Each year, the Tony Awards takes the nation by drizzle. The ratings are always middling — this year, they rose slightly to 6.3 million total viewers (by contrast, Game 4 of the NBA Finals drew 12.9 million viewers). Few Americans have actually seen the shows featured at the Tonys. Attendance at Broadway shows has been effectively stagnant for at least a decade: In 2006–07, 10.8 million Americans went to a musical on Broadway; in 2016-17, that number was 11.3 million.
And the Tony Awards demonstrate just how niche their appeal is. The best musical award went to The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band visiting an Israeli town; the best play went to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, another knock-off of J. K. Rowling’s hit series; the best musical revival went to Once on This Island, and the best revival of a play went to Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s tendentious and overlong saga about the plight of gay Americans. All of which shows what Broadway has become: spectaculars for kids, and adult shows for niche audiences. Long gone are the days of Oklahoma! or even Phantom of the Opera.
Broadway has niched itself.
It’s not just the shows. It’s the way Broadway has become a political rally for Democratic priorities. It’s difficult to forget the Hamilton cast’s attempt to slam Mike Pence last year, of course. And this year’s Tonys featured Robert De Niro shouting “F*** Trump” to a standing ovation; the pro-gun-control students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School performing “Seasons of Love”; Andrew Garfield telling Christians to bake that cake; and, on the red carpet, actress Noma Dumezweni telling the assembled media that President Trump wasn’t welcome to visit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which will surely break his heart.
So, why have the Tonys broken so far out of the political mainstream? Probably for the same reason Hollywood has: narrowcasting.
Thanks to the fragmentation of audiences in the entertainment industry — there’s no longer an oligopoly of distribution methods in television or movies — it’s far easier to cater to an audience of die-hards than to try to broadcast.