Straphanger’s Lament

Come hell or high water – or, y’know, civil war and plague – the Powers That Be are dead set on Broadway reopening and getting back to normal.  We already saw the opening of a few new shows back in August; this week, prominent musicals such as Hamilton, Wicked, and The Lion King all resumed performances.  These are the shows that bring in the tourist dollars, the ones that serve as a major cornerstone of this city’s economy.  As a result, their reopening has been heavily publicized, the notion that Broadway is Back for Business being a rallying cry to shout to the heavens, as loudly and boisterously as possible.

Even to straphangers just trying to get to work.

After a long stretch of time working remotely (again, there’s that whole plague thing), I finally had occasion last week to make a normal, Monday morning commute.  As part of my work commute, I need to change trains at the busy transit hub of Atlantic Avenue, switching from the D train to the 4/5 line.  As I made my way through the subterranean passages, I heard a piercing scream behind me.  No, not a scream, exactly – more like a chant.  In any event, it was loud and disorienting, and when you ride the subway your instinct is to try and ignore those sorts of sounds and forge ahead as quickly as possible.  Nevertheless, I kept hearing it – this wail, plaintive yet demanding.  I looked around, only to find there was nobody where I thought the sound was coming from.  Nothing but air.  I kept going, from one platform to another, and still I heard this disembodied voice.

Then I stopped and realized what the disembodied voice was saying.  Or rather, singing:

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba.

I paused, and thought to myself.

Is that…is that The Lion King?  Who’s singing The Lion King at eight thirty in the morning?  There’s nobody around…are they broadcasting that?  Over the P.A. system?  Why would they be playing Disney movies…oh wait, it’s also a Broadway show…it reopens this week…oh, right, Broadway is back.  Yay.

Yes, the Powers That Be are so keen on heralding the return of Broadway that they’re doing it literally – running a promotional campaign thru the MTA, using that familiar opening chant to kick off an announcement that we can all start buying tickets to live theatre again.  And while I understand their motivaton – there’s a lot of money to be made from those particular tickets – I do believe they’re a little misguided in their thinking.

For one thing, taking the subway makes you grumpy in the best of times.  Given the times we’re living in now – you know, that aforementioned civil war and plague – the average straphanger is going to want nothing more than quiet for their commute.  Any disruption puts us on edge, so disembodied voices belting show tunes are particularly hard on our already frazzled nerves.

Furthermore, using The Lion King to announce the return of Broadway speaks to a highly limited view of what Broadway is.  They’re not playing Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Stephen Sondheim, or Lin-Manuel Miranda over those loudspeakers.  (Not that I want them to, but still.) No, it’s the opening of a Disney cartoon, adapted for the stage to appeal to tourists and families for whom those Disney cartoons are their only point of reference.  I mean, it’s a fine Disney movie, and a fine adaptation – but as the bars of music you’re selecting to represent all of Broadway?  It suggests a mindset, and a business model, stuck in those days of the late 90s when – with great fanfare and tremendous cultural cost – Broadway was “Disneyfied,” turned into a playground for the wealthy.  That’s not the moment we’re in at all, and you’re not going to change that reality any time soon – so isn’t it better to try and adapt to that new reality, find artistic ways to respond to it, rather than pretend it’s still twenty-five years ago, and all the many intervening crises never happened?

Of course, it’s entirely possible I’m reading too much into this, and I should just sing a quick chorus of “Hakuna Matata” and go on my way.

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