THEATER TALK: Broadway Gets Biblical
I find it interesting that Christianity is so present on Broadway. Personally, I'm not a very religious individual, like many other members of my generation, I suspect, and it takes a certain kind of religious show for me not to bristle with discontent (I do have to commend "Next Fall" for handling the issue quite well). Religion, particularly Christianity, seems to be a pretty polarizing subject right now—people either love it or hate it. The division also seems to be correlated with political ideology; generally speaking (though there are individual outliers on both sides), the pious tend to be conservative politically, while the less devout tend to be more liberal. These are sweeping generalizations, but they tend to hold true.
Theater has long been a home for the liberal-minded, addressing major social issues far before other media, like film & TV, even start thinking about tackling the same issues. For example, even though heterosexual sex scenes have been commonplace on network TV for a while now, with "NYPD Blue" drawing flack for one in 1993, it wasn't until last fall on "Glee" that a homosexual sex scene occurred—and they even portrayed it tastefully! But in the same year the pilot of "NYPD Blue" featured a "racy" sex scene, "Angels in America" opened on Broadway, featuring a man seeking anonymous sex with another man in Central Park—and that play had opened two years prior in San Francisco.
Of course, Broadway tries to cater to the tastes of everyone, in order to make as much money as possible and have as large an audience as possible. Both "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" opened in 1971, and Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," which was gestating from the 60s, opened on Broadway in 1982. Christianity is certainly the best-represented religion on Broadway, with Judaism featured to a lesser extent, and Islam being practically nonexistent (while it may have been portrayed before, I cannot think of any instances, and apparently, neither can Google).
The UK's Guardian thinks that religion has no place on the Broadway stage. I personally don't know whether or not it belongs. I think there's room for it here and there, but I don't know if inundating Broadway with Christian-themed shows will necessarily pave the way for success. The aforementioned shows make up about 1/8 of the shows currently appearing or soon to appear on the Great White Way. While that's not an astronomically high percentage, it certainly seems like the Bible is more present than ever on Broadway.
Will this trend last? I doubt it, honestly. Certainly, "The Book of Mormon" will run for years, but I wouldn't be surprised if the other four shows struggle to find a market. It's a shame, because I'm sure they all have good things going for them (I haven't seen "Sister Act" or "Jesus Christ Superstar"), but such is the nature of Broadway. If there's no market for a show, or if it's poorly marketed, producers have little to no reason to keep it open. "Godspell" does have an advantage in that it is housed in the Circle in the Square Theatre, which, at 776 seats is much easier to fill than the house for "The Sister Act," the Broadway Theatre, which holds 1,761. "Godspell" has been steadily playing to around 75% capacity in 2012, compared with "Sister Act," which plays to about 50% capacity. Granted, other factors do play into it all ("Sister Act" grosses more per week, because it sells more tickets), such as ticket prices and weekly running costs.
I don't really believe that Broadway can support five religious-themed musicals at once. While they do fall all over the spectrum of portraying religious life, something has got to give. I don't know what it will be, or when, but I doubt Broadway can sustain this religious renaissance for much longer unless the rest of the country experiences a mass Christian revival.
Reach Katie here.