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THEATER TALK: Yes, New Musicals Are Struggling On Broadway, But That's Not Exactly News

Katie Buenneke |
December 19, 2011 | 4:42 p.m. PST

Theater Editor


Note: this is in response to this NY Times article.

Yes. It is hard for new musicals on Broadway. They rarely are the box-office juggernauts that "Wicked" and "Jersey Boys" are. But this is not a new concept at all.

The two most financially successful new musicals are "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" and "The Book of Mormon." While these shows do not have household names in their casts, their composers are pretty major celebrities. The drawing power of U2 and "South Park" alone are more than enough to lure tourists to see those two shows. When you add in the significant media attention each has received (granted, for very different reasons), it's really no wonder that they're both doing so well.

Now onto the new musicals that aren't doing so well. One that the Times mentioned is "Lysistrata Jones," citing the low box office numbers it pulled this past week. But here's the thing; it literally opened mid-week. Ben Brantley, the Times' chief theater critic, loved it. I loved it. But the two of us (and any other critics who enjoyed it) are not enough to encourage people to come from out of town to see it between Wednesday night (when Brantley's review was published) and Sunday, the last day included in the numbers for this week. So the "strong reviews" had little effect on the show's pull this week. That's not to say that critical acclaim will ensure the show's success in the future; it will be a hard sell, but I hope it succeeds. I have an awful feeling it will go the way of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," (which is to say, successful off-Broadway, critically acclaimed, but had difficulty finding an audience on the Great White Way and closed quickly) but I really hope that doesn't happen.

As for "Bonnie & Clyde," while Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes are lovely and very talented, they cannot save "Bonnie & Clyde," which is, frankly, a fatally flawed show. It was written by Frank Wildhorn, a composer who is not a household name (despite his success on Broadway in the late 90s), it did not get positive reviews, and to be quite honest, it's very possible that most tourists don't want to see a show where it's guaranteed that the main characters will be dead at the end—they might want something a tad peppier. I know, Tony dies at the end of "West Side Story," but that's a masterpiece by Bernstein and Sondheim. "Bonnie & Clyde" is no masterpiece.

I think it's too soon to lament the state of contemporary musical theater. Three Tony-eligible musicals have already opened ("Spider-Man" opened too late to be eligible for last season, so it should be eligible this year), and five, maybe six more should open in early 2012: "Once," "Ghost: The Musical," "Newsies," "Rebecca," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and "Peter & The Starcatchers"—if it opens in time. Granted, none of these are exactly new; three are based on movies, two of which were musical movies, and one is based on existing Gershwin showtunes, but still. That makes eight to nine Tony-eligible new musicals for the 2011-2012 season, which is pretty exciting in its own way.

Also, it is really hard for every new musical, but especially those by composers who are not well-known in America as a whole and abroad, or composers who are not established in the Broadway community. "Avenue Q" is the last original Broadway show I can think of with "unknown" composers that has been wildly successful—"Spring Awakening" could count, I suppose, but it had a fairly short run on Broadway and Duncan Sheik is kind-of-sort-of a name.

If you look at the original musicals that are currently on top of the charts in terms of box office sales, they are: "The Lion King" (based on a Disney movie musical, composed by Alan Menken, an established composer),  "Wicked" (based on a successful book, composed by Stephen Schwartz, an established composer, and with a cast of Broadway veterans), the aforementioned "Spider-Man" and "Book of Mormon," "Jersey Boys" (based on Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons and composed by one of the Four Seasons), "Mary Poppins" (based on the classic movie musical and using its music), and "Billy Elliot" (based on a well-known movie and composed by Elton John).

So it's hard for new musicals. No one's saying it isn't. But Broadway has known for a while that every show—even revivals and plays—needs a "draw." Just look at the revolving door that is the casting process for "Chicago" or the plethora of plays with movie and TV stars in them. Theater tickets are expensive, and people want to know they're getting something valuable when they sink $161.50 (or however much) per seat to sit in the orchestra and watch a show on Broadway. They want to get their money's worth. So can you blame them for being skeptical of new musicals without any famous people attached? I can't, though I will keep encouraging people to see good new musicals. Or just to see theater in general. Goodness knows I started my Broadway addiction with some of the bigger "name" musicals, but as I grew to love Broadway, I branched out and found some amazing new material. I don't wish to say my way is the only way or the best way or anything like that, but I think the first step in helping these new shows find an audience is to foster love for the theater. When theater (or any art form) is personally important to an individual, he or she tends to want to experience as much of that art form as possible. So go out! Love the theater! Bring a friend! Better yet, bring a friend to a new musical that you love! Who knows, he or she may fall in love with it just as much as you have (for I'm assuming you, dear reader, have good taste), and tell his or her friends, and then we will ride on the wheels of a dream. Or something.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: the original version of the article misnamed the decedent in "West Side Story"]

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