Guest Writer: Theater for the Common Man vs. Broadway Elitism

By Ashley Magoffin

Welcome friends! Let’s talk about Broadway elitism, shall we? There are a million community, professional, and regional theaters out there, but everyone knows that if they want “the best,” it must be Broadway or the West End (if they’re English). When someone works on Broadway, they’re considered a successful theater artisan. However, most people don’t care about that.

Most people don’t want to work on Broadway; they just want to see the shows. For the average citizen, even doing that is hard. Broadway tickets generally start at $29 for lesser known shows or for long running shows, but most shows are more pricey than that. I don’t know about you, but I can’t just drop $29 plus travel expenses to see a show whenever I want. That’s money I’d rather spend on more important bills. Let’s break down the American population into social classes to get a better understanding.

“A team of sociologists recently posited that there are six social classes in America. In this model, the upper class (3% of the population ) is divided into upper-upper class (1% of the U.S. population, earning hundreds of millions to billions per year) and the lower-upper class (2%, earning millions per year). The middle class (40%) is divided into upper-middle class (14%, earning $76,000 or more per year) and the lower-middle class (26%, earning $46,000 to $75,000 per year). The working class (30%) earns $19,000 to $45,000 per year. The lower class (27%) is divided into working poor (13%, earning $9000 to 18,000 per year) and underclass (14%, earning under $9000 per year).” (Lumen Learning)

Based on these statistics, the upper class can do whatever they want. Cost is not a factor. The middle class on average will be able to see one to three Broadway shows, if they’re good with their money. The working class has to scrimp and save, but they could feasibly see a show or two if they’re smart with their money. The lower class doesn’t have this option, they need all of their money just to get by. This is obviously simplified, as there are a million factors that determine how a person will spend their money such as cost of living, medical bills, etc.

When roughly half of the population is working or lower class, it seems that Broadway caters to the elite. Theater has changed drastically throughout its history, but it was originally meant for the common man. Theater evolved from tribal storytelling, imitation, and ritual which were platforms for instruction and remembrance. Over time the storytelling got more complicated and ornate with cycle/miracle plays from the Medieval Age which were used to teach the common population about religion. Ancient Greek theater originated in the same way; the plays were often of a religious and ritualistic nature dealing with the Greek gods. Over time, theater evolved into a platform for political and philosophical expression as well as a platform for entertainment. All Greek citizens were allowed to participate and often did because plays were part of religious and seasonal festivals.

The Renaissance is really where we can see the transition start to take place from the common man to the elite in organized theater. The French court developed Ballet and masques which were for the elite to enjoy. In Elizabethan England, the elite had court entertainments or, when attending the theater, they got better seats (or got to sit at all). While elitism was still seen in Italy as well, the development of Commedia dell’arte was often performed on platforms or popular areas such as piazzas where all were welcome.

Jumping ahead to the turn of the 20th century with the development of Vaudeville, we see companies traveling through cities and towns. Vaudeville incorporated various itinerant amusements into a stable, institutionalized form centered in America’s growing urban hubs. At its height, Vaudeville played across multiple strata of economic class and auditorium size. Though, like with modern theater, there were different levels of theater that cost more to attend and gave you more notoriety to work at, one being The Palace Theater in New York City. Eventually, with the influence of the growing film industry, Vaudeville evolved into more of what we consider traditional show structure, that along with previously existing play and opera houses gave birth to the modern Broadway. 

The biggest change in theater for the modern common man is seen in the 20th century with the rise of Broadway. Being in the business myself, I understand how costly it is to put on a show of Broadway caliber. With production cost being so high, they depend on ticket sales more than ever to make a profit or at the very least break even. This leaves half of the population generally unable to take part in Broadway. I’m no business or economic expert, so I don’t know what the solution to this problem is. While it’s not the same experience as going to the show live, perhaps Broadway could further utilize streaming services to show their proshots for a cheaper price.

While streaming services previously existed that showed proshots (such as BroadwayHD) the recent releases due to COVID-19 of proshots of shows such as Hamilton, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Streetcar Named Desire on Disney plus, The National Theater, and The Show Must Go On YouTube platforms has given the common man access they otherwise wouldn’t have had. While modern theater has incorporated film technology into their productions before, it hasn’t generally been to this great extent, and it has always been debated whether it counted as true theater. If theaters continue in the current fashion, proshots will become more normal than not. Such changes will likely impact how people view and think about theater in the future, perhaps giving the common man more of a chance to participate.

Read more from Ashley on her blog The Struggling ArtistHERE.

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