Nothing Succeeds Like Success

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The lead-in to the L.A. Times article on the Tony Award nominations really caught my attention. Here it is:


"'SpongeBob SquarePants,' 'Mean Girls' and 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.'

'Angels in America,' 'Carousel' and 'My Fair Lady.'"

That's exactly as it appeared, and the title of the piece—"Tony nominations for 'Harry Potter,' 'SpongeBob' and 'Mean Girls' put Hollywood center stage"—made it clear that the author was well aware of the list's significance: that television and the movies appear to be taking over one of the last bastions of American live theater: the Broadway stage.


Now, before you get the idea that I am going to lament this development as some sort of cultural loss or desecration, let me assure you that I have no such intention. To begin with, Broadway has always occupied a somewhat liminal position in the traditional high cultural/mass cultural divide, and the stage has always been a setting for popular entertainment—albeit one that is not mediated by electronic technology. And while the article, for its part, does note that "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" represents "just one example of the kind of pop-culture franchise that can reduce producers' financial risk," it does not do so in anger. Indeed, it even quotes a writer associated with this year's nominees' sole "art-house" production ("The Band's Visit”), who rather generously observes that "Commercial theater, and musical theater, is a really risky venture. It's very expensive. It's possible to have a great success, but it's really unlikely"; adding that "I don't blame anyone for trying to hedge against that risk by adapting a really well known property, and it's not always cynical."


There are two quick and easy popular-semiotic takeaways, then, from this year's Tonys. The first is that the last barriers between mass media entertainment and the more culturally prestigious (if less lucrative) traditional stage are coming down once and for all. The second is that they are coming down not on behalf of some sort of producer-led deconstruction of a vanishing high cultural/low cultural divide, but simply because very few Broadway producers are willing to take any financial risks these days and prefer to go with tried and true productions. And this doesn't simply mean translating blockbuster movies and TV shows to the stage: after all, revivals of "Angels in America" and "The Iceman Cometh" are also among the nominees this year.


But the real significance of the Tonys for me appears when we broaden the system in which to analyze the nominations to include what is happening in the movies and television as well. Here too we find revivals, reboots, sequels, short, one studio or network franchise after another centered on a successful brand that never seems to run out of steam: "Avengers Infinity War" (note the endlessness implied); "Star Wars Forever"; "Roseanne" II and "Murphy Brown" redux; and so on and so forth. What this reveals is not only a similar spirit of creative bet hedging by going with tried and true entertainment commodities, but a narrowing of opportunities for creators themselves as well. For the message in this particular bottle is that in America success is the gift that keeps on giving. A few people (like George Lucas and J.K. Rowling) are going to rise from obscurity and hit it so big with their creative efforts that they will use up all the oxygen in the room. It isn't that there will be less creativity (with luminaries like Lucas and Rowling shining bright for innumerable self-publishing dreamers who hope to be the next meteors in the popular cultural skies, there will never be any danger of that); the problem is that there will be fewer opportunities to make such creative breakthroughs, or earn any sort of living while trying, when the stage (literally and figuratively) is filled with old brands that won't move aside for new entrants.


And so, finally, we come to a larger system within which to understand what is going on with the Tony Awards: this system is America itself, where a handful of winners are vacuuming up all of the opportunity in America and leaving almost nothing for everyone else (George Packer eloquently describes the situation in "Celebrating Inequality," an essay you can find in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). The rewards of the American dream are bigger than they have ever been; but not only are there fewer seats at the banquet of success, the pickings are getting leaner and leaner for those who haven't been invited.


Credit: Pixabay Image 123398 by smaus, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.