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How Broadway Connects the Arts and Activism

From the gravity of economic injustices to the anguish of race relations, Broadway has sought to provoke important conversations. Playwrights aware of pressing current events and major societal issues know the importance of sparking dialogue and integrating them into the stories they create.  Narratives meant to expose injustices have been woven into the plots of plays and musicals to educate audiences and initiate eminent discussions. Open and honest conversations on stage can build an atmosphere of shared awareness that can transform our world; or at least the minds of the Broadway theatergoer. “Theater is always political,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel in a 2017 interview. “Newspapers tell us the facts; plays tell us the emotional truth.” Here are five Broadway productions that told the truth, triggered debate, and inspired the activism of many.


RENT

The original Broadway cast of <i>RENT</i>. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The original Broadway cast of RENT. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This Tony-winning musical by the late Jonathan Larson explored the world of addiction and poverty exacerbated by the horrific HIV/AIDS epidemic. RENT arrived on Broadway in 1996, and at the time boldly challenged the perceptions of people similar to the show’s characters: young artists struggling through poverty, drug addiction, sexual identity, and AIDS. In an essay on Eclecta Blog, John Waite, a white male, explained how RENT birthed his activism. “Before RENT, I didn’t know what community was,” writes Waite. “I had some vague ideas about poverty and injustice…Although I watched the news every night, it never clicked with me that people living with disease and addiction were real people with real lives. I had no experience with racism or sexism. RENT didn’t just break the mold for a Broadway musical. It blew open doors in my mind.” RENT was not the first groundbreaking musical, but in the ’90s, a Broadway production featuring queer relationships, a diverse cast, and topics considered to be taboo, unlocked the door to a world of possibilities.


Fun Home

Original Broadway cast of <i>Fun Home</i>. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Original Broadway cast of Fun Home. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Nineteen years after RENT, Fun Home would be the first show on Broadway to feature a lesbian protagonist. While Broadway has illustrated gay characters since the 1960s, many of these shows have stuck to the issues of gay men. The Tony-winning musical, adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, exploded onto Broadway in 2015. Fun Home follows Alison’s coming of age and the discovery of her homosexuality while in the midst of processing her gay father’s internalized homophobia. While Fun Home was embraced on Broadway, it would be the show’s tour stops to more conservative towns that would prove important. In an essay written by Domenick Scudera, a professor at Ursinus College, he challenged students who refused to engage with Fun Home because of their Christian ideals to instead be open-minded. “[Fun Home] provides students the opportunity to explore the human experience from a myriad of perspectives.” Scudera writes. “Most of my students who have engaged with Fun Home find many connections and are moved by it.” While Fun Home offered lesbian theatergoers a chance to feel represented on stage, the musical has the possibility to expand the minds of those who dare to challenge their thinking.


Sweat

Johanna Day, Alison Wright, and Michelle Wilson in <i>SWEAT</i>. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Johanna Day, Alison Wright, and Michelle Wilson in Sweat. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In what the New Yorker calls “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump-era,” Sweat, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that addresses issues of economic inequality and racial fracturing, arrived on Broadway in 2017. Soon after Reading, PA topped the census’ poverty list in 2011, playwright Lynn Nottage began to make regular visits there in order to conduct interviews and research. There is where she found the inspiration for Sweat’s plot. Sweat follows a group of friends who have spent their lives working together in the same factory, but rumors of layoffs and the factory relocating stir up tension as the stories unfold. “Better than any of the political writing I’ve seen on the topic, the play manages to deal directly with these twin theories about what happened in the [2016 Presidential] election,” said MSNBC Anchor Chris Hayes in a 2017 interview with Variety. “One theory is about economic anxiety and the people who experienced downward mobility turning out at the voting booth. In the other, tribalism and bigotry, and racism are the explanation. ‘Sweat’ shows the ways that these pre-existing impulses of bigotry can be turned up, or supercharged, by economic pressures.”  As Americans prepare for the 2020 Presidential election amidst baseless accusations of voter fraud, actual voter suppression, and grappling with economic uncertainty, social unrest, and COVID-19, Sweat’s importance seems more apropos than ever.


American Son

Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, and Jeremy Jordan in <i>American Son</i>. Photo by Peter Cunningham.
Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, and Jeremy Jordan in American Son. Photo by Peter Cunningham.

Christopher Demos-Brown’s timely play, American Son opened on Broadway in 2018. The play follows a separated interracial couple confronted with two completely different societal and judicial experiences involving a routine traffic stop and the questionable arrest of their Black son. American Son holds a microscope to the complexity of pain many Black people have experienced surviving through the systematic bias in law enforcement. “[As] an African-American growing up in a predominantly white community — I was always struck by how different my experience and family narrative about police officers was from my white classmates and neighbors,” writer Alan Jenkins explains in an essay on his connection to American Son. “They viewed police as a source of comfort and potential rescue if they got in a jam. A traffic stop for them might result in a warning or, at worst, a ticket.” The show challenged its predominantly white Broadway audience to think deeply and empathetically about policing, racial profiling, and unequal justice under the law. It gave Black audience members an opportunity to have their experiences recognized and affirmed.


Jagged Little Pill

The cast of <i>Jagged Little Pill</i>. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The cast of Jagged Little Pill. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Jagged Little Pill is not your traditional jukebox musical. The show, written by Diablo Cody, is based on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit album of the same name and opened on Broadway in 2019. The musical uses Morissette’s music to weave the sensitivity of rape, generational trauma, opioid addiction, sexual fluidity, and racial identity delicately into a two-plus-hour production. The New York Times called it the “Most Woke Musical Since ‘Hair.’” “I’m proud of the ‘woke’ designation,” Cody details in an Atlantic interview. “I would rather have that than ‘the most tone-deaf, stuffy musical.’ When people say, ‘Wow, there are a lot of issues in the show,’ I say, ‘Thank you. Yes, there are. There are also a lot of issues in our lives.’” As Broadway continues to amplify these important social issues while prompting needed conversation and raising awareness, audiences must continue to work together to enlighten and address critical societal challenges at home and abroad.