40 Years of Broadway:
The Culture Shifters
Over the past 40 Years, I've seen dozens of huge hits come and go. Really big hits. They run for what feels like forever. In fact, nine of the ten longest running Broadway shows either had the majority of their run or the entire run during the last four decades. These long runs are certainly testament to their popularity, but even with all that, most are not works that caused a cultural awareness beyond Times Square.
During my time with Broadway shows there have been exactly three shows that entered the American theater zeitgeist: A Chorus Line, Rent and Hamilton. Don't misunderstand. Cats, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera and the like were and are popular works with legions of fans, but the other three became part of the cultural fabric of the world that goes far beyond fandom and financial success.
They have several commonalities. They all started off-Broadway and transferred for commercial runs. Two started at the Public Theater, the third at New York Theatre Workshop.
One can't help but notice even their physical similarities in their logos, advertising and even an element of their stagings.
All three have had similar critical acclaim and awards:
- A Chorus Line: 12 Tony nominations, 9 wins, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book; Pulitzer Prize for Drama
- Rent: 10 Tony nominations, 4 wins, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book; Grammy Award; Pulitzer Prize for Drama
- Hamilton: 16 Tony nominations, 11 wins, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book; Grammy Award; Pulitzer Prize for Drama
But there are quite a few other important things about these shows that make them culturally significant:
- They are of their time and timeless. Their stories were contemporary, but their meaning will resonate long after we are gone. Think Shakespeare.
- They are about "everyday people." I know, you are thinking, "not every one is an aspiring dancer, Bohemian millennial or a Founding Father." But think about it, they are all common people of their time period. They all have goals and dreams; some achieve, some fail, but all are part of something bigger than themselves.
- They represent significant strides in non-traditional casting, breaking ground in terms of sexual identity, gender identity, and ethnicity. Each pushed the envelope.
- All three address their issues head-on, honestly and without shame. These characters have our problems and deal with them; we can identify with them on a human level. They were about representation
- They have had lives in other media, enabling them to reach beyond the Broadway audience. Talk shows, variety shows, film versions. They are so well known, that they are part of sitcom jokes, referenced in TV dramas, and part of shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. People who never go to the theater understand the jokes and references.
Like Oklahoma!, West Side Story and Hair before them, all three are genuine game-changers.