History of the Musical Stage

2010-The Present: A Work in Progress

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2014)

The Tourist is Always Right . . . Sort Of

With tourists making up more than 60 percent of the typical Broadway audience, New York producers were more focused than ever on attracting business from out of town visitors. This may explain why the first year of the new decade was chin-deep in borrowed nostalgia and painfully short on invention. Consider this: the entire year 2010 did not feature the debut of a Tony winner for Best Musical -- instead, that award wound up going to shows from the previous and following calendar years.

Those who aimed for the tourist trade did so with mixed results:

Original musicals had a rough time of it. Six years after Fred Ebb's death, Kander & Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys (2010 - 49 performances) used minstrel show conventions to tell the harrowing true tale of young black men unjustly convicted of rape in 1931 Alabama. Brilliantly written and performed, this show was unable to find a Broadway audience, but was soon produced by regional theatres nationwide -- to critical praise. On a decidedly different note, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010 - 120 performances) told the story of America's populist president in the form of an "emo" rock concert. Acclaimed off-Broadway, it died a costly death soon after moving uptown.

Spider-man: Taking Failure to New Heights

Arguably the most cynically conceived tourist trap in Broadway musical history, Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark (2011 - 1066 performances) began previews in 2010, but a nightmarishly tangled web of rewrites and production problems pushed its opening into the middle of the following year -- and sent the production's budget soaring past $70 million.

Rock legends Bono (a.k.a. Paul David Hewson) and The Edge (a.k.a. David Howell Evans) wrote a deafening but dramatically empty score that did nothing to enliven a jumbled libretto that eventually admitted to three authors. Everything relied on the heavily harnessed aerial acrobatics of the title character -- handled by the leading man and a squadron of identically costumed stand-ins. Audience dissatisfaction and a series of widely publicized cast injuries led to the firing of creative team members and months of costly revisions.

A bad idea that the producers kept throwing money at, Spider-Man opened more than seven months behind schedule to vicious critical dismissals. Although the expected tourist audience kept the show running for two and a half more years, the cripplingly expensive previews -- and a weekly expense of $1.3 million (the highest in Broadway history) made it impossible for the show to recoup its investment. Spider-Man ran for years, but wound up costing more than a full season's worth of flops.

Mormons & Drag Queens & Nuns, Oh My!

Old hit films remained a staple source for new stage musicals. The Australian cult hit Priscilla Queen of the Desert (2011 - 526 performances) inspired a silly but enjoyable stage adaptation, packed with campy old pop songs and over the top drag routines. Whoopi Goldberg's popular 1992 screen hit Sister Act (2011 - 561 performances) brought a bevy of singing nuns to Broadway with a pleasant but mostly forgettable score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. The big screen comedy hit Catch Me If You Can (2011 - 166 performances) had a surprisingly weak score by the creators of Hairspray, but brought Broadway stalwart Norbert Leo Butz a well-deserved Tony for his bravura performance as a wily aged FBI agent.

The first all-out hit of the decade came when Matt Stone and Trey Parker (creators of the iconoclastic animated TV series South Park) teamed up with Avenue Q's Robert Lopez to write and compose The Book of Mormon (2011 - 1,500+ performances, still running). This fresh, tuneful and at times shockingly potty-mouthed show follows young Mormon missionaries seeking converts in deepest Africa, with wildly hilarious results. Rave reviews and no less than nine Tony Awards -- including Best Musical -- led to SRO signs at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre box office for years to come.

But for all its success, The Book of Mormon will almost certainly be a major problem in years to come. As funny as the use of obscenity is, it limits the future of this show after its professional runs end. For example, one song that is crucial to the plot uses the lowest of gutter language in a series of sexual references to God. Between this number and numerous other (more easily removable) uses of vulgarity, most schools and amateur theatres will not be able to present this show -- unless the authors plan a rewrite so extensive that the new show will bear only limited resemblance to the original text.

On a far classier note, a star-studded Kennedy Center revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies (2011 - 152 performances) came to Broadway for a limited but highly acclaimed run. Bernadette Peters gave a career-best performance as former showgirl Sally Durant, and one of the strongest ensemble casts in memory proved that this 1971 masterpiece has only grown more poignant with the passage of time.

"Falling Slowly"

The year 2012 featured numerous revivals, including warmly received limited run productions of Porgy and Bess (2012 - 293 performances) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012 - 136 performances). Director James Lapine's somewhat dark take on Annie (2012 - 487 performances) drew mixed reviews but managed a respectable year-plus run, while a lavish, souped-up revival of Jesus Christ Superstar (2012 - 116 performances) was critically dismissed and closed at a major loss. A revival of Evita (2012 - 337 performances) had a decent run despite an unimaginative staging and uneven casting that left critics and fans of the show shrugging.

Devoted fans of the 1992 Disney film musical Newsies (2012 - 1004 performances) were delighted when a long-promised stage adaptation made it to Broadway. The expanded score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman was tuneful, and a new libretto by Harvey Fierstein was a major improvement over the film script. What Disney had shrewdly announced as a limited run soon sold-out, and for years to come, audiences cheered as 1890s teenage newsboys were played by a high-leaping troupe of thirty-somethings.

Original musical flops were thick on the ground that years. A tuneful Alan Menken score and a charismatic performance by Raul Esparza was not enough to save Leap of Faith (2012 - 19 performances), the story of a barnstorming faith healer. Many had high hopes for Chaplin (2012 - 136 performances), but a valiant performance by Rob McClure in the title role could not make up for a cliché-ridden book, forgettable score and visually annoying production (make-up, costumes & sets were all in dreary shades of black & white until the all too brief red-draped final scene). TV talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford used her celebrity status to push Scandalous (2012 - 29 performances), a show based on the controversial career of 1920s faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson. An amateurish book by Ms. Gifford and an incredibly inept score led to a quick closing, losing its full $9 million investment -- $2 million of which had reportedly come from the coffers of McPherson's still thriving Foursquare Church in Los Angeles.

An intimate and inexpensive stage adaptation of the 2006 film Once (2012 - 1,167 performances) opened downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop before moving to an incredibly profitable Broadway run. This simple tale of a brief romance between two songwriters featured cast members serving as the orchestra, as well as a score that mixed songs from the film ("Falling Slowly") with new numbers. Thanks to an otherwise weak season, Once racked up eight Tonys, including Best Musical -- and became an immediate favorite with tourists.

Drag Queens to the Rescue . . .  Again!

The highly touted London hit Matilda (2013 - still running) found a ready audience with its whimsical depiction of the life of a British school girl. a musical adaptation of the screen hit Rocky (2013 - 180 performances) failed despite a high-tech production that sent a boxing ring zooming across the stage. A charming adaptation of a tuneful 1957 TV musical Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (2013 - 775 performances) found enthusiastic family audiences, as did Motown (2013 - 738 performances) a staged medley of old R&B hits that would easily have rated as a theme park production just a few years before. And an innovative Cirque de Soleil-style staging of Pippin (2013 - 709 performances) proved to be a major audience pleaser for almost two years.

But yet again, it was drag queens who saved an otherwise mixed season. Kinky Boots (2013 - 700+ performances, still running) was based on a film of the same title that told of a British shoe factory saved from bankruptcy by creating outrageous footwear for drag performers. Along with Billy Porter's Tony-winning performance as the drag star, the show boasted a solid comic libretto by Harvey Fierstein and an energetic score by pop icon Cyndi Lauper. Despite some solid competition, Kinky Boots garnered six Tony awards, including Best Musical.

"The Last One You'd Expect"

In some seasons, the biggest winners come out of nowhere. No one was surprised when Aladdin (2014 - still running) joined Disney's long line of stage hits based on animated films. A musical adaptation of the popular book and film Bridges of Madison County (2014 - 100 performances) closed quickly despite a score that won praise from many theatre goers. Woody Allen's musical adaptation of his film comedy Bullets Over Broadway (2014 - 156 performances) had plenty of laughs, but a score of recycled 1920s hits that drew few takers. Beautiful: The Carol King Musical (2014 - still running) rose above the ranks of most jukebox rehashes thanks to a Tony-winning performance by Jessie Mueller, while the mediocre If/Then (2014 - 401 performances) survived poor reviews thanks to the powerhouse vocals of Idina Menzel.

Few expected much when A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder (2014 - 905 performances) made it to Broadway after regional runs at Hartford Stage and San Diego's Old Globe. Based on the same story as Alec Guinness's classic 1949 screen comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, it tells the story of an impoverished but educated young Englishman who finds only eight hateful relatives stand between him and a titled fortune. Jefferson Mays gave a bravura performance as the eight doomed members of the noble D'Ysquith family. A hilarious libretto, inventive staging, and a tuneful score that would have done Gilbert & Sullivan proud made the show a winner. When the show won four Tonys, including Best Musical, it became the sleeper hit of the season -- and one of the surprises of the decade.

The following season brought more surprises. Kander and Ebb's final collaboration The Visit (2015 - 61 performances) had a disappointing run despite an exquisite score and a stellar performance by Chita Rivera. Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's innovative adaptation of MGM's An American in Paris (2015 - still running) found an audience, as did the zany Shakespearean spoof Something Rotten (2015 - still running). Fun Home (2015 - still running), a lesbian cartoonist's bittersweet coming of age story, charmed critics and audiences and received the Tony for Best Musical.

But all of New York was buzzing about Hamilton (2015 - still running), Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hip musical inspired by the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. Opening Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre, it was the first successful rap musical and ignited a genuine sensation. Hamilton soon moved to Broadway where it sold out for months in advance.

(As the story goes on, more will be added)


Next: And the Future?