Howard Sherman: How Broadway can reclaim Broadway by taking to the streets

A man dressed as Ironman poses with bunnies in Times Square. Photo: Howard Sherman
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They are, to many, the scourge of Times Square and the theatre district. I refer not to the prostitutes and three-card monte hustlers of 25 years ago. They’ve long since been exiled to the outer reaches of our tourism mecca.

Now, thanks to the pedestrian plazas created along Broadway between 47th and 42nd Streets under our former mayor Michael Bloomberg, visitors and theatregoers often must run a gauntlet of unauthorised Marvel superheroes, Sesame Street characters, and cartoons come to life in order to reach their destination. Oh, and I can’t forget the desnudas, the topless women whose bodies are painted in patriotic red, white and blue.

It wasn’t so long ago that the only regular character in Times Square was the blonde-tressed, muscularly defined Naked Cowboy, posing on traffic medians with tourists for tips while clad in nothing but a cowboy hat, a guitar, boots and a double layer (per news reports) of tighty-whitie undershorts. But the greater pedestrian spaces in the new plazas allowed the situation to mushroom, into roving hordes of often ratty knock-off characters aggressively soliciting passers-by to pose for photos and then compensate them with tips.

Over the summer, the situation reached a fever pitch of outrage, particularly towards the desnudas, with a series of affronted front pages in the New York Daily News. This led politicians to posture about how they proposed to limit this activity, ranging from impinging on free speech rights to tearing up the still-unfinished plazas themselves. As someone who works in the heart of Times Square, I tend to look at the characters – both those in costume and those in public office – with a sense of bemusement. The only people I truly feel for are parents trying to keep their children away from these low-rent facsimiles, who tend to remove their character heads (or don robes) whenever someone doesn’t seem ready to shell out for a photo, destroying many a toddler’s dreams.

It can be a nuisance when you’re late and Hello Kitty is beckoning

It is a little hard to call the situation a quality of life issue in an area largely devoid of residential property, but it can be annoyance when you’re late to a meeting and have to dodge Hello Kitty beckoning with open arms in order to make it to the next crosswalk. I confess that it has always surprised me that Disney (which controls not only their classic characters, but also those of Marvel and Pixar) hasn’t chosen to exert its copyright in order to drive away these scofflaws. I’m sure it has its reasons, and there are certainly non-Disney characters in the mix.

But I’d like to suggest, on a major tourism weekend in New York (our Thanksgiving holiday) that the theatre community has it in its power to seriously disrupt this cycle, peaceably, while reclaiming Times Square as a theatrical centre at the same time. My proposal is based on something already taking place, albeit at a simpler level.

It’s not uncommon for shows to field street teams of people to pass out flyers to promote their nearby productions in the plazas as well. Some may only sport T-shirts emblazoned with logos, but some go the extra mile creatively – Chicago, for example, sends out black-clad women wearing red stockings who strike Fosse-eque poses while proffering a leaflet.

I would suggest that even shows that don’t engage in this type of marketing could contribute to upgrading the character situation in Times Square by hiring people to walk the zone fully and professionally costumed as Jean Valjean, Elphaba and the Phantom, to name but three. Sans flyers and paid not by the tourists but by the shows – and perhaps also out of pooled funds from the Broadway League, the Times Square Alliance and the NYC visitors bureau – they could be compensated at an hourly rate and wear prominent badges saying “no tips accepted”.

Posing for photos, never breaking character, directly competing with the more mercenary band currently at large, they would undermine the freelance players by offering a cleaner, safer, more professional alternative. This would allow Broadway to reclaim Broadway, while overwhelming Instagram and Facebook with theatrically-based tourist photos. They wouldn’t even have to show up every day; just enough and irregularly enough to make the current situation unprofitable for the pushy opportunists.

Of course, this won’t drive away the desnudas, unless a revival of Hair or Oh, Calcutta! decides to get in on the action. But for all of those who miss the tawdry Times Square of old, maybe a few desnudas provide a nostalgic link to the bad old days. And if people leave New York with a selfie that includes someone nearly naked along with, say, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cats, maybe that will only help sell the city, and the theatre as well.

This week in US theatre

Broadway’s Dames at Sea has announced it is closing immediately after the new year and a relatively brief run of just over three months. As was widely anticipated, it will give way at the Helen Hayes Theatre to Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which moves up from its acclaimed run at the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway venue.

Two wildly creative companies that I keep a close eye on are launching new shows this week. At Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, Fiasco Theater takes on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with a company of six actors, playing to December 20. Meanwhile, at the New Ohio Theatre in NYC, also running through December 20, is the Bedlam company’s premiere of New York Animals, a new play by Spring Awakening adapter Steven Sater, featuring songs by Sater and – in a theatrical return – the legendary Burt Bacharach.

First seen at the New York Musical Theatre Festival under the more descriptive title Fat Camp, the newly dubbed Gigantic sees the Vineyard Theatre away from their Union Square home, producing on 42nd Street for this story of adolescent angst at a weight loss summer camp. The book is by Randy Blair and Tim Drucker, with lyrics by Blair and music by Matthew Roi Berger. Schott Schwartz directs and – will you look at that – it plays through December 20.

Premiering at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Jihae Park’s Peerless is the story of twin sisters whose many achievements aren’t enough to assure them admission to their college of their choice. Margot Bordelon directs the show, which breaks the closing pattern established above by wrapping up on December 19.

If you’re in Atlanta over the next several weeks, the company Dad’s Garage is offering counterprogramming to the Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers that proliferate at this time of year. They’ll be presenting their show Merry %#!*ing Christmas at the Alliance Theatre through December 19.

First seen last year at the American Repertory Theatre as Witness Uganda, the new musical Invisible Thread makes its New York debut at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage. The truth-based story of a young man who volunteers for a project in Africa, it’s written by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews, with choreography by Sergio Trujillo and directed by Diane Paulus. It’s the only show on this week’s openings list that is scheduled to run past Christmas, wrapping up on December 27.