Tony Awards 2012: Once, Book of Mormon, and How To Make Millennials Care About Broadway

When was the last time you heard your twenty-something BFF/BF/GF rave about that awesome performance they saw last week at that little black box theater on Main Street? Or gush about the life-altering theatrical experience that was [insert Broadway production here]? Outside the great city of the Great White Way and the theater community itself, those comments, once rampant among young adults in the early heyday of shows like Rent, Cats, A Chorus Line, and Phantom of the Opera have now seemingly faded almost to a whisper upon the lips of the millennial generation. That is, except perhaps for occasions like last night’s performance-packed and glittering 66th annual Tony Awards, fondly dubbed “Fifty Shades of Gay” by host Neil Patrick Harris. Yet, just how many twenty and thirty-somethings do you know who clamored to tune in to the night’s festivities, sacrificing prime Sunday night viewing of the season finale of Mad Men or the steamy ensanguined season premiere of True Blood? Even with Hairspray earning its sea legs with a live medley performance aboard Royal Caribbean International, arguably the general Tony buzz among Generation Y remained at a barely audible murmur. This comes as no surprise given the Broadway League’s research revealing that of the 12.3 million Broadway theatergoers from 2010-2011, the vast majority of patrons were over the age of 44, further aging Broadway attendance from previous seasons. However, despite lamentable evidence that the embers are cooling on the fervor of Broadway’s best (and some might say theater in general) for the young adult audience, theater can be relevant to millennials, that is, when millenials are relevant to the theater being produced.

The box office blockbuster success of last season’s nine-time Tony Award-winning production of The Book of Mormon catapulted South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone into near instantaneous stage success with their irreverent musical comedy parodying the Latter Day Saints’ predominant religious group. The South Park creators dug their heels into their satirical, anti-PC niche, winning Tonys and the adoration of young fans who could identify with their edgy humor and raw lampooning of taboo topics. This year, the marked success of the new musical Once, which took home eight awards and followed in the footsteps of its cheeky predecessor to include Best Musical, underscored a youthful thread on Broadway and in some major regional theaters. While Mormon traces two 19-year-old missionaries dispatched to proselytize a community of skeptical Ugandans, Once follows a week in the lives of amorous young lovers united by music and young love itself in a Dublin bar. Red which won the 2010 award for Best Play and has been traveling the regional circuit, pits old guard against new chronicling painter Mark Rothko’s struggles to accept his waning relevance and the rise of a new generation of artist elites represented by his young apprentice. The American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) closes its season with the twelve-time Tony-nominated musical The Scottsboro Boys and with nine Tony nominations and five wins last night, Peter and the Starcatcher is the epitome of youth, adapting the tale of the immortal Peter Pan and his adventures in Never Land.

Though wildly distinct thematically, the productions smack of a youth that comes as a refreshing breeze and nod to young audiences as theaters seek to attract younger patrons to fill seats and ebb the graying wave of American theatergoers. Schemes like pay-your-age and pay-what-you-can provide infrastructure for gaining a young adult base restrained by an unwillingness to shell out the big bucks for a performance. If successful, these schemes engender an appreciation of the art that encourages continued patronage later. But cheap tickets alone are not enough to lure the millennial masses. Cue the entrance of successful interactive ventures like the Argentinean Fuerza Bruta: Look Up, an underwater, under-glass spectacle, and the ever-popular British hit Speak No More, Punchdrunk theater company’s derivative production of Macbeth that invites audiences to sniff out a trail of blood through a maze of rooms in an abandoned warehouse-turned-deserted hotel. Called a “movable orgy” by the New York Times, the production entices with the prospect of an experiential encounter that allows audiences to shape their preferred journeys through the bloodbath (literally given the preponderance of bathtubs throughout the hotel). Some argue that the wide appeal of these emerging interactive theatrical experiences signals a major shift for live performance in an era of rapid innovation in cinematography, video games, and television. So can traditional drama keep up, particularly with the on-the-go, eager-to-be-pleased lads and lasses of Generation Y? Outside of the artistically avant garde and interactive, some theaters and performance venues are adapting spaces for greater interaction to do just that.

By making millenials a priority in programming, affordable ticketing, and the incorporation of social networking, many theaters are making notable strides towards keeping theater relevant. In targeting young theatergoers and the social networking savvy, organizations like the Carolina Ballet have added special sections of “tweet seats” that allow avid tweeters to take to their networks and broadcast their thoughts on that jaw-dropping opening number, or that designer’s abysmal costume choice in Act Four. The Dayton Opera’s “Friday Night Tweet Seats” are even paired with a pre-show networking event to allow young professionals to rub elbows on the Opera’s dime in hopes that young attendees will be converted into future regular opera-goers and spread the word.

Narcissistic though it may seem, millennials crave a reflection of themselves in everything from movies that overwhelmingly concentrate on teen and young adult themes, to the plethora of social networks that cater to the need to be heard in even the most mundane circumstances. (OMG. Why is this line so long at Apple right now? #firstworldproblems.) To this end, even revivals of classics like Mike Nichols’ Death of a Salesman, which took home Best Director and Best Play Revival, not only speaks to our parents’ generation, but also resonate with millennials likewise grappling with the effects of a debilitating Recession. When theaters take this need to cry “mirror, mirror,” into account, they will be better prepared to cultivate a valuable young adult demographic.

Speaking recently with Zelda Fichandler, a proclaimed trailblazer of the regional theater movement, it is apparent that one thing has not changed since the late 1950s when a band of merry women and men teamed up together to make high-quality regional theater a reality outside the Great White Way. Pioneers of institutions like the Gutherie in Minneapolis or the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, which won this year’s Regional Theater Tony Award, were constantly challenged to ask ‘what if ... ?’ What if we started a regional theater movement that would swell to include every major city in the U.S.?  What if we wrote a musical comedy that satirizes religious zeal and dated portrayals of Africa? What if we created “tweet seats” that encouraged patrons to ::gasp:: keep their phones on after curtain up? Theaters, large and small, whether on Broadway or down Main Street, U.S.A., must be able to seize the opportunity to engage and reflect young audiences in new ways by doing precisely what theater does best—holding up the looking glass and daring young audiences to take a peek.  And if there's one thing our generation is good at, it’s speaking up, out, and everywhere in between. 

So when was the last time you saw a show and tweeted about it? How much it made you laugh? How fast you bee-lined for the exit sign at intermission? Whatever it is you have to say; say something. The theaters that stay afloat, that stay relevant to this generation and the next, are going to be the theaters who have practiced the art of listening, of wondering what if, and of taking the time to say hasa diga eebowai to some of the high and mighty gods of traditions past, to foster lasting relationships with a young theatergoing population. Only when millennials are truly a priority to the art will the art become, and remain, a priority to them.