Op-Ed: Howard Sherman “In Defense of Theatrical Bro-liferation”

The theater pundit and arts administrator weighs in on the “Bros on Broadway” backlash, and “talking to ourselves.”

Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman
© Joan Marcus

When TheaterMania launched its Bros on Broadway series in October 2012, theatre pundit and arts administrator Howard Sherman reached out to Creative Director Kimberly Kaye via Twitter to say he would be “monitoring” the feature and internet responses to it. After the debut of the TheaterMania’s fourth “Bro” this week, Sherman reconnected, stating he would like to “weigh-in” on the reviews and the controversy around them. Below are Sherman’s thoughts. They belong solely to the author, who received no payment or compensation for his work.

A number of years ago,
I took my two best friends since junior high to a play I was publicizing. They weren’t by any means theatrical novices, having previously been taken by their parents or dragged by me, but they were far from regular theatergoers. (In the past several decades, I can’t recall them ever buying theatre tickets of their own accord.) The show I took them to, a modern romantic comedy, had a brief moment where the leading lady was topless; it was natural within the play and not gratuitous. As we waited for others to file out after the show concluded, my friend Stephen leaned across our friend Mike to inform me I had failed to get good seats. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “If we’d been on the other side of the theatre,” Stephen explained, “we would have had a much better view when she had her top off.”

Yes, my old friend is a “bro,” and was one before the term even existed.

So Stephen, and Mike as well, are factors that explain, in part, why I didn’t erupt in aesthetic umbrage when TheaterMania introduced its “Bros on Broadway” feature a few weeks back, even though many who know or read me might have expected me to do so. When your best friends are bros, you learn to accept.

Frankly, I was a bit surprised by the anger provoked by the first “Bros” piece, and indeed might have missed the article entirely had I not spotted online brickbats being thrown at TheaterMania Creative Director Kimberly Kaye (who I follow on Twitter, but do not know in real life). I reached out to her that day online, to offer a bit of moral support, since it’s never easy to be on the receiving end of public verbal assaults. I’ve been there, so I know.

I said at the time that, while my instinct was to be dismissive of the piece, I would adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Would “Bros on Broadway” be a means of ridiculing theatre and those who choose not to attend it in one insulting unit? Only after a few columns appeared would I make any judgment.

In the meantime, I pondered the premise. It’s not as if TheaterMania had suddenly jettisoned a theatre critic in favor of bro-mmentators; this was an add-on to their existing theatre coverage. TheatreMania is a commercial venture, and (shockingly) there are other sites that ply the same territory. The new series was certainly unique. While fraternity membership and sports fandom seemed to be recurring resume points for the bros, TheaterMania wasn’t trooping out rejects from The Jersey Shore to pontificate about Chekhov. And the whole “bro” concept is sort of a joke in and of itself, as simultaneously popularized and satirized in the character of uber-bro Barney Stinson [Neil Patrick Harris] on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, so why get all serious?

With four pieces to date, I can now say that “Bros on Broadway” is not the end of theatre criticism as we know it. It is merely another iteration of “citizen criticism” that has burgeoned since the advent of blogs and social media. The premise may have already been copied by another outlet (D Magazine’s “The Broducers“), but I don’t see The New York Times subsuming their arts coverage into the sports section yet, so I don’t think it’s a snowballing trendsetter either.

I’d even argue that “Bros on Broadway” is beneficial to the field of theatre. Within the circles of arts professionals there is always the risk of “talking to ourselves.” That is to say, believing that we are our audience, when nothing could be further from the truth. Getting a true sense of what the man (or woman) on the street may think of the work to which we’re dedicated only makes us better at our jobs, allowing us to understand the perceptions of those not immersed in our world. It’s a good thing for the die-hard theatre buffs to see our cherished, insular world through someone else’s eyes–eyes that don’t line up in freezing temperatures at the TKTS booth.

People far more intelligent than myself have written about how our society is more fractured than ever, facilitated by self-selecting social media circles and DVRs that allow us to only watch what we want. Indeed, if we reached out more astutely to the bros of the world, maybe theatre wouldn’t be the niche pursuit that it is.

Although it’s catchy, I wonder (hope?) that perhaps the “Bros on Broadway” title may prove limiting in the long run. After all, surely there are women who’ve never been to the theatre before, and I’d like to hear from them as well. I’d also like to see first-timers taken to off and off-off-Broadway, or regional theatre, since Broadway is only the tip of the iceberg of American theatre. But fundamentally, I love the idea of introducing new people to the theatre and learning their reactions. In turn, perhaps they’ll look at those of us who are, now and forever, “theatre geeks,” in a new light.

And this all reminds me: it’s time for me to drag Stephen and Mike to the theatre again real soon. It’s good for them to get out of the house and into a dark room.

P.S. If you’re just dying to know the name of the play and half-dressed actress described in the first paragraph, you just might be a bro.

[Editor’s Note: TheaterMania is happy to assure Mr. Sherman that in the 2013-2014 season, the “Bros” are going off (and off-off)-Broadway. Programming featuring the insights of those without a Y chromosome is also in development.]