At this especially divisive time in America’s political history, what do we want from the theater? Do we want it to engage with civic issues or distract from them? Do we want provocation or escape?
And if we want a little of both, then what’s the right balance?
You could definitely ask those questions about Broadway this season. For every politically conscious play or musical (“Sweat”, “Come From Away”), there’s another that skews toward pure entertainment (“Groundhog Day”, “The Play That Goes Wrong”). But which ones are capturing the zeitgeist? Which Broadway productions are giving audiences what they need?
For insight, I decided to study my fellow Show-Score members. Scouring reviews of this year’s Tony-nominated shows, I looked for the words that appeared most often, hoping for a little insight on our collective tastes and preferences.
Immediately, I noticed that the word “Entertaining” was used far more than any other -- 2897 times, in fact. Granted, a light comedy and a serious drama can both be entertaining in their own way, so there’s no guarantee that this word means exactly the same thing to everyone. What’s striking, though, is that so many people value being entertained, however they define it.
When it comes to Tony-nominated musicals, members also prize “Great Singing” (2086 uses), and they want both plays and musicals to have “Great Acting” (1940 uses). Taken together with “Entertaining,” these top three adjectives suggest that no matter what it’s about, audiences want a production to be high quality.
Next came “Absorbing”, used 1782 times. This is interesting, because the word implies something a bit more serious. In what way were members absorbed? To me, this suggests that even if they’re watching a serious drama, Show-Score members want to forget the world outside for a while.
And consider this: Escapist terms like “Must see”, “Clever”, “Delightful” and “Funny” were collectively used 13,885 times in member reviews of Tony nominees. Meanwhile, more sober descriptors like “Relevant”, “Thought-Provoking”, “Profound”, and “Resonant” only totaled 1724 uses.
So, in the end, when members talk about the 2017 Tony Nominees, they note a production’s quality much more often than its themes. I would argue this speaks volumes to our reasons for going to the theater this year. We are interested, of course, in issues and arguments and provocative ideas, but we’re especially hungry for skilled entertainers who can delight us with their craft.
Is this how you feel about going to the theater? I’d love to hear your take on how the Show-Score community is connecting with Broadway right now.