(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 4/22; Photo: Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo during a shutdown. Olivo has since left the cast. (Matthew Murphy via AP/AP)
The anti-capitalists are gunning for Broadway.
In a recent article in American Theatre, the editor Rob Weinert-Kendt opined that regional theaters had “fallen short in a lot of ways by following a similar, Broadway-focused industrial model.” In the same online magazine, Brandon Ivie, the associate artistic director of the Village Theatre of Issaquah, Wash., wrote: “I’m looking ahead with an understanding that capitalism is the real enemy.”
And in a recent Instagram video announcing her departure from the show “Moulin Rouge!,” the Broadway artist Karen Olivo advocated for actors dropping their affiliation with Actors Equity, the traditional labor union for theater workers, as part of a decommissioning of what she sees as a corrupt system.
“The dream of making art?,” Olivo said, referencing Broadway. “The moment we stepped into this capitalistic structure, that went away.”
Did it, though?
Consider, for example, the moment when the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama, attended the Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” with the lead role performed by Denzel Washington, the leading Black actor of his generation. For anyone there that night, it was a stunning example of the capitalist sector of the American theater heralding racial progress and become part of a transformation that the author of the play, Lorraine Hansberry, surely could not even have imagined. Nothing quite like that ever has happened in the nonprofit sector.
Or consider the night at “Hamilton” when an entire cast of supremely talented, diverse actors summoned up the courage to directly address Vice President-elect Mike Pence, their guts and the size of their capitalistic platform immediately making headlines around the world and infuriating Pence’s boss, Donald J. Trump, who was just learning the power of Twitter. For anyone interested in progressive reforms or the activism of people of color, this was a night to remember. And it was capitalist down to the tips of its toes.
Or think about the remarkable artist David Byrne telling a rapt Broadway audience to “say their name,” a reference to all the Black lives lost to police shootings. And many hearing that for the first time.
What about the cast of “Dear Evan Hansen?” Were they not making art when they dramatized the pain of being a teenager struggling with the micro-aggressions of everyday life? What about the cast of “Hadestown,” when they found the political potency in Anais Mitchell’s lyrics to “Why We Build the Wall?” What about the artists behind “Moulin Rouge!,” anticipating the losses we were all about to share in the pandemic?
What about playing Jasmine in “Aladdin” and making a young person smile? Can you not produce an artistic act while working for the huge publicly held company known as Disney?
Sure you can. It is one thing to call for reforms in an industry, which, in all fairness, was certainly Olivo’s intention given that she was responding to the allegations against the producer Scott Rudin, whom an article in the Hollywood Reporter alleged had been a harsh and injurious boss. But it’s another to decry the one sector of the American theater that truly can support its artists so that they may live the kind of middle-class life that come so much easier to others.
The antipathy for the commercial sector of the theater, especially from the inside and often fueled by envy or elitism, is far from new. It was common in the 1990s for academics to look down on great commercial playwrights like Wendy Wasserstein, arguing without much evidence that working in a marketplace blunted their potential radicalism. And artists from the nonprofit sector long have railed against what they saw as compromises for popularity: Joseph Papp of the New York Public Theater famously hated the soppy Marvin Hamlisch song “What I Did For Love” in “A Chorus Line” and wanted it cut. Had that happened, far fewer people would have better understood the struggles of the dancer’s life. It was an entry point. It put a lot of dancers’ kids through college.