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The Footlights' Non-Glare | The Nation

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The Footlights' Non-Glare

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From the Jazz Age to the fifties, Broadway, drawing its energy from the immigrant ghettos and from a thousand tiny towns in the Midwest, sent up Victorian morals, stood for a new three-ring paradise and bespangled other spheres of popular culture along the way, nurturing musical and theatrical geniuses like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Moss Hart and Ethel Merman. Broadway jazzed the English language by introducing a piquant slang that rearranged grammar and produced an encyclopedia of new words and expressions. Broadway further popularized ragtime; it created the American musical; it presented a giddying number of erotic new dances and a brash style of physical comedy that made sex funny. On Broadway, an American acting style blossomed and the Theater Guild--America's first successful art theater--was established; later, many serious playwrights, including O'Neill, Miller and Williams, did their best work there. Broadway also championed the modern woman at least some of the time and, like vaudeville and variety, placed in the same theater citizens from an array of social spheres, which would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. But around the time rock and roll began to flower, Broadway stumbled. For one thing, the American musical became obsolete. Young audiences stopped listening; television and Hollywood drained the street of its actors and composers. Times Square began to deteriorate. Over a half-century, the price of the American musical has skyrocketed, making it unaffordable for many people. Nor was there agreement--as there once was--as to what a good play should be.

About the Author

Rachel Shteir
Rachel Shteir teaches drama at the Tisch School of the Arts and is writing a book on striptease.

I'm not trying to romanticize the old Broadway, which, after all, could be prejudiced, snobbish or cruel. The black vaudevillian Bert Williams, until his death, continued to sing in blackface, although he yearned to act in serious plays. For women, the way you looked meant a meal ticket or none; thus Fannie Brice had her nose fixed. The hierarchical rigidity of Broadway meant that for every entertainer who succeeded a fistful of others failed. And also if Broadway--like Freud and Fitzgerald--captured a sexy modern spirit that defied much that preceded it, from the first a commercial hardness trailed that spirit as surely as moonshine followed Prohibition. It is no accident that both the impresario and his kissing cousin, the press agent, emerged from the street.

For all that, people came to Broadway from nowhere and did what they could to make it. Which brings me to the Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky and his troubles. Last August, about two months after former superagent Michael Ovitz bought Drabinsky's financially troubled production company, Livent, it emerged that Drabinsky--who engineered Ragtime, Showboat and Kiss of the Spider Woman--appeared to have juggled his books to inflate earnings. Drabinsky was suspended by Livent's board for irregularities. And yet several high-minded observers responded to the scandal-in-the-making as if no one in the theater had ever been accused of lying, cheating or stealing before. They were shocked, shocked, terribly shocked. But what is most surprising is how much shock Drabinsky's deeds elicited.

After all, not so long ago, shady business practices and outrageous cons were as common on Broadway as long-legged chorus girls. The street was ruled by larger-than-life showmen--P.T. Barnum, Flo Ziegfeld, the Shubert Brothers--who made Drabinsky look like a Boy Scout. By our standards, these pugnacious entrepreneurs were everymen of the con--a far cry from the smooth MBAs who rule Broadway today. But whatever these old-timers did in private, they created the classics of the American theater, which also occasionally transcended their genre. Ziegfeld produced Showboat, the 1932 version of which starred Paul Robeson; Lee Shubert backed Americana, a political satire featuring Yip Harburg's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

It is often said that the problem with Broadway is that these czars of the stage have been replaced by number crunchers. There is something to that, although the old guys produced a lot of bottom-line schlock too. But I think Broadway's diminished role has more to do with the fact that we have so many other places to escape to.

Of course, another reason we no longer think of Broadway as a mythical destination is that the physical space that it inhabits is vanishing. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is possible to imagine a time when Broadway will mean Times Square alone. This process has been accelerating since the Jazz Age, when the theater district extended from 23rd Street to Columbus Circle; then, there were about seventy or eighty theaters and almost 300 openings a year. Today, there is one theater on Broadway itself, and the district reaches a measly thirteen blocks--from 41st to 54th Streets. Only about thirty-six theaters remain and there are about thirty openings a season.

The most widely publicized attempt to reverse--or at least slow down--this process is the Times Square Redevelopment Project, which in the eighties was described as "saving" 42nd Street from the pornographic empires that had sprung up there. Initially, Phillip Johnson was supposed to do the architecture, but his plan for the main buildings--four impersonal black skyscrapers--failed to please preservationists intent on maintaining the Square as a site for cultural tourism. After an enormous battle, Johnson's towers were scrapped and replaced with a plan that aimed for a chaotic--but controlled--agora. This is usually presented as a victory for Old Broadway.

But it is not. Examine the photo portraits stretching along a drywall on 42nd Street behind which construction is under way, and you will find that the hundreds of poster-sized photographs showing New Yorkers from the famous to the obscure are studies in self-conscious detachment. The diverse captions explaining what each person is doing in Times Square are a Michelin guide to possibility. But there is no sense of urgency, of the idea that arriving on Broadway means that here you might trade in your old life for a new one.

Instead, there is advertising. One of the leading spirits of the Times Square Redevelopment is Tama Starr, the president of Artkraft Strauss, a major New York sign-making company for over a century. In Signs and Wonders: The Spectacular Marketing of America, which Starr co-wrote with journalist Edward Hayman, she talks in the style of an old impresario about how great signs are: The LED sign "makes you feel good by making you feel smart"; "A commercial landscape...is an expression of the way people think things ought to be"; "products deliver quality and satisfaction." But there is something disingenuous about all this pro-sign talk, especially since the dazzling spectaculars hung in Times Square in the forties had a price. Many buildings along the big blocks on Broadway could no longer rent office space because their windows were covered by spectaculars. Today, soaring rents have made it impossible for all but the deepest pockets to land in Times Square.

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