Broadway’s dilemma: A hypocritical relationship with the working class

photo of a play
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Nothing beats live theater. The animated murmur as people rush to their seats, dissipating to a hush the second the orchestra tunes to concert pitch. Red velvet curtains and chairs deepening an already dim room, having sat through many shows themselves. Theater has this special ability to push one’s suspension of belief to its absolute zenith, granting little time to come back down by the time the curtains close. A live show can leave you broken, mended or just delighted — but never empty. 

As noted by essayist Charles Lamb in 1823, “We do not go (to the theater) like our ancestors, to escape from the pressure of reality, so much as to confirm our experience of it.” While in the past, live theater was reserved for the fall of “Oedipus the King,” the past two centuries have seen a rise in appreciation for the “Death of a Salesman. Plays have become infinitely more relatable to the working class. Even the pure camp retelling of a man-eating plant in “Little Shop of Horrors” maintains an underlying theme of class struggle, singing “Put in your eight hours/ For the powers that have always been” in the opening song, “Skid Row.” Despite these stories capitalizing on the proletariat, the people who inspire these stories will most likely never be able to see them. 

According to the Broadway League’s record of audience demographics in 2018, the average theater audience member earned an annual household income of $261,000, placing them within the top 10% wealthiest households in America. Aside from the stories being told, the current Broadway landscape is anything but relatable. This is largely due to dynamic pricing, raising and lowering ticket prices at any given time based on supply and demand. If the wealthy are willing to pay exorbitant prices for a ticket, why would producers discourage them? 

No matter the subject, no show is exempt from the strategy. The 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences” — the story of a Black waste collector in the 1950s struggling with social mobility and the ever-changing times — starred both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. With big-ticket names come big ticket prices, averaging around $130 per ticket and maxing out at $435. 

The problematic nature of this issue becomes more apparent when directly compared to a show set on the same island as Broadway. When “In the Heights” debuted in the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2011, 66% of the households in the show’s namesake, Washington Heights, earned below $100,000, nearly half the average income of a typical Broadway audience member that year. The story centers around the young bodega owner Usnavi and the interlaying aspirations of his community. Chances are, if Usnavi were real, he wouldn’t have been able to see his own show.

This is a far cry from the theater days of yore. Ancient Greek theater was generally free to the public. Theater started as an affordable form of entertainment for all who wished to partake. Roman theater continued the tradition of free general admission, and by the Elizabethan era, the term “groundling” was formed to describe the audience members who paid just a penny for a ticket to see the works of Shakespeare. 

As the years went on, a sort of reversal happened in the theater world. Back when the subjects of live theater were gods and royalty — “Antigone” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” come to mind — economic status was a negligible factor in one’s ability to attend the show. Now, in some Wayward Sister twist of fate, tickets peak at an alarming $598 for one of the most popular shows on Broadway this season, “Waitress,” portraying a modest waitress confronting the very real struggles of women and motherhood.  

Skyrocketing prices to accommodate the upper class are not a testament to a lack of interest from the working class. Outside of physically going to shows, Broadway is bigger than ever. Music streaming services such as Spotify grant those without the time or money to travel to New York the ability to indulge in musicals anywhere, any time. Spotify’s Newsroom reported an 81% increase in streaming of the Broadway genre from 2012 to 2018.  

In the past couple of decades, many plays and musicals have been successfully translated into the exceedingly more accessible movie format. “Fences” went to film in 2016, once again starring Washington and Davis. The film garnered Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Actor, as well as the award for Best Supporting Actress for Davis. The July 2021 release of “Hamilton” on Disney+ led to a spike in the subscription service’s sales, earning viewership from an estimated 6.8 million people in the first 3 days — easily exceeding the estimated 2.6 million that have been fortunate enough to see the show on Broadway. 

Now, the relationship between Broadway and the working class is largely in the hands of the producers. While some economic success can be found in favoring the rich, the maintained application of dynamic pricing will continue to drive away the very people who have inspired their stories.

Contact Afton Okwu at [email protected].