was a model of state-of-the-art accessibility for the audience — every single performance has supertitles projected onto the set, for example – and for the five performers in the cast who were deaf.(Making ‘Children of a Lesser God’ Accessible Onstage and Backstage.)
Martyna Majok won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2018 for her play “Cost of Living,” which was about two disabled characters and their caregivers, and portrayed in the Off-Broadway production in New York by Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan, two disabled actors.
2. BROADWAY FOR THE RICH
Throughout the year, producers boasted in press releases of record-breaking ticket sales, which were primarily a result of increased ticket prices. The jacking up of prices was reflected in the announcement that you can now pay for Broadway tickets under a new Ticketmaster installment plan — monthly payments over the period of a year, at 10 percent interest. Much of the reaction to this news was not gratitude, but outrage: A mortgage for a ticket? This is what we’ve come to?
3. SCREEN TEST
2018 had its usual complement of Broadway shows adapted from movies – Frozen, Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, King Kong, Network. But it was a year that saw such a proliferation in the reproduction and distribution on screens, both online and in movie theaters, of “live theater,” that it is helping to redefine what live theater even means. Netflix joined the usual suspects (BroadwayHD, National Theatre Live, Fathom Events) by turning both Latin History for Morons and Springsteen on Broadway into online specials. “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, was broadcast on NBC, and its recording was nominated for a Grammy for best musical theater album, alongside the original cast recordings of shows that were actually performed on Broadway stages. The revival of live musicals broadcast on network television celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2018. The venerable Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, in marking the first one, The Sound of Music, went so far as to boast that “More people saw a live Broadway musical in one night than….the longest running show on Broadway in 25 years.”
#TDIH in 2013, the @SoundofMusic Live! aired on @nbc starring @carrieunderwood, @smoyer, @AudraEqualityMc, @LauraBenanti, @arianerinehart, and @michaelcampayno! The live event was seen by over 21 million people! Retweet if you were one of them! #SoundOfMusic #CarrieUnderwood pic.twitter.com/KYagvvRvtq
— Rodgers & Hammerstein (@RnH_Org) December 5, 2018
And then there is the stage play’s increasing use of projections on screens; they so dominate “Network,” for example, that the audience is nearly forced to spend the majority of our time looking at the projections of the actors on the screen rather than the person standing before us on the stage.
The question that remains: Will this blurring of its definition enhance live theater, or diminish it?
4. TRANS-formation and Identity
The year reflected an era of heightened sensitivity toward identity and inclusion, both onstage and off. In deference to the Roma people, the Gypsy Robe and the Gypsy of the Year were renamed the Legacy Robe and the Red Bucket Follies.
Many shows this year confronted New York theatergoers with the issue of police shooting unarmed black men, ranging from “Black, White & Blue” a ten-minute play by William Watkins at the Fire This Time Festival to Scraps, Geraldine Inoa’s playwriting debut Off-Off Broadway, to Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son on Broadway. (Black Pain on Stage)
There were plays and musicals that offered a glimpse into the culture, struggles and humanity of individual immigrants and immigrant communities, including Miss You Like Hell, An Ordinary Muslim, Pale India Ale, queens.
There were welcome revivals of gay plays to remind us how far we’ve come and how much we could lose, especially Angels in America, Boys in the Band and Torch Song; and such Broadway entertainments as The Prom and especially Head Over Heels , which though primarily giddy musicals, seamlessly endorse love and acceptance in all its contemporary forms, especially gay/queer/gender-fluid. The Prom even made headlines with their musical number featuring the first same-sex kiss broadcast as part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Young Jean Lee became the first Asian woman to have a play on Broadway, with “Straight White Men,” which added two characters to the Broadway production who didn’t exist Off-Broadway, portrayed by trans actress Kate Bornstein and Ty DeFoe, who identifies as two-spirit.
Head Over Heels featured two performers making their Broadway debuts that broke barriers — the trans actress Peppermint as the non-binary character Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi; and Bonnie Milligan, a full-figured leading actress, as Princess Pamela, a character prized for her beauty – with a complete, and refreshing, absence of fat jokes.
5. THE FACE OF ARTIVISTS
The connection between theater and politics was not limited to movements. 2018 was the year that Tony-winning actress Cynthia Nixon ran for governor
At the beginning of the year, the theater community continued the Trump-protests that had been the main political endeavor of artists in 2017. An Art Action Day, for example, was held on the first anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump. But as the year progressed, there seemed a palpable Trump fatigue, with only Saturday Night Live and Randy Rainbow keeping a happy audience for their satirical cudgels.
The theater community stepped up its participation in the #MeToo cause, with continuing repercussions. After a 15-year relationship MCC, to pick one example, abruptly cut ties with playwright Neil LaBute, “known for his portraits of misanthropic and misogynistic men” (as the Times put it.)
In 2018, the reckoning (as I wrote in Broadway in a Year of Reckoning) went beyond #MeToo, to gun violence (#NeverAgain and #MeNext) and racism (#BlackLivesMatter); indeed, the theater community (in what is perhaps an overlap with Trend # 4) engaged in a reckoning with a range of stubbornly antiquated values that don’t (yet?) even have a #hashtag
The spotlight on artist-activists abruptly swerved after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. in Parkland, Florida, that resulted in the death of 17 students and school staff, when several of the student survivors led a renewed movement for gun control. Journalists soon discovered that many of the most eloquent survivors are members of the school’s drama club. “All these kids are drama kids,” said leader Emma Gonzalez (she’s one of them)
Michael Schulman pointed out in an article in the New Yorker that several of the school’s students were performing in a production of the musical “Spring Awakening,” which was written in response to the 1999 Columbine school shooting!
That the theater community embraced its kids became crystal clear when the 2018 Tony Awards gave its educator of the year award to their drama teacher Melody Herzfeld, and featured a surprise performance by the Parkland students, singing “Seasons of Love” from Rent:
525,000 moments so dear
How do you measure, measure a year?