Broadway’s 2017-2018 season, which officially came to an end on May 27, was its highest grossing and best attended in history, according to Playbill.com. As a longtime theater educator and director, I attend many productions each year, and this year was no exception. The 2018 Tony Award nominated plays and musicals reflect a vast array of plots, characters and settings. Having seen most of them, I am staggered by the overwhelmingly similar themes presented. More than ever before, the productions share a common message about endurance. The universe is often senseless, unfair and turbulent, yet the human capacity to endure — perhaps triumph — in the face of adversity is profoundly demonstrated in nearly every production.
Perhaps it’s a product of the challenges of the Trump presidency. Or maybe it’s the atmosphere of fear facing our children, the result of far too many school shootings. For whatever reason, the theater industry is presenting themes of struggle as I’ve never seen before, from the sea characters of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” to the sprawling epic masterpiece by Tony Kushner, “Angels in America.”
SpongeBob and his circle of friends and associates are awakened by a violent tremor to learn that they face possible annihilation from an erupting volcano. In Mr. Kushner’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning, two-part play, the protagonist, Prior Walter, faces AIDS in Reagan’s America of the mid 1980’s. The women in Edward Albee’s brilliantly transformative “Three Tall Women,” tackle issues of self-identity, love, loss and growing old with a grace and strength that is so tremendously relevant to women today.
The three nominated musicals in revival (“My Fair Lady,” “Carousel” and “Once on This Island”) present main characters who redeem themselves through sacrifice. Eliza Doolittle forgoes her familiar Cockney world to become something better than she has ever been, albeit “with a little bit of luck.” Billy Bigelow, the ne’er do well anti-hero of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” — once called the most significant musical of the millennium — faces a brutal reality about the consequences of his own bad behavior and irresponsible decisions. The island girl, Ti Moune, central to “Once on This Island,” encounters life-altering situations controlled by elements of pure fate (earth, air, water and fire). She becomes a symbol of heroic love for eternity.
Last weekend, when I attended one of the newest musicals, “Mean Girls,” adapted from Tina Fey’s popular movie, I was expecting sheer entertainment, an escape from too much reality. In fact, more than the film, the musical presents a rather blunt, even harsh, theme about hypocrisy and lies. Yes, the show is over 90 percent laughs with some of the most energetic dancing and singing you’ll experience all year. But there’s an 11 o’clock number, a classic show-stopper near the end of act two, belted out by the nonconforming, who-cares-what-anyone-thinks-of me character, Janis, that screams survival in a hostile world unlike any I’ve recently seen. To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say, she raises her hands, double middle fingers high in the air, expressing what so many today have wanted to do themselves had we the courage. I looked around, and as she ended her song, everyone was applauding as if they couldn’t stop: women and men, young and old alike. Take that all who have lied, cheated and robbed their ways to power!
The performing arts have always provided an outlet for both the artist and the spectator. Today’s Broadway scene is handing us not only a mirror to take a good, long and honest look at ourselves, but also to raise us from depths of despair we often face in the world of 2018. It’s far more than keeping a stiff upper lip with steadfast conduct helping us to endure. The characters presented in this year’s Tony nominated productions, suffer, bleed, cry and call out in utter anguish. Elsa, the ice queen of “Frozen,” unbraids her hair, as she sings loudly to “Let it go!” Onstage it achieves a more intense emotional power than anything possible in an animated Disney film. The moment becomes almost Shakespearean, a type of King Lear — “come, unbutton here” — expression of total catharsis.
Plan a trip to Broadway this summer. Daily, the Times Square ticket booth has discounts up to 50 percent the original ticket price. This is a season offering a wealth of choices. I guarantee that you’ll leave the theater feeling a shared sense of community with a renewed appreciation for our dignity, strength and resilience.
Carolyn L. Buck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a local writer, theater director and former theater teacher.