Imagine that you’re at the Times Square TKTS booth looking for a Broadway show to see. You glance up at the board and notice four conspicuous titles: “The Office: The Musical,” “Cubicle!,” “Office Space, a New Musical” and “David Mamet’s ‘Watercooler.’”
“Huh,” you think. “Four shows about offices? That’s a lot. It looks like Broadway has run out ideas.”
Well, such an event is happening right now — right under our noses. Just swap out “office” for “high school.” There are currently four shows running on Broadway that take place in American high schools: “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Mean Girls,” “The Prom” and the just-opened “Be More Chill.”
Some say this is a sign that Broadway is finally embracing young people. Is it, though? When Neil Patrick Harris famously hosted the Tony Awards in 2013 — before any of those musicals arrived on the Great White Way — he began the ceremony with a rap by Lin-Manuel Miranda about Broadway-lovin’ youths.
“There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere sitting there, living for Tony performances singin’ and flippin’ along with the Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkys, Matildas and Mormonses,” he rhymed. “So we might reassure that kid, and do something to spur that kid. ‘Cause I promise you all of us up here tonight: We were that kid.”
Indeed we were. Growing up, today’s twenty-and-thirtysomethings loved “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “Sweeney Todd,” “The Last Five Years” and many more shows that had no scenes set in cafeterias, computer labs or other blase places we once frequented. I suspect many young people still do. But ever since the success of “Dear Evan Hansen” — and “High School Musical” on TV before that — Broadway has gone full-blown literal when it comes to teens: To get them to our theaters we must straightforwardly present the minutiae of their routines. Great.
The shows’ quality runs the gamut. The Tony Award-winning “Dear Evan Hansen” is an excellent, well-performed drama that’s as much about a mother’s love as is it is about study hall. “Mean Girls” has Tina Fey’s funny book, but forgettable songs. “The Prom” is sweet, but predictable and derivative. And “Be More Chill” is an ungodly tough watch that manages to be screechy, preachy and offensive. That’s the show that pushed this tedious trend over the edge.
We’ve arrived at the moment when this sort of targeted programming is beginning to feel condescending, artless and repetitive. Most of these shows resemble the hallways of John Hughes more than they do 2019, are paired with the most basic “be yourself,” after-school-special morals and are told with syrupy pop songs that are as close to today’s Top 40 as Sheena Easton.
This isn’t a “Get off my lawn!” column. Teens should absolutely be going to Broadway shows, and having a blast at them. My friend’s 14-year-old son flew from Chicago just to see the one Broadway show he was most excited for: “Network,” featuring Bryan Cranston, infidelity, complex theories on media and outlandish Belgian staging. And not a single musical number set during math class.
See, Broadway can learn something from this coveted audience whose imagination has not yet been squashed by the grind of Corporate America: Be More Creative!
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