THEATER TALK: How To Make A Hit Broadway Show, Part II: Be A Hit Already
What makes these shows hits? There's not much commonality between them, other than that they have mass appeal for whatever reason. None had a star in the conventional sense of the word when they opened, though their stars have certainly risen in stature since. One thing they all share, though, is well-respected creative teams. "Book of Mormon" paired Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of "South Park" with Bobby Lopez, composer of "Avenue Q," while "Wicked" was the product of established composer Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Pippin"). "Spider-Man" was originally the brainchild of Julie Taymor, who also directed the hugely successful Broadway adaptation of "The Lion King." The show as it appears now is not quite the way Taymor envisioned it, but that is probably why it is so successful.
There's an old adage that says, "There's no such thing as bad publicity." That statement seems to be very true for "Spider-Man," a musical that was plagued by plenty of problems during its unprecedentedly long preview period. However, neither the negative press coverage nor the middling reviews has stopped the show from consistently being one of the highest-grossing shows on Broadway. Granted, when "Spider-Man" earns over a million dollars a week, that doesn't necessarily mean it's turning a huge profit, as it is an expensive show to put on each week.
So what, then, is the key ingredient these shows have that makes them successes? It really boils down to word of mouth. A show can be fantastic and respected in the theater community and have plenty of supporters (e.g. "Next to Normal"), but it needs strong buzz to remain a vital part of the theater community. Most Broadway musicals need to appeal to not just New Yorkers and people from the Mid-Atlantic/New England who see multiple shows a year, but also to tourist families who come into New York City for the week and for whom seeing a Broadway show is a big deal. Those families will probably want to see something they've heard of, something they can go home and brag about to their friends, which isn't necessarily the critical darling du jour.
Agree or disagree with that principle, it still remains true that that is how shows become successes on Broadway—by being successes. It's circular logic, yes, but tourist business drives ticket sales, and so ultimately, their opinions are the most important opinions in terms of keeping a Broadway show afloat. While a show can receive a temporary boost from positive reviews or Tony Awards, if those don't eventually translate into mass popular appeal, the show will likely close sooner than a "worse" show.
So what can be done about this problem? I'm not sure if there's much that can actively done to solve it, but I can't help but hope that it is working to resolve itself right now. As musical theater becomes a greater part of American pop culture, I can only hope that that will lead to increased ticket sales for every show on Broadway.