- Seeing Broadly:A Cultural Omnivore’s Menu
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Broadway and Off-Broadway, which we disparagingly called “the mainstream” when I was a young lesbian feminist theatre critic in the early 1980s, has become a much more eclectic assortment of forms, contents, and ideologies than it was thirty years ago. When the Public Theater announced the spring 2015 transfer to Broadway of the musical theatre adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, I was struck again by what seems a tectonic shift. Fun Home’s provenance reflects the era when I frequented the WOW Café and other downtown storefront theatres because they programmed formally innovative performance that spoke to my political interests and my identity concerns more than anything on or Off-Broadway. Fun Home boasts a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, of Five Lesbian Brothers fame, who became one of the first WOW artists to enjoy a more commercial career. Likewise, syndicated cartoonist Bechdel published a popular strip called Dykes to Watch Out For in lesbian magazines and newspapers from 1983 to 2008. Fun Home, her 2006 memoir, described coming out as lesbian just as she found out that her father was a closeted gay man, shortly before he killed himself. The book established Bechdel’s shift into wider circulation.
We must continue to agitate for a broader representation of work by people of color, women, and lesbian playwrights, directors, and designers on and Off-Broadway. But the musical Fun Home’s move from downtown to midtown illustrates the more eclectic, aesthetically diverse, politically various theatre now offered in venues that were once much more formally and thematically conservative and uniform, and that once served what seemed a gate-keeping function. I saw nine exemplary productions in fall 2014 that helped me parse this redefinition of the mainstream: on Broadway, director John Rando’s revival of On the Town, the Bernstein, Comden, and Green musical; The Country House, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Donald Margulies’s newest work; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a theatrical adaptation of a novel about an autistic boy; Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize–winning drama; and Side Show, the Bill Condon–directed, remounted, and revised musical about the conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton. Off-Broadway, I took in Fortress of Solitude, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s coming-of-age novel about Brooklyn in the 1970s, at the Public Theater; Here Lies Love, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s immersive musical extravaganza about Imelda Marcos, also at the Public; Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy, at Lincoln Center Theatre; and Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, at New York Theatre Workshop.
First performed in 1944, On the Town was probably the most “classic” of these nine productions and might represent Broadway in all its white, straight, middle-class conventional glory if it were not for Rando’s exhilarating, funny eye. Bernstein’s music remains wonderful, the dancing (originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins) was transporting, and Rando’s direction staged a deliriously pleasurable conversation with old forms and new ideas. He demonstrated a canny willingness to...