Oscar Hammerstein II had a way with words. In 1953, the lyricist collaborated with composer Richard Rodgers on “Me and Juliet,” a big Broadway musical about (what else but?) a big Broadway musical. In it, he described a theater audience as a “big black giant who looks and listens with thousands of eyes and ears … and ev’ry night the mixture’s diff’rent, altho’ it may look the same.”
Ponder Hammerstein’s words the next time you take your seat in one of Broadway’s 41 theaters. Just who is the person sitting next to, in front of and behind you? Come to think of it, who are you?
The Broadway League’s most recent demographics report, “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2017–2018,” can clue you in.
First off, more than half of all playgoers in the survey—63 percent of the 13.8 million attendees at a Broadway show, to be precise—were visitors to the city. Forty-eight percent came from the United States (excluding NYC and its suburbs) and 15 percent of them from abroad.
What might an out-of-towner choose to see? Something grand and emotionally engaging. Something that epitomizes the glitz and glamour of the Broadway experience. Something like “The Phantom of the Opera,” now in its mind-boggling 32nd year on the Great White Way. The razzle-dazzle of “Chicago” has no language barrier, while “Wicked,” another long-running crowd-pleaser, offers spectacle to spare and showstopping songs that rattle the rafters.
With an average age of 40.6, audiences skewed 65 percent female that season. Since seven musicals currently on the boards put strong female protagonists squarely in the spotlight, it’s not hard to see why these shows strike a chord with this group in the #MeToo, Time’s Up era. In the revival of “My Fair Lady,” an independent-minded Eliza Doolittle gets the best of chauvinistic Henry Higgins. Likewise the heroine of “King Kong” is no shrinking violet: When her captor roars, she roars back. In bio musicals, “Beautiful—The Carole King Musical” and “The Cher Show,” real-life female entertainers overcome obstacles to reach the top of their male-dominated profession. Sure, women still fall in and out of love onstage, but in “Pretty Woman: The Musical” and “Waitress,” they do so on their terms. No woman is the same person at the end of these shows as she is at curtain-up. And that kind of journey resonates with female audiences.
Not surprisingly, audiences surveyed were educated, with 81 percent having completed college. To fuel their brain cells, there’s no dearth of dramatic food for thought on the boards. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” voted the best-loved novel in the United States and a staple of syllabi from sea to shining sea, is one of the biggest hits, critically and commercially, this season. History and political science majors can debate “What the Constitution Means to Me” and go behind the scenes of the marriage of “Hillary and Clinton.” Literature majors can and do analyze “King Lear,” for hours, dissecting 83-year-old Glenda Jackson’s performance as Shakespeare’s greatest tragic figure.
Twenty-two years ago, the first “Harry Potter” book turned a generation of kids on to reading. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the play, is having a similar effect: It’s turning the young on to live theater. A record 2.1 million children and teens under 18 saw a Broadway show in 2017–2018. These are the audiences of the future, and Broadway knows how to nurture them. For a child’s first show, look no further than Disney’s “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Frozen.” For high schoolers, a Golden Age has arrived. All the pertinent issues confronting them in life—social media, teenage angst, bullying, sexual identity—are explored entertainingly and compassionately in “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Be More Chill,” “Mean Girls” and “The Prom.”
With a Broadway show for every demographic, now’s the time to add your eyes and ears to Hammerstein’s “big black giant.”