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Howard Sherman: More than just a fan show, BroadwayCon 2017 was a political protest

Jeanine Tesori at BroadwayCon. Photo: Howard Sherman
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Having attended the first BroadwayCon a year ago during a major blizzard, I was charmed and encouraged by the enthusiasm of the hardy souls who had braved the elements to celebrate theatre, with particular attention paid to Broadway musicals.

In visiting the three-day festival this year, I doubted I’d find much new to report on. It was an opportunity to indulge my photography hobby, perhaps run into people in the business I don’t often see face to face, meet some social media friends, and – as a volunteer – moderate a couple of panels.

Inevitably when there are multiple choices of what to see or do at any given time, as well as commitments outside the event that also demand attention, everyone experiences something like BroadwayCon according to their own self-curated itinerary.

I found myself split between events on the main stage that seated thousands of people at once (the casts of Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812) and the smaller panels in rooms that seated, by my estimate, no more than 500 at a time, and some even fewer.

The panels weren’t all by any means blatant fan service: some tackled subjects including Trans Representation in Theatre, Everyone’s a Critic, Reimagined Revivals and Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability on Stage (which I moderated).

Wandering among trios of women dressed as Hamilton’s Schuyler sisters and more than a few of Lloyd Webber’s cats, it was certainly possible to construct a schedule that featured several days of thoughtful, even educational sessions, including practical talks on wig making, properties design and sound design.

Admittedly, the evenings ran more towards pure entertainment – the Annie 40th-anniversary reunion, the BroadwayCon Slumber Party – as the sole focus, but BroadwayCon wasn’t conceived as having a singular syllabus.

On the last day, I stayed longer than I’d originally planned, in order to catch a session called BroadwayCon First Look, which was a selection of presentations by upcoming Broadway shows. While a few shows merely sent videos, there were live introductions and performances from, among others, Amelie, Anastasia, Bandstand, Come from Away and Miss Saigon. But within the roughly 100-minute session, there was some unexpected messaging on offer.

Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who will only be making her Broadway debut this spring, with her play Indecent, took to the stage not only to talk about that play, but also its historical and present-day context.

Indecent, which played Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre after several regional engagements, is the story of the Yiddish play God of Vengeance, an international hit that, when it reached Broadway in the 1920s, resulted in the cast being arrested for, well, indecency. God of Vengeance is the story of a brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes; it marked the first time two women kissed on an American stage.

Announcing early on that “we are all Muslims”, Vogel later declared: “I believe theatre is our best hope for resistance and resilience.”

While hearing such statements from Vogel is no surprise to me, as I have long known her to be one of the most passionate evangelists for theatre and activism I’ve ever encountered, I had not anticipated these sentiments at BroadwayCon, especially nestled among love songs and uptempo tunes from new musicals.

The cavernous main stage hall wasn’t conducive to gauging the full crowd’s response, with unamplified sound lost in the rafters, but applause did break out. As I was crouched down by the front row with my camera pointed towards the stage, I couldn’t see the response or anyone’s expression.

I wasn’t prepared to take notes, which I began to regret, and that continued when composer Jeanine Tesori took to the stage. There to talk about the forthcoming revival of Sunday in the Park With George, which began as a concert at the City Center Encores! Off-Center series under her guidance, Tesori really didn’t have much to say about the Sondheim show at all, as I recall.

Instead, she thanked the audience for being there, on a day when people were gathered at Kennedy Airport and in Lower Manhattan to protest the just-imposed ban on US immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries.

Anything we do in person is a political act. Showing up is a political act

On the same stage where, a day earlier, fans feasted on anecdotes from Chita Rivera and Joel Grey, where costumed attendees competed in a fashion show, Tesori said: “Anything we do in person is a political act. Showing up is a political act.” It was a surprising affirmation for people gathered to enjoy a theatrical immersion, but both her statements and Vogel’s were of a piece with some of the more serious-minded panels I mentioned previously.

I had approached BroadwayCon as a diversion but Vogel and Tesori gave me the permission I had denied myself to see my own unwavering support of theatre and my indulgent time in a convention centre as a worthwhile action – even in trying times, even among trade show-like booths hawking souvenirs and selfies with stars.

Yes, we need theatre that speaks to what is going on in America, in the UK and around the world, and just the act of getting out of our offices and homes, away from sharing our enthusiasms and outrage on social media, and into theatres – and concert halls and museums – has political value.

This week in US theatre

The tragedy of the Tyrone family continue to attract major actors wherever it’s done and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles has brought out Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek as James and Mary for their new production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, opening on February 8. Jeanie Hackett directs.

Lonny Price’s English National Opera staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black’s Sunset Boulevard opens on Broadway on February 9, with Glenn Close, Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon and Fred Johanson all reprising their UK roles. This places Close in the company of such theatrical legends as Richard Kiley, Carol Channing and Yul Brynner, as she returns to a role on Broadway for which she previously won a Tony award in the original production.

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