Narrow Chances for New Broadway Musicals

June 28th, 2012 § 9 comments

To begin, an exercise. Below you’ll see four groups of shows, labeled A through D. Groups A and B have a common factor, as do groups C and D. Take a moment to see whether you spot the common ground. Now imagine the Jeopardy theme playing.

Group A: Grey Gardens, Hairspray, Once, Passion, The Producers, Nine, The Light in the Piazza

Group B: Sweet Smell of Success, Big, Nick and Nora, Carrie, The Red Shoes, Footloose

Group C: Once, Jersey Boys, Movin’ Out, Contact, Fosse, Crazy for You, Ain’t Misbehavin’

Group D: Good Vibrations, Never Gonna Dance, Saturday Night Fever, Swinging on a Star, Buddy, The Look of Love

Did you get it? A and B are both lists of musicals based on movies, groups C and D are lists of musicals which came to Broadway with scores that had originally been written for other media.

If you are a fan of Broadway musicals, odds are you’d be quick to declare your affinity, or at least respect, for the shows in Groups A and C, while I imagine you’re unlikely to come out with passionate statements about the artistry of the shows in Groups B and D. Although not shown above, I also suspect that my Group E would meet with general favor – Next to Normal, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Urinetown, Book of Mormon, In The Heights – namely, the supposedly extinct, wholly original musical.

Why am I playing this parlor game? It’s because I hear certain assumptions about musicals, and particularly Broadway musicals, all the time and they tend to be generalizations, based on recent and often selective memory. So I set out to look at whether Broadway is being overrun by musicals based on movies, or jukebox musicals, thinking I’d look at the past 10 or 15 years, but that turned into 20, then 25, and finally I ended up studying all of the new musicals to play Broadway since the 1975-76 season.

Why 75-76? Because just as Oklahoma! was seen as a watershed in the development of musical theatre, I feel I can argue that the next (and to date, perhaps only other) watershed musical was A Chorus Line. While a look all the way back to the season of Oklahoma! might be edifying, both Broadway and society in general have changed radically in that time; without undertaking a master’s thesis (or without an intern to wrangle data for me), this more modern era seemed manageable.

To get right to the first headline: yes, there are more musicals based on movies than there used to be; there were four this year and five last year. The year A Chorus Line debuted, there wasn’t a single movie-based musical, so that might send you running to proclaim how great things used to be. In fact, you’d be further buoyed when I told you that season saw musicals based on classic Greek literature, Shakespeare and U.S. and world history. But I’d deflate you when I told you those shows were the major flops Home Sweet Homer, Rockabye Hamlet, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Rex. A pedigreed source isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

What we did see more of back in the 70s were musicals based on books or plays which had also been made into movies, although the source cited for the musical was usually the original material; some examples of this are Chicago (a play, later the film Roxie Hart),  The Grand Tour (the play Jacobowsky and the Colonel, later the Danny Kaye film Me and the Colonel), and Sarava (the book and film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands).  But what’s worth noting as well is that these weren’t books or films which were hugely well known and, in those pre-VCR days, they weren’t easily found either.  For audiences and critics alike, they may have felt fairly new overall, successful source or not.

Though most think it of as a recent phenomenon, the jukebox musical was also already prevalent. Existing musical materials were frequently drafted into Broadway duty, although the early tendency was to do so in the form of a revue (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Eubie); in 79-80, a Cole Porter score was grafted (albeit unsuccessfully) onto Philip Barry’s Holiday as Happy New Year. In this era, perhaps the first major book-based jukebox musical was My One and Only, a troubled production that came out on top with a Gershwin score, following efforts by young avant-gardist Peter Sellars to crossbreed the songs with a Gorky play.

Sources in the 80s ranged from novels to comic books to plays to original stories to U.S. history, and movie-based musicals typically had literary antecedents, such as La Cage aux Folles and Carrie. The first shows I spotted in my sample that were based on original screenplays were from the 78-79 season: King of Hearts and Ballroom, the latter from a TV movie (although musical from movies certainly predated that; Promises Promises, from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, is merely one prior example).  Because films may also have their own source material, it’s sometimes hard to tease out when the movie in musical pattern really took hold (or if it was in fact something new), but the mid 90s seem to be a point at which they became more persistently present.

Yet now I’ll venture my first strong opinion on this, which is that, as Group A up at the top reveals, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with musicals based on movies. When it is done with enough craft, with care and talent, no one begrudges a show its origins, although there is a tendency to now judge the source even before the show is produced. It would also appear that, in many cases, the more successful examples of this genre are shows drawn from lesser-known films; the rush to translate recent hit films hasn’t necessarily meant greater box office success. Barreling ahead, I’ll say that while I think we need original scores lest the craft of musical theatre songwriting be lost, there have been terrifically entertaining and creative shows based on music cobbled together from other sources, whether it be earlier musicals, pop radio or a songwriter’s catalogue. Again, the only question is whether it’s done artfully.

My rather wide spreadsheet built for this overview ended up showing me some things I did not expect, which play into our perception of Broadway being “overrun” with jukebox musicals and musicals based on movies. By looking at Broadway seasons, shorn of all plays (new and classic), concert bookings (which used to be quite frequent) and revivals, an interesting picture of new musicals in the post-Chorus Line age emerges. A rather small picture.

Based on my research, there were 322 new musicals on Broadway in the past 37 years – which works out to an average of nearly nine a year. That is a startlingly small number when you consider that musical theatre is considered to be one of the major art forms that is innately American, and Broadway, whether we like it or not, remains the prime showcase for that work and the engine for its economic success.  Yes, my time period covered the dark days of the eighties and early 90s, when Times Square was supposedly at its lowest. That didn’t keep critical and popular successes from arriving: A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, Big River, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, The Secret Garden, Tommy and more. What was happening was that fewer new shows were opening – coming off an already small number.

We’re not talking about a vast gap; in the late 70s, an average of 12 new shows opened each season, as already mentioned, the 37-year average is 9 (8.7 exactly). There were some truly dark years, but they’re not so long ago: 94-95 (2 new musicals), 2000-01 (five) and 01-02 (six).  As the number of new shows dropped, the scales tipped even more disproportionately to movie-based and jukebox musicals. But there’s no clear pattern which demonstrates these type of shows having usurped or corrupted Broadway; without them, the number of musicals might be even lower. There simply aren’t other musicals being produced to fill out the roster.

It is true that without celebrities, and there are few bankable musical stars these days, producers are looking for titles or music with built in marketing pull, because when you’re raising $10 or $12 million for one show, you’re looking to mitigate risk. That said, look at my B and D lists and you know that there’s no sure thing. Yet that doesn’t stop people from trying to maximize potential, and that same rationale speaks to the affinity for revivals as well (although I’ve not studied whether there’s been a commensurate increase in musical revivals to balance out the loss of new shows). I will note that Broadway did once seem even more musical, as the 70s and 80s saw a plethora of short-run concerts, with a roster of performers that resembled those of Vegas showrooms, including Engelbert Humperdinck, Bing Crosby, Shirley Bassey, Peter Allen, and Patti LaBelle, as well as the occasional dance company, ice show (!) and three editions of Oba Oba.

The success of the major long-running shows, ushered in by A Chorus Line, has also served to hold down the potential for new musicals on Broadway, marketing and financing aside. With shows settling in for 10, 15, 20 year runs, there simply aren’t enough of the big musical houses available, and so fewer shows get on. There are only 40 Broadway theatres, and many are too small to sensibly house a musical. The Broadway musical is a victim of its present day success and a finite amount of space.

Although I can now speak only anecdotally, I daresay there are more people than ever studying and writing new musicals. In contrast to the golden age of the 40s and 50s, when the skill of writing musicals was learned on the job or through mentorships, we now have undergraduate and graduate programs in musical theatre; the regional theatre network, founded primarily to mount plays, has discovered the artistic and economic appeal of musicals; and there are countless developmental opportunities under a variety of auspices. Yet with rare exceptions, truly successful musicals are made on Broadway, the opportunities there have diminished, and every hit new musical suppresses the potential for other shows for years at a time. The musical development complex runs counterintuitively to the chances for major production.

Musicals made from movies will not kill the American musical, as they only succeed when they’re done well. Jukebox musicals will not eliminate new musical scores, because only the shrewdest interpolations yield a successful show. What will keep the American musical at low ebb is: a) a risk-averse mindset among some producers that opts for the familiar over the unknown, despite the great success in the recent past of wholly original work, b) the almost single-minded focus on Broadway as the locus of all musical success when it is only the most lucrative market for musicals; c) the inability of Broadway to provide sufficient berths for a higher number of new musicals annually; and d) the perpetual generation of more and more musical writers into a field that can encourage many of them, but sustain few.  We need new avenues for the success of musicals that don’t require passing through Times Square and we need to eradicate the notion of Broadway and New York as the sole arbiter of a musical’s success. There are organizations attempting to do this, but the iconic nature of Broadway and its potentially considerable rewards still dominate.

The problem, however, is not Broadway; Broadway is an expensive and risky though potent option. The problem is that we have made Broadway the only hope. But we can’t. The numbers don’t lie: 8.5 new musicals a year, and fewer of those that run, is not enough to be the flagship for and to sustain an entire field of creative endeavor.

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Notes on process: Counts were based on information from Theatre World and Playbill Vault, both invaluable, but not completely consistent on records and which theatres were indeed Broadway houses, especially in the early years covered. Whenever possible, I erred on the side of inclusion, but someone else might count slightly differently depending upon their methodology and judgment.  I considered new musicals to be newly constructed shows, using both new and existing scores, which could reasonably considered to be musical theatre; song revues like Ain’t Misbehavin’ or Swing I considered new musicals, while something like Tango Argentino or solo concerts, even when by impeccable artists such as Barbara Cook, were ruled out. I did not follow the Tony designations for “special theatrical events” during the decade that award existed, but judged each show on its own merits consistent with what I said previously. I would be the first to say don’t take my 309 count as written-in-stone gospel, but I’m confident that the trends and averages will hold up to scrutiny.

Update July 10: In preparing a follow-up to this piece, I re-reviewed the seasons in question using only the Playbill Vault for consistency’s sake. The post as it now appears reflects adjustments in numbers based upon that re-review, which reflect marginal changes which but do, as expected, maintain the ratios as originally determined.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chance1 Chance McClain

    What a great, great read. It is very timely, particularly item b. on your list of things that could keep the musical on the low ebb. I have am in the midst of a new production in a new way presently. I hope you are right!

    • Bryanford

      I hope chance is right.

  • http://twitter.com/acpence Ann-Carol Pence

    I am also more than a little surprised that there does not seem to be a theatre in New York City wholly committed to the development and production of new musicals. But this model would need to be in part funded by the success of the musical theatre community. Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ahrens & Flaherty and company should have some place to “gift” on a regular basis that will help the next generation of artists create. Philanthropy is a learned behavior and artists sometimes need to pass on the tremendously bountiful opportunities they have been given. 

    • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

      That’s a fantastic idea.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sethchristenfeld Seth Christenfeld

       The York Theatre (where I co-coordinate the reading series) has traditionally been dedicated to this.  (Although this current season has been revivals of two off-Broadway shows–Ionescopade and Closer Than Ever–and a few seasons ago we had a huge hit with Enter Laughing, a revision of the 1970s Broadway failure So Long, 174th Street.)

  • Dpuzia

    I am a musical theatre writer who has a belief of Innovation over imitation without limitation. One day Broadway will hopefully come around. Theatre can be so much more, and one day it will. Les Miz, Cats, Phantom, J.C. Superstar, Rent just to name a few ALL have amazing staying power. But the creative avenues for the works that I have mentioned have mostly disappeared. Perplexing to day the least. Great article Mr. Howard Sherman.

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  • Kytheavec

    The is no purely original work.  Just ask the most famous and talented plagiarist William Shakespeare.  It’s about innovation not invention.

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