Flashback: How Broadway – and the Tony Awards – Have Changed Over the Last Decade

As a longtime live theater supporter, I have noticed that the industry is changing in big ways. And so are the ways we honor and celebrate standout works.

Playbill

I grew up a stone’s throw away from the magical island of Manhattan, with a mother who loved (and still to this day loves) live theater more than anything. So you can imagine that my Broadway-watching days were inevitable. As soon as I was old enough to appreciate a production, my mom packed me up for a short bus trip city inbound, excited to introduce me to one of her own longtime passions. I saw my very first Broadway musical, Beauty and the Beast, on January 23, 2000. I was 9 years old — and of course I have the tattered Playbill and framed glossy show program to show for it.

Back then, I was mostly just excited to be spending time out with my family, and being entertained for a few hours. I started off my Broadway-going career strong with a huge, popular Disney production, but the next few shows I got taken to included more serious dramas. We’d save up for tickets, and then pick something new to see. They all went over my head, even though I tried to listen intently and try to relate to the stories. My mom and I also discovered at this time the joy of waiting for actor autographs outside at the stage door. It was thrilling to talk to stars about their performances, and since I was so young (and back then only a handful of fans would hang around after the show), they’d really pick my brain for my thoughts on what I had just seen. This is why I really began to love the theater: for the live, immediate reactions — both onstage and off. Maybe you could even trace my current writing, reporting, and interviewing career back to these beginnings.

As exciting as this all was for me, I quickly realized that these Broadway shows were not the kind of things I could go talk to my school friends about. I’d walk into my sixth grade class in 2002 and say something like, “Guys, I saw Liam Neeson in The Crucible over the weekend!” or “Is anyone watching the Tony Awards tonight?!” and I’d get blank stares. It meant nothing. 

Not now though. You see now, it means everything.

For awhile, I thought that attending Broadway shows was just this quirky thing my family did. Like other people’s aunts and uncles hosted BBQs or pool parties in those early days of summer, but mine would order pizza and cast winner predictions ahead of Tonys viewings. I loved every moment, but it felt so obscure. For several years in my childhood memory, the Tony Awards were broadcast on smaller cable networks, the ones that not all of my friends had. The ceremonies consisted more of a small group honoring their own achievements, rather than the huge-scale award show productions we see today.

Everything changed around the time I graduated high school, which is officially a decade ago. In the 2008-2011 timeframe when I was in college, I was lucky enough to be able to see performances like Legally Blonde: The MusicalThe Little MermaidIn the HeightsBye Bye BirdieA View from the Bridge (with Liev Schrieber and Scarlett Johansson), Spider-ManAmerican Idiot (with Billie Joe Armstrong), Good People (with Frances McDormand), The Motherf***er with the Hat (with Bobby Canavale and Chris Rock), The House of Blue Leaves (with Ben Stiller and Edie Falco) and several others! In my adult years, I have been fortunate to see even more top stars in their live stage roles, and get seats to some of the most buzzworthy productions around. And if you’re saying to yourself, “wow, I remember those shows!” you realize too how all of a sudden it was.

I vividly recall thinking that Broadway and the Tony Awards were such a golden moment for New Yorkers, but a hard sell for anyone else living outside of the nucleus I’d grown accustomed to. If you didn’t live locally, or have money for show tickets, or care about classic plays, why would you want to know anything about what’s going on in this universe?

In the last decade, social media has taken the reach of Broadway shows to unbelievable levels, and the Tonys have followed suit. And the theater has gotten younger (thanks to school group initiatives, and affordable student tickets or those 30-under-30 deals I love.) Now, theater fans around the world can catch YouTube clips or actor interviews, easily download soundtracks and memorize show tune lyrics, and get to know their favorite performers through their Instagrams. Peers my age not only want to hear about the shows I’ve seen this season, but they actively share their own stories about following mega hits like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. Even non-thespians grow interested in attending live shows, because Hollywood celebrities are flocking to the stage, posing for #StageDoorSelfies, and signing those Instagrammable Playbills. Those on-air Tonys performances have kept getting bigger and better over the years, giving global viewers a sense of what they should come see when they may visit NYC on vacation. The Tony Awards red carpet is full of Hollywood A-listers and Broadway icons who bring their legions of followers with them

And the shows themselves aren’t all jazz hands and sequined leotards. Which I am all for, but totally understand if they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. The hot topics tackled in dramas have gotten bolder, more diverse, and profoundly tied to current events — and therefore Tony noms in the past decade have been as well. The stage — and in turn, the rows of audience — have become more inclusive and more open to conversation outside the traditional sense of a theater circle. And tuning in to the Tony Awards (coming up on June 10, 2018 at 8 PM EST on CBS) will be a spectacular affair anyone can find moments of joy in, local NYC theater patron or not. It’s all very exciting, and I love the direction it’s headed.

Written by Kristine Hope Kowalski

Kristine is a writer and celebrity entertainment news journalist with a specific obsession with Nickelodeon + Disney Channel shows, boy bands, K-Pop, Broadway, and international series dramas. If she's not writing or tucked away in a good book, she is most likely traveling the world and spamming her friends' Instagram feeds with photos from her adventures. Kristine has a BA in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University (2011), and an MA in Interdisciplinary Humanities and Social Thought from NYU (2013). She is currently pursuing her second Master's in Journalism through the Harvard Extension School.