Wait… I’m Confused
Don’t blame them for being confused.
Over eight million people call New York City home, hustling and bustling on the island and in the surrounding boroughs day in and day out. But there is another population that makes up a large part of the city in fluctuating degrees throughout the year. We complain about them, we hate walking behind them, and we often blame them for everything…but at the end of the day, we need them. They are the tourists who come to New York City to experience the sights and sounds of one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. They populate our hotels, they frequent our popular restaurants and nightlife hot spots, and most importantly for the enthusiasts of this blog, they are the lifeblood of the Broadway and Off-Broadway theatre communities. New Yorkers will go to see the shows, but unless you’re like me with the recent Off-Broadway productions of Fun Home and Bare, most of us will see it once and then move on. Tourists are the ones that keep shows afloat, and so in order to fully understand their perspective in the world of new musical theatre, this writer had to go undercover.
And by undercover, I mean my day job.
After a few years in the restaurant industry (a familiar field for many of us), a series of fortunate and random events led to me becoming a NYC hotel concierge. My entire job is about helping tourists experience the city and of course, a big part of that involves guiding guests through New York’s thriving theatre scene. I’ve heard all the requests, I’ve answered all the questions, and through it all I’ve learned one thing about the typical tourist when it comes to NYC Theatre: they’re pretty darn confused.
A surprisingly typical interaction goes something like this:
Older Woman calls me at my desk.
Woman: I am coming to NYC for the first time next week and I’m staying at your hotel. I was wondering if you could help me get tickets to “The Broadway.”
Kevin: (with a grin spreading across my face): I definitely can help you with tickets for “the Broadway”…did you have a specific show you wanted to see?
Woman: I want to see Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing…they’re doing something, right?
Kevin: Yes, ma’am. “It’s Only a Play.”
Woman (hesitating): Well, that’s fine…I want to go to the matinee on [the date]…
(Kevin calls his ticket agent and gets the bad news)
Kevin: Ma’am, I’m sorry but that performance is pretty much completely sold out. The only tickets available are premium seats and they are quite expensive, over $400 a ticket…
Woman: No, those will be in the orchestra section. I’ll take Mezzanine—
Kevin: Ma’am, the show is sold out. There are no seats available except for the premium seats…
Woman: What is it that other Broadway shows give you that I’m missing?
Kevin (confused): I’m sorry, what?
Woman: Well, more than $400 seems like a pretty insane price to pay for any performance, especially if “it’s only a play.” Do musicals give you like a souvenir or something?
Kevin: I…um…(realizing) No, ma’am, the show they are in is called “It’s Only A Play.” It’s the title of the show.
Woman: Oh okay, I’m sorry—I was confused—
Kevin: We almost just did the “Who’s on First” routine there…
Woman: So it’s a musical?
Kevin: No, it’s a play that is called “It’s Only a Play.”
Woman: Okay, that was confusing…but we’re back on the same page.
Kevin: Glad to hear it.
Woman: So I’ll take two tickets in the Mezzanine—
Kevin (face-palm): Ma’am, I think you’re still a bit confused…
Similar instances have included a guest who fervently argued that Kristin Chenoweth was the current star of Beautiful and a man who demanded I get him front row tickets for Annie on Broadway starring Cameron Diaz (“um…I saw the commercials! What do you mean it’s not on Broadway?”).
So basically, when it comes to New York City Theatre, the rest of the country (for the most part) is pretty confused. But where does this confusion come from? Not so long ago, in the “Golden Age of Broadway,” the general public didn’t just know about Broadway…they were hearing the songs on the radio. The music of greats like Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Rodgers and Hammerstein were the popular songs of the day, played in private homes and in public establishments. Later, the hit songs of composers like Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber were covered by some of the biggest names in the recording industry. The impact of Broadway reached far beyond the lights of the stage and permeated everyday life. How did things change?
Obviously, the world changed with the advances in technology and the ever-expanding kaleidoscope of entertainment options available today. With the rise of motion pictures, TV, and online content, the place of Musical Theatre as a major player in today’s world has been challenged. To survive, Broadway has for the most part adopted the “blending method,” fusing musically with pop music and utilizing popular musician’s songbooks for a “familiar score” or else repackaging movies and popular commodities as blockbuster musicals. And it’s worked; walk through the theatre district and you’ll see the proof in the lasting marquees: Wicked, Beautiful, Mamma Mia, and Jersey Boys just to name a few (and seriously, the list goes on…and on). Broadway is still filled with amazing talent and passion onstage and off, but the reverse side of “commercial success” by the “blending method” is a loss of the individual identity that cemented Musical Theatre as a thriving, unique, American art form. Plus, with the bigger stars and the bigger thrills comes a bigger price tag that funnels down to the price of tickets. The public sees Broadway as an expensive “live movie” experience where movie stars and TV stars join the kick line with the Broadway royalty who have made a name for themselves in LA as much as NYC. The lines between stage and screen have become blurred and the general public is a little lost in the fog.
As a friendly concierge, I will do my best in the trenches to alleviate the confusion. And thankfully, shows like If/Then, Fun Home, and The Book of Mormon continue to carry the torch for productions that embody the unique brand of entertainment that makes Musical Theatre a distinctive form of entertainment and an unforgettable experience for both New Yorkers and tourists alike. But as the “blending method” continues to dominate the theatre landscape, the confusion will continue.
The solution? It seems to be shrouded in mist as well, but I think that there are a few things we can do to combat the confusion: Support original theatre, celebrate the positives of commercial theatre, and most of all, forgive the tourists for their confusion. And the next time you’re fuming while you’re stuck behind a woman with a camera meandering and taking pictures of everything, just remember: All the world’s a stage…so please don’t kill the audience.
Check out Part 2 of the Concierge Series to see a concierge in action and plan a full Broadway adventure!