The Stage: Is the boom in musicals driving plays away from Broadway?

July 8th, 2016 § 0 comments

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, and Lauren Klein in The Humans (Photo by Joan Marcus)

With Broadway’s seasonal winnowing of the herd well underway – only 29 shows running, with nine closing by the first weekend in September – it seems a good time to look back at what was, and what we know about what will be.

What we know is that in the last Broadway season, only eight new plays opened on Broadway, and only one of them is still running, Stephen Karam’s The Humans. Based on productions with firm opening dates and theatres for the coming season, there are only three new plays on tap so far, and even that’s generously allowing Andrew Upton’s The Present, based on Chekhov, into the group.

It’s not that Broadway will lack for plays, but they’re predominantly revivals, everything from The Little Foxes to The Cherry Orchard to August Wilson’s Jitney – these from our subsidised companies with Broadway homes. Commercially, we’ll see The Front Page, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Glass Menagerie.

That’s not to say that more new plays won’t find their way to Broadway, and surely more productions will be announced between now and early January, at which point the season is usually pretty well set. At this time last year, we didn’t yet know about Eclipsed or The Humans, which made quick trips from Off-Broadway to on. Off-Broadway’s institutional companies have a raft of new work on tap, any of which could catch fire and make the leap, as could a sudden UK hit, or even, though it’s increasingly rare, a play emerging from the array of regional companies around the US.

But the ongoing problem of how plays manage to hold a place on Broadway, especially if they don’t come with a true box office draw star attached, is certainly apparent from last season and the one to come. The risk of mounting new plays, sans stars, is now incompatible with Broadway, unless buoyed on a wave of critical acclaim and industry awards. Even Off-Broadway, subsidised producers are hedging their bets with stars such as Daniel Radcliffe at the Public Theater and Matthew Broderick at the Irish Rep this summer.

Musicals have no such problems. Indeed, at any given moment there seem to be more musicals circling Broadway hoping to secure a theatre than there are landing slots. These are largely new works, too, and the coming season will include stage adaptations of films, such as Amelie and Anastasia; transfers from London, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Groundhog Day; and original pieces such as Come from Away and Dear Evan Hansen (both of which were first seen regionally). There is no dearth of new musicals, a far cry from 1994/95 when Sunset Boulevard and Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the latter a revue, were the only new musicals of the season. Even when many new musicals come and go quickly, losing $10 to $12 million each, there seem to be more waiting in the wings.

Are the successful, and even the unsuccessful, musicals driving plays away?

That’s not necessarily the case, since so many factors go into producing decisions. But it’s worth noting that The Color Purple – like Once before it – has made a good home of the intimate Jacobs Theatre, and while American Psycho’s run was short, it colonised the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, another smaller house more commonly used for plays. If musicals can be budgeted to work in smaller houses even more frequently, it’s likely they’ll proliferate there as well, since there seems to be so much less willingness to lose $4 million on a play and so much more financial upside to a hit musical.

Plays aren’t disappearing from Broadway any time soon, but the opportunities for new plays, at least from the current vantage point, seem to be on the wane. That’s a by-product of Broadway’s overall robust health, and perhaps the bounty of creative musical theatre talent, as well. But there’s no dearth of talented playwrights, either. Without the boost that being on Broadway can bring, in popular perception and in the media, will plays come to be seen by some as a truly separate form of theatre, if they can’t stand side by side with musicals everywhere theatre is found? Let’s hope that’s not where we’re headed.

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