The Broadway paradox

About 12 years ago, despite living in Los Angeles, I decided to start seeing more theater in New York City. (Yes, there is also theater in LA; no, it’s not the same.) Up until then, I had seen NYC theater occa­sion­ally and enjoyed it. Why not see it more often, and enjoy it more often?

Or so I reasoned. The reality was different.

Before each visit, I would buy tickets to three or four of what seemed to be the best-reviewed shows, based on my aggre­gate impres­sion from NYC-based reviewers. (Tickets were never cheap, but solo theater­going is a favor­able economic strat­agem, because shows always end up with isolated seats near the front that are other­wise diffi­cult to sell.) I saw all kinds of shows: main­line Broadway, weird off-Broadway, drama, comedy, musical, etc.

Most, I hated. The rest, I found boring and mediocre.

You may be wondering, as I did at that point: had I deluded myself about my interest in theater? In the late ’90s I had seen the orig­inal produc­tion of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was memo­rable because the produc­tion was scruffy and bare-bones, yet everyone in the theater—including me—was trans­fixed by what was unfolding onstage. I didn’t expect every theater expe­ri­ence to be like that. But I had hoped that I could—maybe some­times?—revisit that sense of trans­port.

The evidence suggested other­wise, however. After a few years, I discon­tinued my NYC theater­going on the grounds that it was far too expen­sive for the results gener­ated. I concluded that my expec­ta­tions were, on some level, unrea­son­able.

Recently I was recon­sid­ering this conclu­sion while reading Uneasy Stages, a collec­tion of theater reviews by John Simon. I didn’t know Simon’s work before. But I real­ized I had (albeit too late) found the critic I should’ve been heeding years ago: Simon hated every­thing too.

True, bad reviews make for more enter­taining reading than good ones.* Simon’s writing is lacer­ating, tart, and witty. (These partic­ular reviews were written between 1963 and 1973, so unfor­tu­nately they also include casual moments of sexism, homo­phobia, and racism.) Perhaps need­less to say, Simon was never a favorite of the NYC theater commu­nity. As a critic, clearly he felt his loyal­ties should remain with the theater­goer, whose time and money were at risk. (Compare, say, critic Terry Teachout, who is himself a play­wright, and whose reviews are relent­lessly—in hind­sight, mislead­ingly—posi­tive.)

Still, none of it would work if Simon came across as a bratty, dissat­is­fied tourist. On the contrary, he cred­ibly presents himself as a disap­pointed opti­mist: someone who wants theater to be wonderful because he knows that it can be. And then reality intrudes.

Reading Simon’s reviews from 50 years ago, it was inter­esting to notice how little had seem­ingly changed. Even in shows Simon hated (= most of them) he acknowl­edges that many elements were top-notch (= lighting, costumes, staging, certain perfor­mances). Despite this, the soufflé still collapses.

Too often, this was also my expe­ri­ence in the audi­ence. It was apparent that I was expe­ri­encing the work of the most accom­plished theatrical artists and crafts­people in the world. The ingre­di­ents were wonderful. But the result was inert.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this disjunc­tion between inputs and outputs. Let’s call it the Broadway paradox. Why should it be true? I suppose it works like this: compared to the number of people who aspire to be theater profes­sionals, Broadway employs a rela­tively small number. So there is intense national compe­ti­tion for these jobs, and Broadway at large can afford to employ only the best.

But the forces that make a show successful as an economic entity are completely different. Broadway shows can only be prof­itable over a rela­tively long run, and for that reason, these shows can’t afford to alienate the parade of tourists and other casual theater­goers.

Taken together, you have a situ­a­tion where the most talented people are pledging their skills to produc­tions that are, by and large, designed to mini­mize artistic (and hence finan­cial) risk. In turn, maybe artis­ti­cally trans­porting theater—like the kind I sought—turns out to be more of a lucky side effect than an inten­tional result.

Of course, having noticed this paradox, one detects versions of it else­where. For instance, as a law student, it was apparent that the most promising grad­u­ates are strongly funneled toward the immense law firms who feast on areas of legal prac­tice that are hugely prof­itable but, by most insider accounts, extremely boring. Or in soft­ware, the best engi­neers are recruited by tech compa­nies who primarily make their money by selling adver­tising designed to exploit the vulner­able. (I wish we had a John Simon to write pieces about the tech industry, where tough jour­nal­istic scrutiny is almost nonex­is­tent.)

“But MB, what’s the paradox? People with skills have always sought to profit from them.” Agreed. That’s not the paradox. The paradox is why—say, if you’re a Broadway producer, or managing partner of a big law firm, or CEO of a tech company—would you bother hiring highly skilled people at all? If the greatest profit lies in pursuing middle­brow outputs, why not hire people who are less skilled (and assumedly cheaper), thereby making the venture even more prof­itable?

With this ques­tion, I’m trip­ping casu­ally into the domain of labor economics, about which I know nothing. I spec­u­late, gingerly, that highly prof­itable busi­nesses could in fact easily make do with cheaper people. They prefer, however, to deploy some of their economic power toward locking up highly skilled labor as a form of market compe­ti­tion. That is, they buy some­thing they don’t need and waste it, to prevent a competitor from doing so first. Taking this to its logical extent, we might reach a pecu­liar endpoint where the price of highly skilled labor tends to be set not by who will put it to its highest produc­tive use, but who can best afford to destroy it. (Espe­cially ironic consid­ering the educa­tional debt incurred to acquire these skills.)

A labor econ­o­mist might quibble with my phrase “highest produc­tive use”—as a matter of rational incen­tives, nobody would be destroying highly skilled labor if that destruc­tion were not, in purely economic terms, its highest produc­tive use.

But I’m reaching for some­thing different, however ineptly. What does it mean—ethi­cally, cultur­ally, morally—to have reached a point where these are the prevailing economic incen­tives? That grinding up the best & brightest is what’s rewarded? Should we regard this as a great slow-motion tragedy of human progress? Some kind of cultural glass ceiling? A recipe for a new dark age? Or just shrug it off, trusting that the invis­ible hand of the, uh, “free” market will correct these errors? And are they even errors? Or are they just the natural progres­sion of things?

Again, I’m far from the first person to notice this phenom­enon. A 2012 story in the MIT Tech­nology Review was head­lined “You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Face­book.” The tech­nology world is espe­cially prone to this sense of nostalgic wist­ful­ness, because in real time, we’re watching tech slouching toward this strange endpoint that Broadway, big law firms and other commer­cially mature indus­tries arguably reached a long time ago.

I think about this a lot. Not as an armchair labor econ­o­mist. But as a tech­nol­o­gist entering his fourth decade of profes­sional work. I’m alert to the possi­bility that I’m in the midst of what might be a typical mid-career moment of curmud­geonly reflec­tion—plus ça change and all that.

And yet. It’s not hard to find affec­tion for earlier eras of tech­nology, even among those who didn’t live through them. So perhaps it’s also true that my industry is indeed ossi­fying into some­thing quite different from when I started.

Ulti­mately, the Broadway paradox contains a lesson for me as a theater­goer, and also as a designer.

As a theater­goer, I think I’ve real­ized my mistake. The reason Hedwig was so good was that it had no other choice. As a minimum-budget far-off-Broadway show, dramatic excel­lence was the only way to survive. By contrast, the bigger-budget shows that are charging $200 a seat must deliver a different kind of expe­ri­ence to ensure their own survival. For that matter, John Simon prob­ably would’ve enjoyed the theater more had he not chosen to make a living as a theater critic, which forced him to attend every major show. In the future, if I want to maxi­mize my chances of seeing great theater, there’s a simple prescrip­tion: spend a lot less on tickets.

As a designer, if it’s true that I’m working in an industry that derives increasing benefit from destroying skilled labor, then as a laborer with skills, I should step care­fully, lest I mone­tize my work in ways that turn out to be insid­i­ously destruc­tive. In the last 10 years, one way I’ve done that is by avoiding any entan­gle­ment with the various large corpo­ra­tions involved in the marketing & distri­bu­tion of fonts, because their incen­tives are muddled at best, conflicted at worst. In the next 10 years, it may be different.

* Film critic Roger Ebert published an excel­lent anthology of his own lacer­a­tions called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.

update, 259 days later

In recent years Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been fairly critiqued for being less progres­sive on matters of trans, gay, and female iden­tity than it holds itself out to be.

update, 467 days later

Tech layoffs are currently happening in bulk. A theme of the coverage is how much head­count grew at Big Tech during the last couple years despite signs of economic head­winds. A common ques­tion: “Why did Big Tech need so many people?” Answer, if you believe my argu­ment above: they never did. As we reached the top of the market, they hired indis­crim­i­nately as a compet­i­tive measure. Thus, the unwind of this tactic is happening equally quickly. Once your competi­tors can no longer afford to hoard talent, you don’t want to be the only one doing it.

update, 616 days later

More confir­ma­tion for this theory in a WSJ piece called These Tech Workers Say They Were Hired to Do Nothing: “They were just kind of, like, hoarding us like Pokémon cards.” And another called Is Big Tech’s R&D Spending Actu­ally Hurting Inno­va­tion in the U.S.?, concluding that Big Tech buys and then wastes a lot of talent, with a corre­sponding nega­tive effect on the economy at large.