By John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996 - Updated 2006)
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Once-squalid Times Square now greets theatergoers with bright lights, glitzy retail shops and family-friendly chain restaurants.
Some respected sources insist that the outlook for the Broadway musical is dim."Musicals flourished into the early sixties, but there were few new playwrights . . . and there seemed room for only one new writer of musicals, Stephen Sondheim. By the early eighties Broadway became a tourist attraction mounting fewer shows each year, some years not even ten, and these ten were often star vehicles or extravaganzas that depended on sensational stage effects. The same holds true today. It is difficult to imagine when Broadway will again play a significant role in New York's literary life."
- William Corbett, New York Literary Lights (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998), p. 37.
Stephen Sondheim was equally blunt "You have two kinds of shows on Broadway revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again, all spectacles. You get your tickets for The Lion King a year in advance, and essentially a family comes as if to a picnic, and they pass on to their children the idea that that's what the theater is a spectacular musical you see once a year, a stage version of a movie. It has nothing to do with theater at all. It has to do with seeing what is familiar. We live in a recycled culture . . . I don't think the theatre will die per se, but it's never going to be what it was. You can't bring it back. It's gone. It's a tourist attraction."
- as quoted by Frank Rich in Conversations With Sondheim (New York Times Magazine, March 12, 2000) pp. 40 & 88.
Sondheim has ample reasons to be be disheartened. From 1943 to the mid-1960s, Broadway musicals could be mounted for under $250, 000, and a well-managed production could turn a solid profit in less than a year. Now physically simple productions like Rent can cost $3, 000, 000 or more, while The Producers is rumored to have cost over $10, 000, 000. Even with ticket prices topping $110, shows can run for several years and still close at a loss. The combined effects of inflation and too many people demanding a bigger share of potential profits take a mounting toll.
At the same time, the core audience of musical theatre lovers is believed to be shrinking. In 1999, The New York Times claimed that CD producers limit cast recording releases to 5, 000 copies because that's how many collectors are out there. That would not constitute one full house at Radio City Music Hall! While this figure may sound extreme, recent sales figures back it up. Which brings us to a question so inevitable that it has become a clich . . .
Is The Musical a Dead Artform?
Theatrical professionals have fretted over this question for decades. Self-appointed experts offer all kinds of answers. However, among those who have lived and thrived in the world of the American musical, one finds a remarkable similarity of opinion. Try three of the genre's greatest songwriters -
"The musical theatre will go on, and the showtune will never die. But I don't think we will ever have that special kind of American entertainment in quite the same way."
- Jerry Herman, Showtune (New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1996)
"History is replete with dire predictions about the future of the New York theatre . . . This time the malaise may indeed be terminal . . . Broadway cannot live without the musical theatre, but the musical theatre can live without Broadway. After all, its first home was Paris and then Vienna and then London and then New York. So changes of address are not uncommon."
- Alan Jay Lerner, The Musical Theatre: An Appreciation (New York: McGraw Hill, 1986)
"It is clear that the musical theatre is changing. No one knows where it is going. Perhaps it is going not to one place but to many. That would be healthy, I think, just as the search in itself can be healthy. . . Thus it was for Shakespeare in Elizabethan times; thus it was for writers of musicals after Rodgers and Hammerstein; and thus it will be again. In the meantime, we have no choice but to be explorers as well as practitioners, to discover and set the limitations which will provide us our own discovery and release."
- Tom Jones, Making Musicals: An Informal Introduction to the World of Musical Theatre (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), pp. 84-85.
British Mega-musicals dominated Broadway in the late 20th Century, but it is clear that they are not the art form's future. Right now, the corporate Disney musical reigns supreme on both sides of the Atlantic. The Lion King boasts magnificent Disney marketing and $12, 000, 000 worth of puppetry, but the Elton John-Tim Rice score has all the wit of a State Department press release. Luckily for Disney, contemporary audiences have been trained to prefer style over substance, and Lion King has style by the truckload.
Titanic and Ragtime proved that the Broadway musical was still capable of artistic achievement in the late 1990s. Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel showed that new American musicals with a pop-music approach could find an audience despite critical scorn. But none of these hits could match the decade-plus runs of the British mega-musicals.
Crowds line up to see the long-running Rent.
When Rent proved a bona fide sensation in 1996, some critics said that it pointed the way to Broadway's musical future. Well, after a full decade, it is clear that these pronouncements were misfires. With amateurish production values, lust labeled as love, and bathos where a plot should be, Rent is less a signpost than a stumble. After almost a decade, it has spawned no trends, leaving nothing in its wake but the commercially unsuccessful rock-flavored stage adaptations of Footloose, Saturday Night Fever and Bright Lights Big City. If style, romance, melody and joy are things of the past, what is the point of a musical? Why not just go to a rock concert?
It astounds me that the super-exclusive circle of Pulitzer Prize winning musicals (Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello, How To Succeed, A Chorus Line) a circle that lacks My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof now includes Rent. What kind of madness is that? Rent's original New York subway advertising proclaimed, "Don't you hate the word 'musical'?" As a musical theatre lover, I will toast the day that this cacophony closes despite the fact that it was the last Broadway production I was personally involved with.
Since 2000, the all-American musical comedy has made a stunning comeback. With the triumph of The Full Monty, The Producers, Urinetown, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hairspray, critics and audiences have re-embraced a genre many (this author included) had supposed dead. With the exception of Urinetown, they are based on hit films. Musicals have been inspired by movies for decades, but not with such concentrated success. These musical comedies show tremendous promise, offering a happy blend of nostalgic pastiche and original spoof. They have also turned long-empty hopes into filled theater seats the ultimate sign of a successful theatrical trend.