A queue stretches along the carriage hardened pathway that curls from Mother Goose to Samuel F B Morse. The drizzle reminds me of home but does little to dampen the expectant crowd’s enthusiasm. Organisers almost skip along the line collecting waves, quotes and cheers. Eventually, the queue begins to move forward – this is the third incarnation of Darren Criss’ ElsieFest. I have watched shaky, handheld videos religiously from the last few years – its self-aware blend of pop, folk and musicals too much for this musical theatre heart to resist.
Broadway isn’t always a natural home for politics. Accusations fly from the left and right of ‘champagne socialism’ and ‘corporate meddling’. Spinning whirlwinds in an echo chamber, their resonance usually floats away as soon as the wind inevitably drops but tonight something feels different. The appeals aren’t wrapped in gorgeous smiles and self-congratulatory jazz hands, now they are incensed, defiant and raw. Some of the crowd isn’t sure how to respond – they like their protesters pirouetting. This is a changing Broadway.
Almost every performance finds fans in the crowd: Jeremy Jordan’s ‘Shiksa Goddess’ has most of the crowd reconsidering their sexuality; the graceful Auli’i Cravalho’s honesty enchants; every musical soul soars as Lea Michele belts ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’. Most of the night follows expectations. Show tunes follow covers and original songs. The crowd is the usual mix of excited teens, nostalgic students, hardcore musical theatre fans and a few parents bewildered their preteen dancing to the indie rock cover of ‘Duck Tales’. It is escapism under the guise of live music. Swept along with the StarKids, Gleeks and musical theatre nerds, we riff and scream to the moon in Central Park.
Broadway doesn’t know what to do with itself. Norm Lewis sings Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ and on the last note takes the knee. Amongst the crowd’s approval, the VIP tweens ask if it is due to a dance injury. A parent says nothing and coughs. Alan Cumming performs ‘What More Can I Say’, one of surprisingly few gay love songs of the repertoire, only on special occasions. Tonight he sings it for Mississippi and their new homophobic legislation. As ever he is brash and unapologetic but tonight there is anger and venom too. Throughout the night, lyrics are altered to reflect their singer’s convictions. A father shifts uncomfortably as one lyric is transformed into a deal breaker over gun control. There have always been the radicals but tonight the political are the majority. This is a conflicted Broadway.