Every Broadway show cancelled its matinee and evening performances on Saturday due to the blizzard, but day two of BroadwayCon — the first-ever convention designed specifically for musical theater super-fans young and old — went on unaffected at the Midtown Hilton.
When the three-day event was announced a year ago, it attracted a lot of skepticism. At a time when fans can log on to countless theater websites (Playbill.com and BroadwayWorld.com among them) for free news, interviews and feature stories, would they be willing to pay hundreds of dollars to attend panel discussions, workshops, sing-a-longs and freestyle performances? Also, doesn’t the annual Broadway Cares flea market in Shubert Alley already informally serve as Broadway’s annual convention?
Shortly before the first day of the event, its organizers revealed that approximately 6,000 people were expected to attend. When I showed up on Friday, the venue was absolutely mobbed, mostly with young girls, many of whom were dressed up as their favorite musical theater characters (Tracy Turnblad, Glinda, Elphaba, Belle, not to mention Alexander Hamilton). It reminded me of being at Disney World at the height of tourist season.
I began my day by auditing a workshop on pop song riffing (i.e. ornamentation) being taught by vocal coach and Internet celeb Natalie Weiss (who I attended theater camp with years ago). A simultaneous panel featuring Broadway producers was standing room only, as were countless others.
An opening ceremony, marked by an elaborate sketch about a high school girl dreaming of creating a “BroadwayCon,” was held in a large ballroom space. It was followed by a panel with the “Hamilton” cast (including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., Jonathan Groff and Phillipa Soo) and a 20th anniversary retrospective on “Rent” with several original cast members (including Anthony Rapp, who is a co-organizer of BroadwayCon).
“Hamilton” is, of course, a giant hit and a cause for celebration, and BroadwayCon would have been very different without its overwhelming presence. At the start of the “Hamilton” discussion, Anthony Rapp said that despite the tragic death of “Rent” author Jonathan Larson immediately before the first preview of “Rent,” “Hamilton” continues its legacy of a new, culturally relevant musical theater that honors the past and speaks to the present. The discussion included an original freestyle rap performed by Manuel-Miranda and ended with a euphoric sing-a-long with the entire audience.
On Saturday, I was surprised to find the place still crowded despite the weather, perhaps owing the fact that many of the attendees were out-of-towners who had booked rooms at the Hilton. I sat through two panels conducted by super-fan extraordinaire/author Jennifer Ashley Tepper where Broadway celebs and fans alike shared stories about the Palace Theatre and the year 1979.
Despite the weather and crowd control issues, BroadwayCon was a resounding success, and a testament to the happy reality that there is a huge population of teens weaned on “Glee” and “Wicked” who genuinely love musical theater and want to be, in the words of the cult musical “[title of show],” a part of it all. I would have loved to attend BroadwayCon when I was a teen.
The organizers may want to rethink holding the event again in January, although the blizzard was certainly unforeseeable. And although the conference rooms of the Midtown Hilton were adequate in terms of space, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to hold the event at a multi-theater complex such as New World Stages or the Signature Center at Pershing Square? And how about some programming at actual Broadway theaters?