We asked one of our expert tour leaders Dr Matthew Laing about the performing arts scene in New York…
Q: How is the performing arts scene linked to the city’s history?
Matthew: New Amsterdam, as a far-flung fur trading outpost of the Dutch Empire in the 17th century, was quickly famous as a city of bawdy ale houses and cheap entertainment. As the city transformed into a British, and then American, hub of economic activity and opportunity, successive waves of poor and middle-class immigrants washed over the city. Less restricted by the state censorship, social mores and elite domination of the arts in Europe, New Yorkers relentlessly pursued the entertainment of their great masses, with vaudeville, operettas and great spectacles like P.T. Barnum’s circuses that could speak to audiences that may not have a common language. The presence of many different cultures gave rise to unique art forms, like jazz music from African American migrants in Harlem such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday, and Broadway musicals integrating the Yiddish theatre traditions through writers like Irving Berlin and the Gershwin’s. Over time these art forms – music and performances for the middle and lower classes – have joined more traditional European offerings (like opera and the symphony) to become the diverse and vibrant cultural hub of America.
Q: Why is it so energetic and innovative?
Matthew: America is, quite unlike most other nations, a country with a deep ethic of cultural philanthropy. In New York particularly, patronage of the arts is seen as a civic responsibility amongst the elites. Much of New York’s artistic vibrancy comes from the sheer fact that there is far more financial opportunity for the arts than just about anywhere else in the world. That in turn has led to a concentration of performing arts venues, actors, musicians, writers and audiences in the city that ensures a constant churn of new productions and frenetic scramble to create the next hit. It is also an art scene that welcomes – indeed encourages – experimentation.
Q: How did Broadway become such a centre for musicals?
Matthew: The musical is one of America’s most unusual cultural offerings and the one most closely associated with New York. Theatres on Broadway created a vessel for a performance art that could be both light-hearted and serious, both musically accomplished and yet more accessible for the masses than opera. When Show Boat, the story of life, love and sorrow on a Mississippi paddle steamer, premiered on Broadway in 1927, the critics agreed it was a watershed moment in performing arts, for it created for a new generation an art form that could showcase drama, comedy, music, singing and storytelling. Musicals continue to be incredibly diverse in their offerings, and one of the few 19th-century performing art forms that can still self-fund and draw large audiences in an era of cinema and television.
Experience the best of New York’s Broadway shows on one of Academy Travel’s upcoming performing arts tours. Click here to find out more about our upcoming music & theatre tours.
Dr Matthew Laing
Dr Matthew Laing is a historian and political scientist at Monash University who has led tours to the Americas and Europe with Academy Travel for five years. He has a strong personal interest in architecture, cultural history and modern art, with a particular expertise in the United States. Matthew holds a BA and PhD from the Australian National University, and wrote his doctorate on the history of the United States presidency.