In 2015, the theatre community was hit with a revolutionary musical that changed the way people were looking at theatre. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton sold out shows and won 11 Tony Awards. The show follows one of America’s founding fathers during the creation of modern politics in America. The diverse cast and the central role politics played in the musical was an innovation not seen in modern theatre. Politics is a topic in theatre that has been pushed aside and not dealt with correctly over the years due to the influence of today’s theatre audience.
Theatre has always had political narratives in its storytelling. From themes of racism, poverty and gang violence in West Side Story to all out political upheaval in Les Misérables. However, unlike other mediums where the political strife is forced to the surface and becomes the main narrative, theatre has hidden this political undertone behind love stories and drama, scaling down any political conflict. Political topics in theatre have been addressed by not being addressed at all. Musicals where political topics are the cornerstone of the show are also toned down, as seen in Hairspray where race relations are a huge part of the musical. However, bright scenery and upbeat songs downplay the horrors and struggles of the time and leave a lot to be desired in the eyes of those who were affected on a daily basis by segregation, and are still being affected by police violence and racial profiling.
In many ways, the political elements in a musical or play can be seen as pandering to the audience. Classism is not addressed and topics that affect working class citizens are rarely fleshed out on stage. Criticism of the life lead by influential and wealthy people is side tracked for unrealistic underdog stories. Political aspects have been watered down as these are not aspects of society that the fit with the theatre audience, which typically consists of upper class and influential people. Unlike other forms of media such as cinema, television and literature which have an almost universal fan base, theatre has managed to deviate from its origins and become a form of entertainment that caters entirely to the middle and upper classes.
In its origins with playwrights such as Socrates and Shakespeare, attendance was open to all classes and was used to entertain people of every background, informing on viewers the political landscape of the time and depicting struggles of daily life. This has changed significantly with modern theatre attendance. Now with the average Broadway ticket costing $125.70, attendance is not feasible for many people. The cost of attendance has only increased in the last number of years leading to a more limited audience. It is not a luxury the average person can afford or justify due to the inflated price tag.
It is not only the high ticket prices that have isolated the theatre from a diverse audience. The excessively ornate venues and the elitist attitudes in the theatre can make the medium an uncomfortable entertainment form for many people. The shows on offer have been created to pandering to a higher class of audience and are not written with the working class people in mind. The shows display a different type of life and entertainment than people are used to. When their way of life is not shown on stage they have little to relate to in the cast. Their struggles are being downplayed for trivial entertainment creating little desire for attendance. The lack of attendance results from the inability for theatre to change this narrative. In other media, the voices of the people have affected great change, creating more diverse films, shows and popular culture while theatre is still being held back.
Other aspects in theatre have begun to change with more diverse cast choices but it is in the material itself wherein the biggest change is needed. Politics today is in more turmoil than ever but this is not reflected on the stage as the audience of the theatre does not reflect society.