“Like Christmas Day and sex with supermodels, Broadway seasons are often far more exciting during the anticipation stage.” So began Jess Cagle’s December 1997 review of Broadway’s The Lion King in Entertainment Weekly. (He gave it an A+).
Two decades later, Cagle, 51, is editor-in-chief of People; editorial director of Time Inc.’s Style and Entertainment Group, which includes EW, In Style and Essence; and his conversations with actors, directors and other celebrities — known as The Jess Cagle Interview — are distributed by Sirius XM. We spoke on May 16. Edited excerpts follow:
Q: Broadway overall seems to be doing well. Do you agree?
Cagle: There’s increasing interest in Broadway, because of Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen and Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! They’re somehow breaking through to people way outside of New York.
Wicked was more than just a Broadway phenomenon because of the cast recording. Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton — same thing. Because of viral videos, you can see more of shows online than we ever could growing up. When I was a kid, you saw a Broadway performance once a year on the Tony Awards. There are a lot more ways for theater producers to grab someone’s interest.
Q: What’s the evidence Dear Evan Hansen is breaking through?
Cagle: You talk to people. But the most tangible evidence is the amount of traffic that we get on People.com and EW.com when we cover it. We know it gets clicked. It’s about teen suicide and identity. And Ben Platt was already a big star to the millennial audience because of Pitch Perfect.
Q: Broadway plays without music are generally struggling. Some producers blame the competition from television.
Cagle: Right now, the most exciting voices are working in television. That’s a generational thing. Greg Berlanti for example. [A writer-director-producer whose shows include Supergirl, Blindspot and The Mysteries of Laura.] There was a time in the ’50s when a Greg Berlanti would want to write for the theater. Now a Greg Berlanti wants to write for television. That’s what they grew up on and that’s what was relevant to them.
Because the television landscape is so fractured and there’s so much content, there is a tremendous opportunity for writers. Way more than in theater, and there’s a better chance to make a living. There’s a romance to theater and movies, so great writers will always go to those places, but there’s much more opportunity in television right now to do something exciting.
Q: With people having big screens at home, is going to the movies under threat?
Cagle: It’s definitely under threat. That’s why Hollywood doesn’t make midrange movies anymore, for $30 or $40 million. It’s really hard to get those made. Hollywood has become a business of enormous tent-poles that can travel around the world, franchises like Spider-Man, and tiny indie movies that now don’t have to go to theaters. You can sell your movie to Netflix.
Q: Where’s entertainment going broadly?
Cagle: There’s one huge thing happening: On demand. People want to watch what they want, when they want, how they want. If you’re not catering to people’s specific wants and needs, you’re missing out. That consumer behavior has disrupted Hollywood and the publishing industry and we’re all trying to figure it out.
Despite the fact that Virtual Reality and 3D can exist in your home, there will still be a moviegoing experience. But I’d say in ten years it will probably be very different. Humans have a need to get out and join in groups. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is still going to draw people out to theaters. And there is still appointment TV viewing, like The Voice. People are going to watch that so they can be part of the conversation. And theater will always get people out of the house.
While movie theaters, appointment television and theaters aren’t dying, there will be less of it because there is so much more competition. A lot of people, you can’t blame them, would rather stay home and watch what they want. And they have such tremendous options.
Q: What does Broadway need to do better?
Cagle: Theater has a few problems. The migration of talent, particularly to television. The cost of tickets, which are prohibitively expensive for most people. And the critics have way too much power. For independent films, critics have power, but it’s not just one person at the New York Times. The theater audience is an older audience. It’s hard to communicate with Broadway-goers on Snapchat. If you’re [NBC’s] This is Us, there are lots of ways to reach a young audience. There are many smart people in theater publicity and marketing and many smart producers. They know what to do. It’s just a challenge.
Editor: Alice Scovell