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Point-Counterpoint: Can't Broadway Just Be for Fun?

Our critics debate the necessity of having every work of theater converse with the big issues of the day.

Theater is political. It always has been. But does every play and musical on Broadway have to say something profound about the state of the world? Critic Hayley Levitt never used to think so, but she now finds herself in a state of bafflement when a comedy is just for laughs. Critic Zachary Stewart loves a good political play, but lately thinks a lot of creatives have gone too far in putting fashionable politics onstage — often in a cynical way. They discuss their thoughts, apprehensions, and hopes for the future of the theater below in the triumphant return of Point-Counterpoint.

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers, and Cleo King starred in Douglas Lyons's Chicken and Biscuits, a comedy our critic enjoyed for being a good time.
(© Emilio Madrid)

Zachary Stewart: We meet again, Hayley Levitt.

Hayley Levitt: It's been a minute.

Zach: More like 525,600 minutes (and then some). I don't know about you, but I spent a good chunk of that time thinking about why we even do live theater anymore. Is there something special about storytelling onstage that we cannot get from Netflix? And when it comes to Broadway specifically, does there have to be something socially or politically redeeming about a show — or can it just be pure entertainment?

Hayley: There's absolutely been a shift — and I think it started pre-pandemic. No one has come out and said it explicitly, but there's a definite sense, at least within the New York bubble of theater makers and critics, that simple entertainment doesn't cut it anymore. There used to be room for a casual comedy or a sweet song-and-dance musical, but nowadays, if every show doesn't have a political perspective or comment on the state of culture at large, it feels like a waste of space. When I went to see the Douglas Lyons comedy Chicken and Biscuits earlier this season — which was 95 percent dysfunctional family comedy — I even found myself wondering, "What was the point of that?" And then I thought, "You had a good time! Why isn't that enough of a point!?" I'm already anticipating a very chatty brain when I go see Plaza Suite. How will Neil Simon survive in this new world?

Zach: I wonder if the expectation that theater must do more stems from the anxiety of being one of the least efficient, most expensive forms of entertainment. If you're going through all that trouble (and charging a premium for it), shouldn't the art make its viewers better citizens and people? Shouldn't it change lives? But I'm not sure the didactic approach to theater — with playwrights and actors assuming the role of teacher — is really achieving that. I partially blame the university takeover of theater training, which has injected an element of dull academia into too many new plays. With so much spinach on the menu, I think we're rapidly approaching a period in which theatergoers will crave something purely delicious (but not necessarily nutritious). And that's OK.

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster lead the current Broadway revival of Meredith Willson's The Music Man.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Hayley: There is something to the fact that you have to go to a specific place at a specific time (something we've all lost our callus for), put your health somewhat at risk, and spend a good chunk of money in order to take in a live show. After all that, if you only leave with a few laughs, it's not going to feel worth the effort. But I do also think there's a pressure on creatives to "join the conversation" so to speak. At the end of the day, we may all be craving some lighthearted fun, but there's always a lingering fear that if you're not taking a stance, you're committing the crime of being a passive witness to injustice. "No comment" isn't really an option anymore, and nowhere is that clearer than in the way we've been approaching revivals. And, of course, critiquing them.

Zach: When I hear that kind of rhetoric, I am reminded of George W. Bush's declaration in September 2001: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." I was skeptical of such reductive logic then, and I'm skeptical now that it has been applied to progressive causes.

I have mixed feelings when it comes to revivals: I think it's great when writers reconsider their own work and refine what they have to say — sometimes decades later, as the creators of Cabaret did with the most recent Broadway revival. On the whole, musical theater writers have been heroically ego-free about doing this. I take issue, however, with the revisions in the new Broadway revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (of Hairspray) were hired to craft new lyrics to "Shipoopi" that conform to a more enlightened view of teenage courtship and sexuality ("Shipoopi, Shipoopi, Shipoopi, the boy who's seen the light/ Shipoopi, Shipoopi, Shipoopi, to treat a woman right"). But original writer Meredith Willson is dead, and I'm not sure he would have agreed that these early 20th-century Iowans would have been fretting about the scourge of "slut shaming." All of this comes in a production calibrated to evoke memories of the "good old days" — for the exorbitant top ticket price of $699. The Music Man tries to have its cake and "woke" it too.

Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones starred in the last Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, directed by Daniel Fish.
(© Little Fang)

Hayley: This goes back to the classic debate: Is all art political? And the answer is probably yes. I'm sure presenting old sexist "Shipoopi" to post-Trump-MeToo-TimesUp-BLM-Covid America without comment felt like a nonstarter to Jerry Zaks and his creative team, and that's not a bad instinct. But when all you change about that Podunk Iowa town is the fact that former con-man Marcellus Washburn is suddenly enlightened on matters of sexual politics, you smell a little more fear than creative inspiration in those new choices. On the other hand, you look at something like Daniel Fish's Oklahoma!, which turned a swashbuckling slice of apple pie into a critique of American tribalism, and you can see how modern perspectives can add value to an old property — not just placate its audiences with neutered lyrics. But then you wonder, do we have to make dark tragedies out of all our beloved musicals for them to be tolerable? That can't be the only option. Zaks even said in an interview, "I'm not interested in reconceptualizing the show or finding the dark heart of The Music Man…I want to make this the joy machine Meredith Willson intended it to be." And you know what, bless him for that. I value self-reflection as much as the next East Coast liberal, but I do sometimes want to be able to like something without having to go down a rabbit hole of societal critique.

Zach: Of course, Daniel Fish didn't feel the need to change a single lyric or line in Oklahoma! He was presenting what was already there. Politically and socially relevant work has always been a part of the theater: Some of it is electrifying and some of it is dreadful. But in an age when every musical, arts organization, and junk food brand on Twitter feels the need to take a stance on everything, it seems to me that the most radical thing you can do as an artist is refuse to take part in that outrage economy. I suspect that the boldest artists of 2022 will be the people who climb out of the trenches of the culture war and perform 32 fouettés right in the middle of no-man's land.

Hayley: Is this the start of a campaign to resurrect pointless theater?

Zach: What point could be greater than joy?