Hits & Flops
To the Editor:
“Clearly, this is not the track record of a flourishing theatrical medium,” writes Terry Teachout, noting that seven of the fourteen Broadway musicals he reviewed for the Wall Street Journal over the past year had either closed or announced their intention to do so [“Is the Musical Comedy Dead?,” June]. Mr. Teachout goes on to argue that this compares unfavorably with the “golden age” of the Broadway musical, roughly 1940-65, or from Pal Joey to Fiddler on the Roof.
Does it really? For all the treasures it left us—Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Gypsy, and others—Broadway’s “golden age” was also an era of flops, schlock, and failures. The same year (1944) that gave us On the Town, for instance, also gave us 20 performances of Allah Be Praised! Of the 274 Broadway musicals that opened between 1943 and 1964, only 27, or fewer than 10 percent, could be certified as “mega-hits” that ran for more than 750 performances. By contrast, nearly 30 percent—80 shows—lasted for fewer than 51 performances, and only 92 passed the threshold of 300 performances to qualify as even minor hits.
To be sure, the flops included shows, like Candide, later to be considered classics, while the hits included widely acknowledged failures like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro. But this just confirms that historical staying power cannot necessarily be discerned in the present.
No doubt there are recent Broadway musicals that one day will be admired as classics and revived again and again, both professionally and by amateur companies of college and community theaters. In my judgment, such future classics include Ragtime, The Producers, and Hairspray, to name only three, while Rent, Aida, and The Boy from Oz will become historical curiosities. But, of course, I could be wrong.
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout characterizes Taboo as a “jukebox” musical. In fact it was a new musical, and as such it won a 2003-4 Tony Award for Best Score. Not that this would have changed the gloomy tone of Mr. Teachout’s article, which in the opinion of this audience member is somewhat overstated for dramatic effect and is brimming with an outdated longing for the past.
John Kevin Jones
New York City
To The Editor:
As a longtime fan of both the musical theater and Terry Teachout, I was excited to read “Is the Musical Theater Dead?” I certainly agree with Mr. Teachout that contemporary lyricists and composers are generally unable to match the quality achieved by the greats of the 1930’s-60’s. I also find some merit in his assessment of the inferior “ideology” of recent musicals as opposed to the classics.
But I would point to what I consider an even more crucial failing by the creators of contemporary musical theater: their inability to create great characters. It is the characters that draw audience members into a story and lead them to care about what happens in that story. This is true in film, in television, and it is certainly true in theater.
In addition to excellent scores and a positive outlook, the classic musicals cited by Mr. Teachout generally have great characters at their center: Nathan Detroit, Annie Oakley, Tevye, Henry Higgins, Harold Hill, and the like. Not so, most current musicals—although, going beyond the most recent season, I would cite both The Producers and Hairspray as exceptions: two huge hits, quite enjoyable to watch, neither one of which had an especially good score but both of which bucked the trend by presenting compelling characters.
Finally, I happen to think that Stephen Sondheim’s scores equal and sometimes even surpass those of the classic musicals. But they often fail to engage audiences emotionally, and the reason may again be the absence of compelling characters. Sweeney Todd, arguably his best work, is not coincidentally the exception. If one counts Gypsy, to which he contributed the lyrics, as a “Sondheim” show, the point is underlined further.
Terry Teachout writes:
Like Richard E. Sincere, I, too, could be wrong, but I cannot imagine that Ragtime, The Producers, or Hairspray will ever be regarded as “classic” musicals, and not least because their scores are unmemorable. As for the comparatively high incidence of “flops, schlock, and failures” among musicals of what I call the “golden age,” what is so surprising about that? In the theater—or in any other artistic medium, for that matter—a long-term batting average of .100 is extraordinary.
Mr. Sincere also errs in supposing that a show that runs for more than 300 performances should be considered a “minor hit.” That may be true today, but in Broadway’s heyday, when production costs were lower (thus allowing backers to recoup their investments more quickly) and shows were opening like clockwork, a 300-performance run was thought to be highly successful.
In any case, the relevant comparison between then and now is with new musicals, not revivals. Judged by that standard, Broadway has just weathered a disastrous season.
Which brings me to John Kevin Jones. As he is surely aware, Taboo was a “new” musical only in the sense that it was not a revival. Its score consisted of preexisting pop songs by Boy George, which made it as much of a “jukebox” musical as, say, Movin’ Out or Mamma Mia! The standards by which shows become eligible for specific Tony categories, as is well known on and off Broadway, are highly flexible. As for my “outdated longing for the past,” it is not so chronic as to prevent me from praising such engaging new shows as Avenue Q, just as I would hope that Mr. Jones’s preference for the present is not so rigid as to lead him in turn to favor such tiresome drivel as Taboo.
Michael Kaplan makes an interesting point. My own feeling, however, is that a well-written book with compelling characters is merely an enabling condition for a good musical—that is, it is absolutely necessary but not sufficient in and of itself to ensure long-term artistic success. It is true that engaging, well-cast shows with second-rate scores can and do become hits. But once again I return to what I take to be the heart of the matter: has any musical comedy with an unmemorable score, no matter how interesting its story line may be, ever had an enduring life in revival? So far as I know, the answer is no.