Each year, the Tony Awards takes the nation by drizzle. The ratings are always middling — this year, they rose slightly to 6.3 million total viewers (by contrast, Game 4 of the NBA Finals drew 12.9 million viewers). Few Americans have actually seen the shows featured at the Tonys. Attendance at Broadway shows has been effectively stagnant for at least a decade: In 2006–07, 10.8 million Americans went to a musical on Broadway; in 2016-17, that number was 11.3 million.
And the Tony Awards demonstrate just how niche their appeal is. The best musical award went to The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band visiting an Israeli town; the best play went to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, another knock-off of J. K. Rowling’s hit series; the best musical revival went to Once on This Island, and the best revival of a play went to Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s tendentious and overlong saga about the plight of gay Americans. All of which shows what Broadway has become: spectaculars for kids, and adult shows for niche audiences. Long gone are the days of Oklahoma! or even Phantom of the Opera.
Broadway has niched itself.
It’s not just the shows. It’s the way Broadway has become a political rally for Democratic priorities. It’s difficult to forget the Hamilton cast’s attempt to slam Mike Pence last year, of course. And this year’s Tonys featured Robert De Niro shouting “F*** Trump” to a standing ovation; the pro-gun-control students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School performing “Seasons of Love”; Andrew Garfield telling Christians to bake that cake; and, on the red carpet, actress Noma Dumezweni telling the assembled media that President Trump wasn’t welcome to visit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which will surely break his heart.
So, why have the Tonys broken so far out of the political mainstream? Probably for the same reason Hollywood has: narrowcasting.
Thanks to the fragmentation of audiences in the entertainment industry — there’s no longer an oligopoly of distribution methods in television or movies — it’s far easier to cater to an audience of die-hards than to try to broadcast. The same holds true on Broadway, where it’s easier to cater to a niche audience for Angels in America or go for broke on SpongeBob Squarepants than to try for a show that carries broad appeal throughout the age and demographic range. Sometimes Broadway has a breakout that begins as a niche audience — Hamilton would fall into this category — but typically, Broadway focuses on either niche audiences or blockbuster children’s shows.
This makes a certain amount of economic sense. In his book Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains the concept of “renormalization” to show how a motivated minority can dominate a less-motivated majority. Take, for example, a family of four with a sister (let’s call her Lisa Simpson) will eat organic food. Three out of the four members of the family aren’t particularly interested in organic eating, but they’ll all eat organic in order to demonstrate tolerance for their animal-friendly sister. Now the Simpsons family goes to a party and tells the Flanders that they will eat only organic; there are only a few other families showing up at the party, so the Flanders think it’s cheaper and easier and less annoying to simply go organic. So the entire block is eating organic for the night, thanks to Lisa.
Broad-minded, risk-taking artists would actually take risks by moving out of their comfort zones and engaging audiences that won’t give them standing ovations merely for shouting epithets at a Republican president.
The same holds true on Broadway. There are motivated niche groups who will go to the theater only if they see a show that reflects their political values (the theatergoing public is disproportionately gay, for example). Then there are travelers who just want to go to a show. It’s easier for investors to cater to the niche groups, which minimizes their downside risk; they figure that travelers will probably show up anyway, and they’ll be happy to swallow the politics of the niche group. So Angels in America gets funded, even though it’s a seven-hour borefest.
None of this matters to most Americans — very few Americans will visit Broadway in a given year. But it pops onto our cultural radar when the Tonys hit our televisions. Then, suddenly, this niche product comes into our living rooms, and we’re stunned by the bubble it represents.
None of this suggests a conspiracy on Broadway. But it does show that cultural fragmentation has consequences — and markets can exacerbate those fragmentations. That’s not a case against markets. It’s a case in favor of supposedly broad-minded, risk-taking artists actually taking risks by moving out of their comfort zones and engaging audiences that won’t give them standing ovations merely for shouting epithets at a Republican president (the only Republican president in history to endorse same-sex marriage, by the way). Or we can all keep doubling down on our bases and stop talking to one another. Our cultural commonalities shrink alongside our political commonalities.
It will take an act of tremendous willpower and forward thinking to break out of that cycle.