Broadway Season That Reflected the World ; Critics Discuss Works Focusing on Race, History and Cultural Reclamation

International New York Times, May 14, 2016 | Go to article overview

Broadway Season That Reflected the World ; Critics Discuss Works Focusing on Race, History and Cultural Reclamation


Theater critics discuss the sophisticated works that focused on race, history and cultural reclamation - and defined this theatergoing season.

Tickets sell for a thousand dollars apiece. Michelle Obama calls it "the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life." The show's director, let alone its charismatic cast, is a late-night American TV talk-show guest.

It's been awhile since a Broadway show earned the across-the- board adulation that has greeted "Hamilton," which, among other accolades, was nominated for more Tony Awards than any show in history.

But Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop retelling of America's founding turned out to be one of several shows making for a strikingly diverse, unusually urgent Broadway season. The theater critics for The New York Times, Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, along with the theater editor, Scott Heller, recently compared notes on the year that was, and what it might mean for Broadway's future.

SCOTT HELLERIt seems appropriate that the season was in effect bookended by "Hamilton" and "Shuffle Along," which were both the biggest vote getters and had much to say about race and American history.

CHARLES ISHERWOODI agree that they make perfect bookends. "Shuffle Along" reclaims a musical more or less lost to history and affirms the importance of black artists to Broadway going back almost a century. It's nicely fitting that it should appear in the same season as "Hamilton," which re-envisions American history through a new lens: emphasizing, through both its nontraditional casting and its story, the ideals of inclusiveness that are at the heart of American history. We are and always have been a nation of immigrants, after all, which makes the new stirrings of xenophobia in the country so dispiriting. "Hamilton" may just be a musical, but it's a nice cultural rebuke.

BEN BRANTLEYBoth musicals are works of reclamation, and yet they're so different. Each is a reminder that there's more than one way to control the narrative (to use the most overused phrase du jour) and to translate history into the present tense. "Hamilton" is the more truly organic of the two works in that sense; its audacity is in turning contemporary musical style into an expression of a spirit of revolt, of cockiness, of daring that infused a great revolution of the past.

"Shuffle Along" is of course more annotative, with illustrative detours and asides that give us context for a great show of decades ago. One quick aside on another, very different musical, which I just saw: "On Your Feet!," which is in itself a sort of rebuke to the xenophobia you mention, Charles. Most pointedly, there's the moment when Emilio Estefan says to the record producer who doesn't want to sell Latino music to American audiences: "Remember my face. This is the face of America."

HELLERI didn't expect the word "xenophobia" to come up so quickly, but it's that kind of political season -- and Broadway season, I guess. Is it a fluke that the shows this year seemed in dialogue with the presidential campaign? Do you as critics inevitably watch through that lens? Do audiences?

ISHERWOODWell, it was certainly hard not to watch "The Humans," Stephen Karam's play about a middle-class family under intense pressures, and not think of all the talk of income inequality and the increasingly beleaguered middle classes. It quite specifically invoked all sorts of things on people's (and politicians') minds: the expense for care of the elderly, the staggering amounts of student debt that young people are stuck with, the fragility of jobs even for people who have held them for years, wage stagnation. I am making it sound like a bunch of talking points, but the marvel of the play is how naturally these things are integrated into the play.

BRANTLEYThis was definitely a season offstage in which it was impossible to turn off the sounds of the news being made. So it was gratifying to find plays that were indeed in dialogue with real life, including a play from many decades ago, like "The Crucible," a parable of political persecution that acquires newly haunting resonance in a 21st-century context. …

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