Playbills, programs, cast-change inserts, tickets: these objects once physically accompanied the theater’s visual and verbal delights. To enter the Lyceum or the Winter Garden, you presented your glossy rectangle to an usher who severed its stub. Rip! You tucked the now diminished rectangle in your pocket as you searched for your section. There, another usher offered you a copy of Playbill. Reaching your seat, you flicked through its pages, learning who’s who in the cast and discovering what else was “on” that season.
But a tangible rupture in New York theater history has occurred. There is less paper in the theater now than there has been in decades. This is in large part because the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a decade-long trend toward digital ticketing. Many theaters offered to “deliver” tickets as a PDF via email attachment or (occasionally) as a QR code before March 2020; virtual delivery took precedence when Broadway reopened in August 2021, as a matter of convenience became a matter of public health.1 Even now, after mask and vaccine card protocols have abated, most theatergoers rely upon proof of purchase displayed on a screen. Will call is increasingly the domain of blue-hairs; the young and tech-savvy use apps like SeatGeek and TodayTix. For most, the clack of thumbnails on tempered glass and the buh-beep! of a laser scanner’s recognition comprise their preshow touch- and soundscape.
It has become possible to spend an evening on Broadway without handling a physical document. Still, it may seem sensational to say that a revolution has taken place. A QR code ticket is still a ticket, isn’t it? But with the decline of documents, something other than information may vanish. A clue to what is at stake may be found in the 1959 Styne/Sondheim musical Gypsy.2 As Rose sings in the climactic number “Rose’s Turn”:
Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
Give ’em love and what does it get ya?
What does it get ya?
One quick look as each of ’em leaves you.
All your life and what does it get ya?
Thanks a lot and out with the garbage,
They take bows and you’re battin’ zero.
Rose, waiting in the wings while the spotlight is trained on her daughters, envies their celebrity. Her labor is invisible, though it props up the whole spectacle; June and Louise’s fans carry home no memories of her. However, they do carry home some memories—memories they might preserve in a scrapbook, just as any theatergoer might preserve tickets, playbills, and more. Rose’s words could just as easily refer to her own family scrapbook. Still, they suggest the contingent nature of that which receives love and that which is consigned to the garbage.
Broadway’s digital turn will have effects beyond the sensory experiences of individual theatergoers. It is not just that the tap of a thumb on a smartphone has replaced the grasp of printed cardstock within the theatrical sensorium. As the platforms evolve that manage our ingress to those playhouses in the vicinity of Times Square (home of another media empire, subject to its own sea changes), so does information about theatrical culture.
Tickets, playbills, and the like are, by definition, ephemeral (their use value is expended once the curtains close). But because they bear the traces of live performance––that elusive, embodied, shared something that happens only in one room at one time––they also serve as a record. They tell us what it was like to be there.
As a scholar of 16th- and 17th-century drama, I am particularly attuned to the value of the theatrical archive. For the period in which plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kyd were first performed in London’s playhouses, scant traces may be found of the everyday business of “playing,” as they called it, let alone the responses of playgoers. In such early modern playhouses, tickets were not the currency; rather, a penny dropped in a jug sufficed for admission to stand as a “groundling” before the stage at the Globe, the Rose, and the Swan.
The richest repository of early modern theatrical documents is in London at Dulwich College, an institution founded by the greatest actor of the late 16th century, Edward Alleyn. Among the artifacts at Dulwich is an account book belonging to Alleyn’s father-in-law, Philip Henslowe. This preserves a few years’ worth of behind-the-scenes transactions relating to Henslowe’s real estate venture, the Rose Playhouse, the companies that performed there, and the playwrights who wrote for them; it also chronicles which plays were performed when, for how long, and in what repertory combinations during that period.
The archive is more robust for the succeeding centuries. Since at least the 18th century, theater patrons have collected tickets and other theatrical documents. Saved in scrapbooks, albums, and shoeboxes, such memorabilia have served both as personal keepsakes and as a kind of dispersed, informal chronicle, a resource for those studying the past.
Tickets and playbills are by definition, ephemeral. But because they bear the traces of live performance––that elusive, embodied, shared something that happens only in one room at one time––they also serve as a record.
The ephemera among the vast holdings of the Harvard Theater Collection reside there because of individual stewardship, as personal projects were subsumed into institutional collections. A playhouse patron lovingly pasted her tickets into an album over a lifetime, scribbling a note about how mournfully Mr. Garrick addressed Yorick’s skull at Drury Lane, or about how dazzling Ethel Barrymore appeared in a new play one night on the Great White Way. An audience member attending Charles Dickens’s semidramatic staged reading of Oliver Twist read along in his souvenir booklet, underlining and annotating passages as if to preserve Dickens’s voice in its pages. These objects not only had a use value; they were used, handled, operated. They transcended their momentary purpose to become mementos, imbued with the sights and sounds that they accompanied and invested with the warmth of human experience.
The analogous documents of 21st-century theater may not survive in the same way, precisely because they are not being saved. Digitization may have made ephemera more, well, ephemeral––more fragile, more prone to erasure and loss. The QR codes that appear in your TodayTix app 24 hours before showtime disappear, like Cinderella’s ballgown, at midnight. This is not to say that less will be known about 21st-century theater 400 years from now than we in 2023 know about Shakespeare’s time, but rather that it will be known differently. As in other sectors of society, documents are gradually giving way to data.
It is this archive of affects, memorial practices, and social worlds that future theater historians will most likely lack. In The Drama of Celebrity, Sharon Marcus describes theatrical scrapbooks as acts of intimacy, gestures of love from adoring fans toward the stars whose performances they attend. Marcus makes an important observation about the platforms on which these acts of intimacy take place, too: “Fans spend far more time on what we might call resituation, which involves moving objects from one location to another without effecting any significant change in medium. Resituation matters less as authorship or artistry in its own right than as a way of recording brief acts of attention.” Augmenting their heightened ephemerality, as technology advances, digital tickets will require remediation to avoid their own obsolescence. For this reason, the range of desires encoded by such mundane acts of preservation may become casualties of digital information.
Consider again Sondheim’s Rose. She inhabits one transitional period in American theater and has a message for another: ephemera survive, if not by accident, on sentiment.
Even if, in an attempt to fix the ephemeral, you took a screenshot of the QR code from TodayTix, what would you do with it? Objects like these do not lend themselves to affective attachment. It is hard to imagine yourself scrolling through a Google Photos album of digital tickets with your grandchildren, reminiscing about the time you saw Patti LuPone belt “Rose’s Turn.”
The staging of Sondheim’s final show, Here We Are, this season marks the end of an era defined by his style. The composer––who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959) before composing classics like Sweeney Todd (1979), Into the Woods (1987), and Company (1970)––became synonymous with modern Broadway, stippling the mannered musical comedy world of Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein with cynicism and psychological realism.
Here We Are, loosely based on Luis Buñuel’s films The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Exterminating Angel (1962), follows six friends as they search for a place to have brunch in New York City and then find themselves trapped in the embassy of the fictional country of Miranda. Surreal, satirical, and––as Michael Paulson and others have documented––unfinished, Here We Are repeatedly stages misdirection, confusion, and uncertainty. The show is punctuated by scenes of aimless walking and concludes with just such a scene, as if the journey does not end when the performance does. After finally escaping the Mirandan embassy, the still-sunny Marianne asks her fellow travelers, “Where do we go next? And after that?”
Here We Are calls us to reflect on the ways musicals look and sound different now than they did in 1957––including when it comes to tickets. If Here We Are definitively puts Sondheim in the rearview mirror, we might wonder where Broadway will go next––and after that. Four hundred years from now, when historians of Sondheim turn to the records of embodied events they will never see, attempting to reconstruct a commercial and cultural moment, a milieu, what materials will be at their service?
When I arrived at The Shed—the performance venue in the futuro-brutalist Hudson Yards complex—I entered what felt like the lobby of a chic hotel. Spotting an usher standing at the foot of an escalator, I pulled out my phone, opened my email inbox, and followed a link from The Shed. The link took me to a login page where I was asked to provide my username and password for The Shed’s website. Not remembering my account details, I returned to my inbox and searched for “TICKETS” in the hope of finding another email with an attached PDF or embedded information. The usher rang her bell, signaling five minutes until curtain. “Let’s just go to will call,” I said to my companion in exasperation.
Once there, I surrendered my phone to a man who thumbed my screen in search of the order number. He typed the number into his computer. A small printer hummed to life. He handed me two glossy paper tickets, each with its own QR code rendered in fresh black ink.
This article was commissioned by Leah Price.
- Playbill’s presses ceased operations between March 2020 and August 2021 for the first time since the magazine’s 1884 founding. As Playbill’s editors reminded readers in the first postvaccine issue, the magazine had not stopped for two world wars, for Y2K, or for anything in between. Distributed continuously at all of Broadway’s theaters, Playbill is at once a program for nightly performances and a monthly periodical connecting performances across time and space. That is, although the production information is different at each theater, the articles and advertisements in each issue are the same. After August 2021, many theaters made Playbill accessible via QR codes scanned in the lobby, much like the now-ubiquitous virtual restaurant menu. ↩
- In Gypsy (1959), for which––like West Side Story––he wrote the lyrics but not the music. (The show has a song called “Broadway.”) Its protagonist, hardscrabble momager Rose, trains her daughters June and Louise for the vaudeville circuit, suffocating them with her quest for stage success. Forced to perform in a burlesque while short on work, in “Let Me Entertain You” Louise quips: “But I’m not a stripper / At these prices, I’m an ecdysiast.” Sondheim’s diction underscores the fact that disrobing onstage is the same act whether or not Greek etymologies are involved; at the same time, it suggests that Louise is just as exposed while a stripper as she was while a child actor, forced to follow her mother’s dream. (A Rose by any other name …) ↩