Commentary Magazine

The Broadway Musical Crisis

Ten new musicals opened on Broadway in the 2013–14 season. Four of them—Aladdin, Big Fish, Bullets Over Broadway, and Rocky—were directly adapted from familiar American movies and shared their titles. Two others, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder and The Bridges of Madison County, were based on novels that had already inspired a pair of well-known films. And two of the four medium-sized musicals that opened off Broadway, Far from Heaven and Little Miss Sunshine, were also based on movies of the same name.

This was no anomaly. Of the 12 shows to be nominated for best-musical Tony Awards in 2011, 2012, and 2013, six were adapted from movies whose titles they shared. With few exceptions, they closely resembled the films after which they were named, most of which were either box-office hits or less popular films such as A Christmas Story and Newsies that had acquired followings after they were shown on TV or released on home video.

The most distinctive feature of these musicals is that they usually treat their source material not as a springboard for fresh, creative endeavor but as an exploitable economic commodity that can be “repurposed” for further profit. A few years ago, I started using the phrase “commodity musical” to describe them. The genre has established itself as the most significant development in the Broadway musical form since Stephen Sondheim started writing his own scores. What is it that makes these shows so popular—and what effect is their popularity having on the American musical?

Ever since Show Boat, whose book was carved by Oscar Hammerstein II out of Edna Ferber’s bestselling 1926 novel, most successful Broadway musicals have been adaptations of one kind or another—novels (The King and I), short stories (Guys and Dolls), memoirs (Gypsy). But their makers long took it for granted that they were creating essentially original works of popular art and did not depend on the audience’s familiarity with the source material, which was customarily treated with great freedom. In fact, the “originality” of these musicals was emphasized by their new titles. On the rare occasions when classic or well-known contemporary plays were adapted, the authors almost always subjected those plays to far-reaching imaginative transformations—usually, as in the post-Shakespearean cases of Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story, by drastically changing their settings. (My Fair Lady is the only great Broadway musical to have been more or less directly based on a well-known play, and Alan Lay Lerner actually adapted George Bernard Shaw’s screenplay for the 1938 film version of Pygmalion rather than working with the original script.)

It was uncommon for golden-age stage musicals to be based on movies, and most such shows, the best known of which was Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings (1955, based on Ninotchka), were adapted from classic films that were treated with similar freedom. Not until 1968 was a musical based on a relatively recent Hollywood hit successfully mounted on Broadway: Promises, Promises, derived from Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment, which ran for 1,281 performances. But the success of Promises, Promises inspired few imitators. It was not until the ’90s that Broadway started regularly looking to Hollywood for inspiration.

The first major step came when the Walt Disney Company mounted Beauty and the Beast (1994), a live-action stage version of the 1991 animated musical film of the same name. The success of Beauty and the Beast, which ran for 5,461 performances on Broadway and then toured the world, led to an ongoing series of Disney-produced stage shows based on the studio’s animated musicals.

Seven years later, Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan turned Brooks’s The Producers (1968) into a musical that ran on Broadway for six years and won a record-breaking 12 Tonys. Its success inaugurated a mad rush to find comparable products for adaptation. By 2007, when I first used the phrase “commodity musical” in a review of the stage version of Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, the genre had taken definitive shape.

Commodity musicals are based on commercially successful, well-remembered movies (or, less often, TV series). Their target market is the viewers of those movies. In order to attract these viewers, the musicals bear the titles of the films from which they are adapted and are closely based on their screenplays. The titles of the songs, such as “He Vas My Boyfriend” from Young Frankenstein and “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!” from A Christmas Story, are often catchphrases drawn from the films. On occasion, the casting of the original productions of these shows is also meant to evoke their source material: The three stars of the stage version of 9 to 5, for example, were cast in such a way as to unmistakably suggest Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin, their on-screen models.

It is this rigid, often slavish literalness that sets commodity musicals apart from older musicals that treated their source material far more freely. Even when that material was familiar to the original audience, as was the case with Guys and Dolls, the librettist Abe Burrows and the composer-lyricist Frank Loesser subjected the stories of Damon Runyon to a thoroughgoing imaginative transformation that gave their stage version a fully independent life. Not so commodity musicals, which are intended to remind audiences at all times of their source material and whose scores are usually (though not always) exercises in pastiche.

Is it possible for a commodity musical to depart creatively from its source? The 1997 Broadway version of Disney’s The Lion King, directed and designed by Julie Taymor, uses elaborate animal costumes and puppetry to create a show that is radically different in expressive effect from the animated film on which it is based. More recently, the musical version of Rocky, which opened in New York in March, includes a live-action version of the film’s climactic fight scene that is one of the most viscerally exciting visual spectacles ever to reach Broadway. For the most part, though, such shows are largely devoid of the vitality that made the musical so central to American theater in the 20thcentury. They are inoffensively entertaining at best, numbingly tedious at worst.

Why, then, have commodity musicals come to dominate the Broadway stage? One reason is that producers view them as safer investments than more original, less predictable fare. In 1968, the year Promises, Promises opened, the top ticket price on Broadway was $11 ($75 in today’s dollars). By contrast, today’s top price is about $140, and it is possible to pay as much as $477 for a premium orchestra seat. Because of these high prices, tourists—who make up 66 percent of the Broadway audience—must shop carefully in order to afford tickets to a hit show. Now that the national media have largely withdrawn their attention from Broadway, it is much easier to market a show based on a hit movie of the recent past to money-conscious tourists who don’t read the New York press.

Another reason is that Broadway songwriters no longer have a common musical language on which to draw. The scores of golden-age Broadway musicals were all written in the same idiom, a melting-pot amalgam of European operetta, ragtime, and early jazz that was for many years the lingua franca of American popular music. When rock ’n’ roll supplanted that style in the mid-’60s, Broadway failed to keep up with the times, and now that the final disintegration of America’s common culture has caused even rock to lose its short-lived status as a lingua franca, there is no longer a universally popular musical language in which theatrical songwriters can work. This makes it even harder for them to appeal to the public at large and so increases the likelihood that they will embrace the commodity musical out of sheer necessity.

It is for these two reasons that the rise of the commodity-musical genre constitutes a major setback for the Broadway musical. In a perverse application of Gresham’s Law to the world of theater, such shows crowd out the competition because they are safe, thus making it more difficult for songwriters to work on Broadway without conforming to their restrictive requirements. A case in point is the recent stage version of The Bridges of Madison County, an uneven but nonetheless interesting commodity musical whose score, by Jason Robert Brown, was considerably more sophisticated than the anodyne songs heard in most such shows. Too sophisticated, in fact, since Bridges closed after just three months, presumably in part because Brown’s ambitious score failed to fulfill the modest musical expectations of people who were attracted by the prospect of seeing a Broadway show based on a bestselling romance novel.

The tragedy of the commodity musical is that the past decade also saw the production of other musicals that were superior in every way to the bland, unchallenging fare that has overwhelmed Broadway. Some, like Giant, Coraline, Hands on a Hardbody, A Minister’s Wife, and The Light in the Piazza, were adapted from preexisting source material, while others, among them Avenue Q, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Drowsy Chaperone, Nobody Loves You, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, were wholly original. (That is true as well of the biggest hit of all, the deliberately sophomoric The Book of Mormon.)But none of them was a commodity musical, and all were originally developed and produced by not-for-profit theater companies. Revealingly, though, only a few of these shows successfully transferred to Broadway. Such transfers, while still feasible, are increasingly rare—and increasingly risky. Hands on a Hardbody, for example, ran for only 28 performances on Broadway after being successfully produced on the West Coast by La Jolla Playhouse.

What can be done to make it easier for such shows to flourish on Broadway? Nothing. Not only has the Great White Way come to be dominated by commodity musicals and “jukebox” shows such as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical with scores stitched together out of preexisting songs, but new straight plays are scarcely ever to be found there either, and revivals of even the most popular plays typically require the presence of a movie or TV star to be financially viable. It costs too much to bring any other kind of show to Broadway.

The rise of the commodity musical, then, is at least as much a symptom as it is a disease. Either way, it will probably not be cured in our lifetimes. To be sure, American theater remains vital, but the center of that vitality is now to be found off Broadway and in theaters outside New York. As for the old-fashioned Broadway musical, with its all-American optimism and burgeoning musical energy, it is gone for good, replaced for the moment—and very possibly for a long time to come—by a watered-down, parasitical simulacrum of the real thing.

About the Author

Terry Teachout,Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the winner of one of this year’s Bradley Prizes. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, opened off Broadway in March. 

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