It’s not just television that is currently experiencing a golden age in American culture. The theater too is riding a dramatic upswing, both in terms of creative output and commercial success, attracting younger audiences to plays and musicals alike.
There are probably a variety of reasons for this happy situation. Theater is a medium of immediacy which provides a visceral thrill that can’t be streamed, downloaded or enjoyed later. In theater the action is always happening right now, and you have to be in the audience on the night to experience it.
For decades, theater suffered because it couldn’t win the competition with younger mediums like film and TV. The mistake was to fight these mediums on their own terms. Theater is now winning because it is concentrating on what it does best: thought-provoking live performances. It’s ironic that this great revival of the stage has come at a time when movies and television are also better and more popular than ever.
Breaking new ground
Back in the 1990s the theatrical resurgence began with staged adaptations of popular movie properties like Beauty And The Beast, Mary Poppins and The Lion King. This move succeeded in drawing in a new, younger audience. The likes of Aladdin, The Lion King, Frozen, Mean Girls and Wicked are still going strong, continuing to break their own box office records.
At the same time however, Tony Kushner’s ground-breaking play, Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes (1992) ushered in a new era of American drama that reflects a heightened awareness of identity and intersectional themes of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class.
Brooklyn-born playwright Lynn Nottage is perhaps the best example of those currently working in this tradition. Nottage is the only playwright to have won the Pulitzer Prize for two separate plays. In 2009 she was awarded this coveted accolade for Ruined, which looked unflinchingly at the plight of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2017 she won it again for Sweat, produced by Louise Gund initially at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then off-Broadway in 2016 and finally on Broadway in 2017.
Sweat looked at changing economic and industrial patterns, plus familiar themes of race and identity, in one of the poorest cities in the US, Reading, Pennsylvania. The play was seen by many as an explanation for Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016 and as such was deemed “The first theatrical landmark of the Trump era” by the New Yorker.
As well as Nottage, the prolific, inventive and innovative Suzan Lori-Parks has also won many accolades for plays like Topdog/Underdog (2001) and Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 + 3 (2014), both of which look at racial identity and how it intersects with American history. An Octoroon was Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ radical re-appropriation of an 1859 melodrama about race and slavery which won the Obie Award for Best New Play in 2014, while Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (2010) viscerally challenged the sensibilities and assumptions of its predominantly white liberal audience.
Meanwhile the big shows on Broadway continue to break records. In January, Hamilton: An American Musical became the first Broadway show to gross over $4m in one week, while in the same month To Kill a Mockingbird took the highest single-week gross of any non-musical American stage production ever. Both were outdone however by Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, which had the highest single-week gross of any play in Broadway history.
Hamilton is credited with bringing a younger audience to the theater with its rap score and discussion of contemporary issues like race, gender and freedom, despite being set during the American Revolution. It debuted in 2015 and was an immediate critical and commercial success. Many have credited it with the 1.8m increase in attendance at Broadway musicals from 2013 to 2016, and the record-breaking attendances since.
A golden age
The 21st Century is proving to be a golden age for American theater, with writers addressing the urgent topics of today as well as finding new ways to address age-old themes. Meanwhile audiences are flocking to the stage in a commercial revival that few expected, but which contrasts remarkably with the struggles of film, television, print and the music industry to adapt to a digital age where audiences expect entertainment on demand and, more worryingly, free of charge.
Live theater can’t be streamed or bootlegged and at its best offers an experience to be remembered for a lifetime. Right now we are seeing American theater at its best. Those who only get their culture and entertainment mediated via a screen are definitely missing out.