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Why Broadway Is Becoming Cool Again

Between Hamilton and a new ticket-buying app, the theatre has set its sights on a younger generation.

May 14, 2015

A few Fridays ago, I was on the F train and saw a slate of ads for TodayTix, a ticket-buying app that Forbes recently described as an "Uber for Broadway." The campaign was self-aware in its targeting of young New Yorkers, and, in my case, effective at getting jaded hate-reads during my groggy morning commute: "Theater for people who don't travel above 14th Street," "If you can swipe right, you can tap twice," so on and so forth. The next day, an ad for a new stage rendition of Matilda popped up on Hulu between episodes of Bob's Burgers: a montage of jubilant young adults belting a song called "When I Grow Up" with a swelling chorus about finally getting to eat all the junkfood you want and staying in bed all day. I was sold before I even realized it was an ad for the Broadway adaptation of one of my favorite Roald Dahl books/Danny DeVito vehicles.

I haven't been to the theater since around 2010, when a good friend and I saw Seven Minutes In Heaven, an off-broadway play about six hormonal high-school freshman at a basement house party in 1995. But years later, musical theater seems to be bowing to the sensibilities of young adults—not just with its marketing, but also with what it's billing. Hamilton, a profile on president Alexander Hamilton written with a colloquial voice, just closed its first run to universal acclaim. Written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it finds the young Puerto Rican playwright recasting historical biography over a hip-hop and pop-inspired score, to the glee of theater giants and newbies alike. (A Tweet from Cats and Phantom of the Opera creator Andrew Lloyed Weber: "Just seen #Hamilton; it raises & changes the bar for musicals.") The production has also been good for business: Hamilton buoyed interest in TodayTix through exclusive ticket lotteries, and according to the Forbes article, the app now boasts an average user of 32 years old, twelve years younger than the average Broadway viewer. As Lee Seymour notes for Forbes, "The importance of this gap can't be overstated, as the industry has struggled for years to attract a younger audience, and has been unsuccessful until TodayTix cracked the code."

Broadway may feel like a scene reserved for tourists and grandparents, but throughout eras past, the live stage has been recast to timestamp youth movements of the moment. In the late '60s, Hair captured flowerchild counter-culture and the anti-war sentiments of 20-somethings nationwide. In the '80s, Fame stormed the stage with the ever-relevant tale of the come-up through the eyes of Laguardia high schoolers. And the '90s saw Rent immortalize Alphabet City's last generation of starving artist bohemia, at the height of the late '80s AIDS crisis. It begs the question: will there—could there—be a definitive stage production for our touchscreen generation?

If there's anyone qualified to pen it, it's Miranda. The native New Yorker spent his teenage days writing poetry in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, and years later, a musical he wrote about his neighborhood—the heavily Latino nothern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights—changed his life. 2007's In The Heights, Miranda's first production, won four Tonys and was staged in five countries, and Hamilton seems poised for the same success. Miranda's edge could be his youth—at 35, he's younger than much of his audience. His authentic New York purview is also an asset: with few stones left unturned (or undeveloped) in New York City, Broadway might be the last institution that has remained culturally untouched since the city's glory days, littered with stages hungry for New York stories, played out on New York turf.

But truthfully, for as much filmed and recorded media as I consume on a weekly basis, the most alluring part of a night spent off Broadway might be the opportunity to unplug. You can go see a movie knowing a stream or download is probably a few clicks away at home, or go to a concert well aware that countless Snapchat accounts in the crowd are broadcasting all the fun you paid for to hundreds of friends that only halfway care. Despite the irony that it was a ticket-buying app that first caught my eye, a stage show feels like entertainment you have to invest in and work for, and might ultimately be more rewarding than another rap show or night at the club. It demands formality from its audience while leaning on the edge of chaos: the schadenfreudist in me feels like a flubbed line here or a false start there is part of the appeal, like the NASCAR crash you don't want to happen but are kind of waiting for. Even theater's barriers-to-entry—limited show runs, steep ticket prices—make the experience seem all the more, well, rare. With countless stories to tell and more platforms available to tell them than ever, the stage seems to be calling. I'll let you know how it goes if I actually get tickets.

Lead image: Joan Marcus for The Public Theater

Why Broadway Is Becoming Cool Again