And that will surely be just. With #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and other epochal changes roiling American life, the theater has finally begun to speak openly about its foundational and continuing inequities. Sometimes the talk is just lip service, to make certain, as toothless statements on company web sites attest. But greater than ever, practitioners and critics are asking difficult questions on how we make actors, how we make plays, how we make seasons, how we make cash — briefly, how we make theater.
It’s about time. For too long the industry has accepted every kind of impropriety and unfairness because the supposedly inevitable cost of greatness. It has tolerated working conditions and wages that in some cases approach the Dickensian. For the sake of profit or what we glorify because the demands of art, it has laughed as bullies just like the producer Scott Rudin terrorized their underlings, and has winked on the sexual misdeeds of men like Harvey Weinstein. In the method, the theater — like most other art forms but perhaps more intensely — has found a neat solution to keep its doors largely shut to those that by reason of race, class or connection should not already a part of the club.
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Only recently has anyone been called to account, as a trickle of public allegations and cloudy repercussions have sidelined the playwright and artistic director Israel Horovitz, the director Gordon Edelstein, the casting director Justin Huff, the actor Kevin Spacey and the costume designer William Ivey Long. Actually, Long, who has denied accusations of sexual abuse by not less than two former assistants, isn’t so sidelined; though he “parted ways” with the production of “Diana, the Musical” in 2020, his work on that show has nevertheless been nominated for a Tony Award on the ceremony honoring achievement within the theater on Sunday, June 12.
But possibly, within the wake of the existential crisis of Covid-19, when the ingrained practices of many years ground to a sudden halt, we’re finally approaching an inflection point. What’s on the opposite side of that inflection is value enthusiastic about, including the potential advantages — and costs — of the fairer theatrical future many individuals are working hard to create. It’s a future wherein pay transparency and equity, humane treatment of staff, respectful training of every kind of scholars, diversity in employment in addition to in product are crucial parts of the image.
And wherein sacred monsters aren’t.
Still, if we’re approaching a Great Man Götterdämmerung — if those monsters, a few of them superb at what they do, are finally starting to face the music — we’d higher look closely on the tune. What are we losing after we banish them? What are we losing if we don’t?
AS IT HAPPENS, the history of musicals is an excellent place to hunt answers. In the best way that musical theater incorporates and exaggerates all of the qualities (and problems) of nonmusical theater, so too have the lads we reflexively call the Broadway musical greats — the creators and directors and choreographers behind classics like “Oklahoma!,” “Gypsy,” “Chicago” and others — incorporated and exaggerated the traits of Strasberg and his ilk.