"The desire of a middle-aged audience to be 'with it,' is not to be underestimated," Stephen Sondheim remarked to me recently, as we kicked around news of American Psycho "The Musical" having been swiped away from its planned Off-Broadway premiere at Second Stage Theatre to instead open on Broadway directly (in due time). The hijacking of American Psycho puts a hot spotlight on transgression as a commercial Broadway musical commodity. Not just because American Psycho's new Broadway producers scandalously transgressed a few unspoken laws of producing etiquette themselves, in lassoing the show away from Second Stage. More to the point: American Psycho is a musical that blithely sings of serial murder and bloody misogyny.
What was the first transgressive Broadway musical? Sweeney Todd, you well might say, with a title character who murders in song before grinding his victims into meat pies that are consumed in song by a ravenous Broadway chorus. But what about Hair - the most popular countercultural musical of them all, especially for its nudity? Or even Carousel, whose anti-hero, Billy Bigelow, beats his wife, tries to commit robbery and finally kills himself when cornered by the cops? Granted, little of this criminality is literally sung, probably because Carousel was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1945 and not by Stephen Sondheim in 1979. Still, as a rule breaker, Carousel will do.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, the primary outlet for transgression in the New York theater was Off-Broadway; unencumbered (ostensibly) by commercial concerns. Beginning in the late 1950s, on through...well, the millennium, roughly, the principal pursuit of many experimental Off-Broadway theaters "downtown" was the prodding and poking of transgression's taboo frontiers.
This has changed. For one thing, Off-Broadway theaters have largely abandoned the experimental for their own commercial burden, the consequence, for many, of having expensively migrated "uptown" to encroach upon Broadway's high-end real estate district.
More significant, however, is the mainstreaming of transgression in our culture at large. I found myself pondering this in terms of American Psycho on Broadway and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I first saw downtown, far off Broadway, at the Jane Street Theater in 1998 and wrote about in Ever After: The Last Years of Musical Theater and Beyond; my book-length history of the little written-about twenty-five year period in musical theater - on Broadway and off - from 1977-2003.
If I could have picked one musical that I liked from Ever After that I nevertheless thought I would never see on Broadway, Hedwig probably would have been it. A very loud rock musical about the very damaged but strangely lovable survivor of a botched sex change operation and his/her rock band, "The Angry Inch," Hedwig, in 1998, could only have had a life downtown. Broadway's bread-and-butter constituency - out-of-town tourists from across America and beyond - were not remotely ready for it.
As bad as things can seem these days for musicals on Broadway - as vacuous, as child-centric or adult-nostalgic as most Broadway musicals distressingly are at the moment (and not unsuccessfully so, I must add, because this obviously is what audiences want) - the good news is that there are Broadway ticket buyers also paying to see Hedwig, including, inescapably, some of those same out-of-town tourists. Which is extraordinary. Granted, Neil Patrick Harris made this possible. In terms of celebrity-driven marquee mania (see Michael C. Hall, coming soon), Hedwig is no exception to the contemporary rule on Broadway. Still, it is, at least, a symbolic footnote.
I asked Stephen Trask, Hedwig's composer-lyricist, why and how he thought Hedwig had come to be on Broadway, of all places, in 2014?
"Well, the country today generally supports gay marriage," he pointed out. "That's a big change. I think people are also more aware, through television and the movies, what it means to be transgendered. It's more acceptable to more people that there are those whose gender identity does not match whatever happens to be between their legs.
"When John Cameron Mitchell and I first wrote Hedwig, we wrote it for ourselves," Trask added. "We only expected to be performing it downtown in small spaces for our friends, basically, and maybe a few strangers who might wander in; that was the only audience we ever imagined. Today, way more people are in on that conversation. And I think it's gratifying for them to come and really get Hedwig and also see their neighbors getting it. Sure, it's fun to feel that you're in the vanguard alone, but I think most of us like to know that others feel these things too. You realize: I'm part of a community. It's not just me, it's us."
There, in a sentence, is the allure of transgressive art of all kinds: It's not just me, it's us. Somehow, our fractured culture has reached a moment where fractured outsiders are singing on Broadway stages and Broadway audiences are being made to feel like insiders for listening. Sure, it's a stage illusion. Increasingly, for producers, it's a bloody remunerative one.