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The Decade in Theater

Originally published on December 17, 2019 by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal The Decade in Theater: Ascendant Women, Declining Musicals

More women than ever are driving the theater world, but a focus on safe investments means that the Broadway-style American musical continues to struggle.

Ten years ago, close observers of the theater scene would likely have agreed that most of the main figures in American theater, actors excluded, were men. But things were already changing in 2010, and I don’t know anyone who’d make such a claim today. To the contrary, American theater is now well on the way to becoming a woman’s game. Were I to draw up a list of noted under-60 American playwrights, it would include, just for starters, Annie Baker, Lydia R. Diamond, Katori Hall, Kate Hamill, Amy Herzog, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Zoe Kazan, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage and Sarah Ruhl. The same is true of stage directors: Most of the names on my own short list of top directorial talent—among them Lear deBessonet, Amanda Dehnert, Barbara Gaines, Pam MacKinnon, Bonnie J. Monte, Lila Neugebauer, Charlotte Moore, Anna D. Shapiro, Leigh Silverman, Jessica Stone, Jenn Thompson and Kate Whoriskey —belong to women.

What explains these parallel trends? I don’t know any single reason, nor do I believe them to be reflective of a sudden change of institutional course. It’s true, though, that American theater is currently experiencing a generational rollover, and the coincident rise of the #MeToo movement has undoubtedly led to the growing recognition that there’s more room at the top for women than ever before. Whatever the reasons, the shift is here to stay.

So is an equally consequential shift that is, however, in no way desirable: The Broadway-style American musical has entered a period of creative decline. Here, the blame can be fixed on the fast-rising popularity of two notoriously bland genres: the “commodity musical,” whose book is adapted from a pre-existing hit movie like “Groundhog Day” or “Tootsie,” and the jukebox biomusical, a show which, like “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” recounts the story of the life and career of a pop-music artist or group.

Daveed Diggs and Lin-Manuel Miranda in ‘Hamilton’ PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS

Why have these shows come to dominate the Broadway stage? Mainly because producers view them as safer investments than more original, less predictable fare. Ticket prices on Broadway are so high that tourists, who make up 70% of the Broadway audience, cannot easily afford tickets to a hit show—and now that the national media have largely turned their backs on Broadway, it’s easier to sell a musical that is rigidly, uncreatively adapted from a hit movie, or a biomusical whose score consists of pre-sold “greatest hits,” to budget-conscious tourists who don’t read reviews.

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris in ‘Fun Home’ PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS
Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris in ‘Fun Home’ PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS

To be sure, good musicals are still being written, but most of them are small-scale shows that either don’t make it to Broadway or, like “The Band’s Visit” and “Fun Home,” work better in smaller houses. Nor will this trend change any time soon: The unexpected commercial triumph of “Hamilton” has only papered over the fact that the old-fashioned large-scale Broadway musical, which is both crowd-pleasing and creatively fresh, appears to be headed down the road to extinction.

—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author of “Satchmo at the Waldorf.”