Monday, January 17, 2005

The Broadway census

I see the value of having racially diverse schools, companies, and the like. But must absolutely every event for which Americans gather be one in which all races are proportionately represented? In the NYT, Jesse McKinley writes:

The study [of attendance at Broadway shows], which collated 8,078 responses to a detailed questionnaire distributed at Broadway performances throughout the season, also confirmed a number of less happy - and longstanding - trends, including the audiences' continued homogeneity and age. The Great White Way is apparently precisely that: 80 percent of Broadway audiences are white, with Hispanic, black and Asian-American groups logging only 3 to 4 percent each.

Frankly, who cares? The Times? Broadway producers? Broadway shows are, in my opinion, kinda lame, and while some others would surely disagree, the fact of the matter is, going to Broadway shows is not a prerequisite for leading a fulfilled , happy, or even upper-class life. Seats at Broadway shows aren't like spots at Harvard or seats in the Senate--your ethnic group is not somehow missing out if it doesn't appear in statistically appropriate numbers. And it's not as if minorities are barred from attending the shows, which, if it were the case, would be terrible, but clearly all that's at stake is lack of interest. Can't it just be that Broadway shows tend to appeal to certain people--white, older, not from NYC--and that that's neither a good thing nor a bad one?

Broadway shows and race are also discussed in another article in the Times. In her review of Essie Mae Washington-Williams's memoir of growing up as Strom Thurmond's mixed-race daughter, Dear Senator, Janet Maslin cites a passage she finds especially relevant to Washington-Williams's unique situation:

But in the end this is worth reading for more than its glimpses of the elusive senator. Ms. Washington-Williams does have her own story to tell. Its central conundrum is reflected in an anecdote about her first impressions of New York City. Her sense of the city was formed by musicals like "On the Town." And as she heads north from Midtown, she wonders disappointedly why Harlem isn't part of that Broadway tableau. Her cousin Calvin explains, "We've got our own music."

Well, these days, everyone's got their own music. Plenty of (if not most) white kids from the suburbs would rather go to a hip-hop show than to a Broadway musical. An irony-loving hipster indie-rock fan is unlikely to jump for joy upon realizing he's received two tickets to "The Lion King." A society matron probably wouldn't trade in her seat at the Metropolitan Opera to go see "Rent." Broadway show's aren't for everybody, not because they're expensive (they are, but so are many NYC concerts, nightclubs, etc.), but because they're big, loud things in Midtown that not all people consider worthwhile uses of time. That older white people are statistically overrepresented in their audiences is neither a "happy" trend nor an unhappy one. It's just how it is.


Anonymous said...

"How it is" is a whole lot more complicated than why it is. Opera, "high culture," and Broadway have traditionally been created by and marketed to whites. Black culture evolves separately, even in the confines of a shared city. The fact that tv shows are now divided between white- and black-interest suggests that even as segregation is eliminated on a legal basis, history still casts a heavy shadow back.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

But Asian-Americans, young people, and NYC residents are also uninterested in Broadway shows. It's not just a black-white issue.