History of the Musical Stage

2000-2009 Part II: Tourist Traps

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2005-2009)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Jukebox Triumphant

Audiences cheered for Jersey Boys (2005 - 2,300+ perfs, still running), a thinly dramatized collection of pop hits introduced by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, but some in the profession expressed concern when this show became the first jukebox musical to win the Tony for Best Musical. With a score consisting entirely of old hit from the pop charts, this pleasant tuner would delight suburbanites and tourists for years to come.

Its main rival was The Drowsy Chaperone (2006 - 674 performances), a spoof of 1920s musicals that boasted an original score but bore little genuine resemblance to its supposed targets. A handsome adaptation of the hit novel and film The Color Purple (2005 - 910 performances) was plot-heavy, but a promising score and generous publicity (courtesy of producer Oprah Winfrey, who plugged the musical on her popular daytime talk show) helped keep the show running for more than a year.

Several costly failures drew attention. Few mourned when Andrew Lloyd Webber's mawkish The Woman in White (2005 - 109 performances) and Disney's earthbound adaptation of the animated Tarzan (2006 - 486 performances) both lost millions of dollars. And there was barely concealed glee when Elton John's unimaginative score helped bury the vampire musical Lestat (2006 - 39 performances). The spectacular failure of Shonberg & Boublil's dreary The Pirate Queen (2007 - 85 performances) verified the public was no longer buying the old megamusical formula either. And Mel Brooks stumbled with an uninspired adaptation of his own Young Frankenstein (2007 - 484 performances). Was the endless stream of Broadway musicals based on films finally coming to an end? Like a breath of fresh air, America's growing Latino population made a long overdue appearance on Broadway with In the Heights (2008 - 1,184 performances), which took actor-songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda from off-Broadway obscurity to Tony-winning fame with a salsa-infused score that attracted critical approval and enthusiastic audiences.

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them . . .

A spunky little musical called [title of show] (2008 - 102 performances) that featured its two authors spouting musical theatre in-jokes made it to Broadway via an innovative pathway. It parlayed a debut in the NY Musical Theatre Festival and a brief run off-Broadway into an avalanche of low-cost internet publicity. Once on Broadway, all the social networking on earth could not attact a substantial audience.  A lavish adaptation of the animated film Shrek (2008 - 441 performances) offered ample entertainment but had such trouble filling seats that it lost millions despite a year-plus run.

On the other hand, audiences packed the tuneless but energetic adaptation of Billy Elliot (2008 - 1,100+ performances, still running), which had three talented young actors alternating in the role of the British coalminer's son who dreams of studying ballet. While this import won the Tony for Best Musical, the awards for Best Score and Book went to Next to Normal (2009 - 733 performances), a native born show about a family facing emotional meltdown set to a powerful rock beat. 

Although no one dared say it, Broadway had just offered a full season in which no successful new musical featured traditional showtunes.  Those were heard in a series of popular revivals.

But the presence of these vintage hits merely made the change in musical theatre all the more apparent. After a reign of more than a century, the classic showtune was now a dinosaur, even on Broadway. With tourists making up more than 60 percent of its audience, Broadway had resigned itself to being little more than a tourist trap -- like the soul-less floor shows of Las Vegas, but with occasional sparks of invention.

This sad state was all the more apparent when the final Best Musical Tony of the decade went to Memphis (2009 - 1165 performances). The story of a white radio disc jockey daring to play "black" music in the 1950s featured enough high energy choreography to help audiences to overlook a third rate rock score and a cliché-ridden script.

Christmas Annuals

New York has a long tradition of annual productions associated with the holiday season, most notably the annual Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall, and the Madison Square Garden Theatre's musical version of A Christmas Carol that ran to profitable houses each December through the 1990s. But the mid-2000s saw several new musicals make repeat appearances on Broadway as holiday events.

Although these shows were limited to November-December runs, they became popular staples in regional theatres desperately seeking new musicals to offer audiences during the holiday season.

Next: 2010-Present - A Work in Progress