The Footlights' Non-Glare
At lunch with a colleague who is devoted to the theater, the discussion turned to Broadway and she mentioned she had seen the revival of On the Town, the buoyant 1944 Comden and Green musical, before it closed in January. When I asked her if she liked it, she sighed and said that as she stood on the sidewalk late at night after the show, the emotion she experienced most was exhaustion: "I'm so tired of Broadway making me feel," she said, as if she not only regretted that but was angry about her own regret.
To me the statement describes Broadway's excessive style and explains its own anachronism. At its inception at the turn of the century, Broadway reminded us of all that we were not in daily life. The street was a mythic destination, which was both glamorous and sentimental. It stood as a place to get to. But at the end of this millennium, my colleague's exhaustion suggests how far we've come. After all, at a time when postmodern irony permeates so many moments of our public and cultural lives, Broadway remains stubbornly about big, bold, unironic emotions. Hollywood notwithstanding, no other place in America has been so commemorated for the titanic heft of its feelings--from the ebullient streetscapes of Alfred Eisenstadt and Berenice Abbott to Kaufman and Hart's sweet backstage plays to Vincente Minnelli's glittery movie musicals about "putting on a show." Broadway has been portrayed as being bigger than we are. But now Broadway is in a bind: If it plays catch-up to the rest of the culture by, for example, presenting musical theater and theater that is postmodern or multicultural, it alienates those who seek the comfort of old Broadway. If, on the other hand, Broadway looks backwards, it risks becoming a museum piece or theme park. It is this double-bind that obscures what has always been essential about Broadway beyond the nostalgia and the hype--that its very existence has in the past provided a model for another kind of life.
The fact that Broadway has lost much of its original magnetism is hardly news. You could say that the street has flirted with its own extinction from the moment it was born. The phrase "the fabulous invalid," which refers to the tottering Broadway play, is at least fifty years old. And some of our most serious theater could not withstand the street's commercial pressures. (Consider the Group Theater, the left-leaning repertory company of the Depression era, which fell apart there.) But a boom in theatergoing, which is fueled by the fact that the Deuce is safe for tourists for the first time in years, has made the Great White Way's creakiness more noticeable. Many observers look to the "Disneyfication" of 42nd Street and Times Square and the large British presence to explain both the squeaky-clean homogenized flavor of the neighborhood and the insistent feeling that Broadway is dead. But this is too simple. After all, Disney brought good and bad: both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King; the renovation of the New Amsterdam Theatre and the Disney Store. Likewise, without the West End, we might not have Broadway at all. No, what lurks behind our weariness with Broadway is a more American discontent--call it failure to suspend disbelief in the Broadway myth.
Maybe this failure explains why the giant revolving turntable used in the newly opened production of Death of a Salesman seems like a perfect metaphor for the street. Indeed, the seeming revival of interest in the so-called Great American Play brings us right around to the antithetical emotion of sentimental, toothless nostalgia for the same. Even the best of this season's revivals--Salesman, Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and an early play by Tennessee Williams--are simultaneous hails and farewells to the genre they seek to revive. Ditto the crop of new American musicals like Parade and Fosse. Recent smash hits that also expanded the parameters of their genres (Rent, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk and Angels in America) have not really had successors. All of which highlights the fact that at no other time has the idea of Broadway as a "place to get to" been so beside the point.
One thing that people talk about when they talk about the fabled Broadway is the distinctive lure of the Great White Way. There is hardly a mid-twentieth-century memoir or Bildungsroman or play in which some character does not dream about the blinking lights of the biggest street in New York City. Of course, when I say Broadway, I am talking not only about the street that vertically bisects Manhattan but about the theater district, which in 1900 stretched from 13th to 45th Streets. Around 1904, the first electric streetlamps made lit-up Broadway the first modern thoroughfare in the city. It was only then that the theater district's center began to creep uptown, pushed along by Adolph Ochs moving the New York Times into what was then known as Longacre Square.
Broadway's lights were immediately appropriated for commercial purposes, but they had a mysterious quality as well, turning the street into a vast, densely secretive bazaar and also becoming a point of civic pride. In 1906 the otherwise undistinguished melodrama The Red Mill was a smash in part because it advertised with a "spectacular," a moving electric sign. In the Jazz Age, the Great White Way attracted reverent pilgrims like the French novelist Paul Morand, who serenely described Broadway as "a glowing Summer afternoon all night."
Still, Broadway was about more than lights. It was about what I think of as Broadway style--a combination of chutzpah and guile. When George M. Cohan burst onto the scene in 1905 and sang "Give My Regards to Broadway," he was a nobody, but he sang as if he had made it. The tactic worked and he became famous. From then on, Broadway welcomed noisy sentimentality and glamorous clothes; swaggering flag-waving and elegant nightlife; brash showmen and sophisticated tunes. The street became America's theatrical show window--a department store where success, fame, even happiness, were sold.