Every year, the Broadway League releases a series of statistics about the role Broadway has played during the preceding season. How many people did it attract? What percentage were tourists? How many shows did the average person see? And so on and so forth. However, this year they released another report with a slightly different focus. Touring Productions. And the figures, well, there is one that is incredibly terrifying.
A musical tour in Australia is profoundly different to its American counterpart. Australian tours generally stop in Melbourne and Sydney, and if they are having a big impact on audiences will tack on Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. There have been attempts to travel further with Grease stopping in Tasmania, but at the moment the audiences just aren’t big enough. America is a completely different story.
With a population of over 300 million people, there are audiences scattered across the nation meaning many more stops for touring production. In fact, the first Wicked touring production just closed after TEN years touring around the one country. Now, that is impressive!
But that sounds pretty reassuring for touring theatre. So what is this terrifying statistic?
“92% of touring theatre audiences were Caucasian”
This statement raises major flags. While the universal theatrical messages may resonate with people of all ethnicities, the enormous majority of the people receiving exposure to these messages are Caucasian. Future sustainability of this entertainment form will only be achieved if the audiences become more diverse and far-reaching.
Stephen Sondheim was interviewed by Playbill a couple of weeks ago and when asked about the popular music of today he said “For me music has always been about harmonies. Most pop music today isn’t: it’s about rhythm, sonic values, performance and visceral reaction.”
While there are many issues with this statement, the one that stands out most in this context is the lack of understanding of varied audiences. Each culture has its own musical style and majority of them aren’t based around harmony. Some styles place emphasis on rhythmic and strong beating patterns to convey musical feeling. Others focus on the importance of words. For example, Lin Manuel Miranda has risen to enormous Book of Mormon-level fame because he has been able to tap into Hispanic and younger, edgier audiences. Rather than focussing on the soaring melodies found in traditional musical theatre, he creates songs deeply embedded in musical rap which resonate with different cultures much better than any other offerings.
In The Heights had the advantage of also reflecting this culture on stage with a story set in Washington Heights. Yet his latest musical, Hamilton, has also managed to create an enormous amount of buzz and universally satisfied audience members. The musical is based on the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the US founding fathers, who went from rebel to war hero, was involved in the country’s first sex scandal as Treasury head and made the public believe in the American economy.
This show could very easily be a classical musical using traditional techniques grounded in harmony. But it recasts the characters to a range of ethnicities and features a musical score fusion between hip-hop, r’n’b, classic music theatre and Miranda’s iconic wordplay.
The result? A show which resonates outside the traditional theatre audience and is encouraging incredibly diverse regional audiences into the theatre. That’s what happens when you look at incorporating different musical influences and that is ultimately what will keep theatre sustainable in an uncertain future!