Meet Broadway's New Audiences

Meet Broadway's New Audiences The Broadway of the twenty-first century began to take shape this season.
Beau Sia in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam.
Beau Sia in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Interesting new forms, hybrids and subject matter drew freely from diverse cultural wells such as hip-hop poetry, opera, cult movies, rock music, Nashville and modern dance. And these new forms began to attract new audiences to the Great White Way.

In spite of a bitterly cold winter filled with orange-level security alerts, a recessionary economy and the reality of war in Iraq, attendance this season topped 13.7 million by the end of March. While international and national tourism was down, people from the tri-state area and the Northeast are stepping in to fill the void. Many are veteran theatre lovers, but many, too, are setting foot inside legitimate theatres for the first time in their lives. What attracts them? According to audience members interviewed by Playbill, they're drawn by the compelling new shows.

It was apparent just how electric the Longacre Theatre could be when the posse of young writer-performers in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam took the stage each night to shout out their humor, anger, sadness, passion and insight. Based on the HBO program of the same title, the extraordinary production put the spoken word at center stage, and expanded the definition of what constitutes a Broadway show.

"It's about time we had something like this, especially in a Broadway context," said Samuel Roberts, 29, a history professor Playbill interviewed at the Longacre during the show’s run.

"I've seen a few other Broadway shows," graduate student Christina Greer, 24, said, "I'd say that Def Poetry Jam [raised] the bar. It doesn't have to be singing or dancing — you can actually talk about real life events." Charlyne Sarmiento, 21, a student from San Francisco State, acknowledged the power of the show for her, personally. "I'm a closet writer. This is inspiring. I liked the second half a lot because they were talking about assimilation, identity. It's entertainment, yet at the same time it's addressing a message."

And the new shows are drawing across age lines as well. Borrowing some of the youth appeal of rap, Def Poetry Jam also attracted a curious older crowd. Conversely, Baz Luhrmann's crackling musical-like staging of the opera La Bohème (though it respects the singers' voices by using three different sets of leads) has been drawing younger audiences.

Daryl Embry, 20, and Alex Sarian, also 20, both students at NYU, had a free night and decided to check out the new classical end of the Broadway spectrum. Embry said, "I thought he managed to capture Puccini's essence, and added to it a visual magic."

Having breathed new life into the movie musical with his mold-breaking “Moulin Rouge,” thus helping to pave the way for 2003 Oscar-winner “Chicago,” Luhrmann helped reinvent opera by infusing it with the fresh showbiz blood of Broadway.

Jeffrey Seller, producer of La Bohème and Rent, said, "The words 'musical theatre' or 'opera' are less important [to modern audiences]. The experience is what's meaningful."
Barbara Howlin, 21, an acting student from Fredericksburg, Virginia, came up to New York with her classmates to audition. "Three of us saw it last night with a different cast, and we liked it so much we knew everyone would want to see it on the trip. So we came back, all eleven of us, and got to see a second cast."

Another category-buster was Movin' Out, which wove the pop hits of Billy Joel into a story about three buddies in wartime Vietnam, and then enacted it with the modern dance of Twyla Tharp. An artistic descendant of the groundbreaking 2000 Tony winner Contact, the show attracts its own breed of passionate partisans. Paul Molaro, 40, and Ron Kassover, 48, said it's hard to resist the appeal of a show that brings together Joel's tunes and Tharp's dances. Kassover said, "For us, it brings back living in the boroughs. I grew up in Brooklyn — he grew up in Queens. The music flashes you back to high school."

At the stage door, waiting for Michael Cavanaugh — who plays piano and sings Billy Joel's songs in Movin' Out — stand four blond gals from Wewahitchka, Florida. Sisters and childhood friends from the Florida panhandle, they erupt in a wild chorus of hellos when Cavanaugh steps outside.

"We've been following him for eight years. We discovered him in a piano bar in Orlando and we said, 'He's going to be famous one day,'" said Carol Kelley. "Then we followed him to Vegas, and now he's on Broadway, so we came especially to see him. I guess you could call us middle-aged groupies."

An immediate hit upon its fall opening, Movin' Out also gathered resonance as the season went along. As the airwaves began to fill with the threat and then the reality of war in the Middle East, no one could miss the timelessness of the story of three young men facing battle, and then dealing with death.

But laughter apparently remains the best medicine when times are tough. The musical comedy Hairspray spent most of the season playing to SRO audiences, many of them baby boomers (and their kids) who found a show that appealed to all ages. Margo Lion, Hairspray's lead producer, said, "In all the shows I've done, I tried to expand the traditional audience. I think the show itself celebrates inclusion."

Part of the appeal was the music by first-time Broadway composer Marc Shaiman, who had earned himself a following, mainly through his Oscar-nominated work for the animated film “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.” Taking its cue from the original John Waters film, his Hairspray score is both a spoof and a celebration of the pop music of the early 1960s, but with an edge that appeals to hip younger listeners as well. And then there is the appeal of the show's central message that no doors should be closed to you just because of your skin color or body type.

Lisa Benwitz, 39, from Rochester, New York, would agree. "Being a big girl myself, I need a story where the chubby girl gets the guy. The whole performance is so energetic, the way they structured the scenes and took the best parts from the movie."

Bobbi Dorsey, Carolyn Randall and Phyllis Stork have come together from Pennsylvania to see the show. All three are teachers; all said they had the same thought immediately upon leaving the theatre. "We're going off Weight Watchers!"

Coming in from Palm Springs, Robert Yates, 54, and Vince Cappa, 41, knew they couldn't resist a chance to see an old favorite in a new guise. Yates said, "I think Harvey [Fierstein] is a happier character than Divine [who originated the role on film], who was a very serious sort of dark character.

"To me it's almost a cult — I know every word in the movie." Yates continued, "I'm waiting for certain lines, and naturally they're not doing it word for word from the script. It's carved out its own place. That's what you get from the live stage."

And while the short-lived Urban Cowboy used Broadway writers like Tony winner Jason Robert Brown to lend his Broadway storytelling expertise, the show was clearly designed to appeal to country music fans of all ages and home towns.

Jesse Velazco, 31, a Texas native who said he divides his time between New York and San Francisco, said, "For me, this does capture my imagination. I can relate to the music and, being from Texas, I was singing some of the songs."

Ben and Lydia Stone were visiting New York for one night with their three children, and they chose to see a preview of Urban Cowboy, because, in Ben's words, "I wanted the kids to see something that's new instead of seeing a revival."

Urban Cowboy's conductor, orchestrator and co-composer, Brown, said there was a strong upside to a score that combined familiar hits from the film with new numbers written just for the stage: "Broadway doesn't have to be a rarified or heightened language. There's nothing wrong with using songs the audience already knows — we can then introduce other songs."

Jan Svendsen, Director of Marketing for the League of American Theatres and Producers, took a wider view of what is helping to attract Broadway's new audiences. "After September 11th, we all realized how much Broadway means to everybody — how iconic this medium is. Audiences came to express solidarity with the people of New York. I think the cast got as much cathartic healing from the audience as they [the audience] did from the cast."

Pam Renner is a freelance writer for American Theatre, The New York Times and other publications.