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Why We Need Broadway Some Notes Stanley Kauffmann The numerical decline of productions is not my subject, nor the drive to save some buildings from demolition. I'm concerned with Broadway as social phenomenon, civic flourish, sensory experience. I look at two stubs for a Broadway show that my wife and I saw last night. The tickets were priced at $35 apiece. I'm struck with a comparison. When we married in 1943, the rent for our furnished apartment was $62 a month. Even after allowing for increases and inflations, I'm left with a grotesque disproportion between the cost of occupying an apartment for a month in 1943 and occupying two knee-cramped chairs for two hours in 1985. Compensation is meant to come, of course, from what we saw and heard during those two hours. Disregard the fact, for this argument, that the compensation rarely comes; what is always true, whatever the quality of the show, is the price. And the matter of price is why I never get the fullness of Broadway theatregoing. As a member of the press, I receive free seats. Most press people simply couldn't go as often as we must if we had to pay; our journals couldn't afford it. But free tickets put me in a relation to the show that is quite different from others in the audience-a difference that doesn't apply off-Broadway or at films precisely because those other tickets are cheaper. No matter what the price stamped on my Broadway ticket, I don't pay it. I never ask myself whether the show is worth the money, however one defines worth. 193 In a quite real way, this is regrettable. A central part of the Broadway experience is the spending of money-the conviction that you have or have not got your money's worth. To get your money's worth-a criterion that cannot be equally pressing in other theatres-is one of the seductions with which Broadway tantalizes. To charge Broadway prices in a regional theatre would not provide the same thrill, even for a good show. It would be like charging Lutece prices for a good local restaurant. Broadway prices for touring shows are the closest that one can come to the Broadway thrill away from Manhattan. The matter of price connects with the paramount reason that Broadway is needed. The ticket price does for the audience what Broadway does for theatre people themselves. It is the only locus in the American theatre where American success is possible. Without Broadway, work in the theatre would offer top levels of fortune only at about the level of a bank branch manager. Why should Americans who choose theatre work have no chance at success comparable to success in other fields? Academics and lithographers and medical missionaries can have other motives for choosing their professions, but the theatre is work in a success mode. Why should the choice of theatre as a profession arbitrarily deprive one of a whirl at the great U.S. roulette wheel? It would be democratically unfair for Broadway not to exist. Every year Broadway gives some theatre people success. Every year Broadway gives some theatregoers their money's worth. On both sides, a gratification that is unique. Not so many decades ago, Broadway was in effect the only American theatre, if we concede that the rest of the country saw little but Broadway plays either before or after their New York residence. All theatre people, including the most serious, aspired to Broadway, if only because there wasn't much else to aspire to. In the years since 1950 or so, that has ceased to be true, as other theatres grew. Some of our best theatre people work elsewhere. Broadway, which used to be ecumenical, which included the most serious and the most trivial, now concentrates largely on material that is irrelevant to serious audiences. The obvious reason is rising expense, not decline in audience quality. The cultivation of the average American is demonstrably higher than it was when the Broadway range was wider. Broadway has priced itself out of seriousness, out of limited appeal, even though those limitations are...


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pp. 193-198
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