(Watching) 100 Years of Broadway Shows at Once

Visualizing Broadway relies on multi-year data from the Internet Broadway Database and the Playbill Vault to tell a different history of Broadway shows and of theatre in general. The difference lies in viewing performances as artistic, economic and commercial entities, subject to forces of competition for tangible (e.g. space, funds, actors) and intangible resources (e.g. audience and critics’ attention), and investigating Broadway as a whole as a field of cultural production of both commodity and symbolic goods.

Recounting Broadway history with the inclusion of every single play, failures included, is another departure from a field traditionally built around the notion of the canon of great works. Derek Miller, who leads the project, wants to view Broadway through the available data in totality and from a temporal distance in order to reveal connections, processes and new meaningful units of analysis absent from theatre history.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY8lZlIRAow

Professor Miller discusses the origins of the project and the gap in scholarship it addresses.


Distant Watching

Franco Moretti inspired Miller with his concept of “distant reading,” a Darwinian explanation of the history of literary genres, and an acute suspicion of (literary) canons. By subjecting entire corpora of (digitized) literature to analytic and computational tools, Moretti showed the evolution and adaptation of various literary genres, akin to survival of biological species.

Though literary works differ in many ways from plays and musicals, Miller’s data-based exploration is an example of “distant watching” or “distant analysis” – he shows how at a glance we can see a hundred years of plays through the lenses of a cast size, expenses, location or running times, the ebbs and flows of cultural production over decades, or trends in the intensity of seasons or fluctuations of the labor market. By surfacing these new contexts, individual plays can acquire a new meaning.

 

Dispensing with the Canon

The history of the theatre, like the history of literature, has been an account of selective great works. Miller’s approach accounts for every play produced on Broadway, including the biggest flops and failures – since they took place and consumed resources, they have a valid claim to be part of the history of the theatre. Interestingly, if we look at all Broadway plays created in the past 113 years, it is the failures that are the norm, making the canonical hits great outliers.

Miller wants to expose the synchronic and diachronic connections between data within the entire system of theatre production. Data and its comprehensive analysis will enrich the close reading or watching of individual plays and might lead to new ways of defining the meaning of a canon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuI9hjZJ8fQ

Professor Miller shows how the narrative of theater history should include failures alongside canonical works.

 

A Field of Cultural Production

“Production” and “competition,” concepts customarily associated with different spheres of human activity, are integral parts of Miller’s narrative about theatre.  Building on  Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of a “field of cultural production”, Miller views theatre production as a sphere of forces of competition for scarce resources (e.g. space, actors, funding), and as an industry with its own unique patterns of production and consumption.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYjPlV-j4mQ

Professor Miller views Broadway performances as subject to competitive market forces, and calls it a field of cultural production.

Viewing a play or a musical as an industrial commodity allows for asking new kinds of questions — questions about the distribution of resources, the boundaries of theatre industry or the proper unit of analysis in theatre studies, which have been traditionally preoccupied with performance.