History of the Musical - Stage & Film
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Some respected sources insist that the outlook for the Broadway musical is dim.
Stephen Sondheim was equally blunt
Sondheim has ample reasons to be be disheartened. From 1943 to the mid-1960s, Broadway musicals could be mounted for under $250,000, and a well-managed production could turn a solid profit in less than a year. Now physically simple productions like Rent can cost $3,000,000 or more, while The Producers is rumored to have cost over $10,000,000. Even with ticket prices topping $110, shows can run for several years and still close at a loss. The combined effects of inflation and too many people demanding a bigger share of potential profits take a mounting toll.
At the same time, the core audience of musical theatre lovers is believed to be shrinking. In 1999, The New York Times claimed that CD producers limit cast recording releases to 5,000 copies because that's how many collectors are out there. That would not constitute one full house at Radio City Music Hall! While this figure may sound extreme, recent sales figures back it up. Which brings us to a question so inevitable that it has become a cliché . . .
Is The Musical a Dead Artform?
British Mega-musicals dominated Broadway in the late 20th Century, but it is clear that they are not the art form's future. Right now, the corporate Disney musical reigns supreme on both sides of the Atlantic. The Lion King boasts magnificent Disney marketing and $12,000,000 worth of puppetry, but the Elton John-Tim Rice score has all the wit of a State Department press release. Luckily for Disney, contemporary audiences have been trained to prefer style over substance, and Lion King has style by the truckload.
Titanic and Ragtime proved that the Broadway musical was still capable of artistic achievement in the late 1990s. Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel showed that new American musicals with a pop-music approach could find an audience despite critical scorn. But none of these hits could match the decade-plus runs of the British mega-musicals.
When Rent proved a bona fide sensation in 1996, some critics said that it pointed the way to Broadway's musical future. Well, after a full decade, it is clear that these pronouncements were misfires. With amateurish production values, lust labeled as love, and bathos where a plot should be, Rent is less a signpost than a stumble. After almost a decade, it has spawned no trends, leaving nothing in its wake but the commercially unsuccessful rock-flavored stage adaptations of Footloose, Saturday Night Fever and Bright Lights Big City. If style, romance, melody and joy are things of the past, what is the point of a musical? Why not just go to a rock concert?
It astounds me that the super-exclusive circle of Pulitzer Prize winning musicals (Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello, How To Succeed, A Chorus Line) – a circle that lacks My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof – now includes Rent. What kind of madness is that? Rent's original New York subway advertising proclaimed, "Don't you hate the word 'musical'?" As a musical theatre lover, I will toast the day that this cacophony closes despite the fact that it was the last Broadway production I was personally involved with.
Since 2000, the all-American musical comedy has made a stunning comeback. With the triumph of The Full Monty, The Producers, Urinetown, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hairspray, critics and audiences have re-embraced a genre many (this author included) had supposed dead. With the exception of Urinetown, they are based on hit films. Musicals have been inspired by movies for decades, but not with such concentrated success. These musical comedies show tremendous promise, offering a happy blend of nostalgic pastiche and original spoof. They have also turned long-empty hopes into filled theater seats the ultimate sign of a successful theatrical trend.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the role musical theatre plays in the economic life of New York City. Figure in what theatergoers spend at hotels, restaurants and stores, and it is estimated that Broadway contributes four and a half billion dollars to New York's economy. Off-Broadway musicals add millions more to that figure. That's a lot of income from a supposedly dead or dying art form! And in terms of the theatre itself, according to a study released by the League of Theatre Owners and Producers, nine out of every ten dollars spent on Broadway tickets are spent on admission to musicals.
And Film Musicals?
If it sounds like I'm hedging, I'm not alone. Musical theater historian Denny Martin Flinn wrote
But by his book's end, he borrows a bit of a Jerry Herman lyric to reassure us that
The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Urinetown and Hairspray succeeded by doing what great musical comedies have always done approach material in fresh and funny ways no one has attempted before. (Male strippers, singing Nazis, bathroom politics and interracial romance would have been unthinkable in the so called classic musicals of the 1950s!) At the same time, several Broadway revivals have taken new approaches to well-known material, infusing classics with fresh energy.
Is this really a new "Springtime" for musical comedy on Broadway, or just a momentary thaw? Only time will tell. For this trend to last, we need an army of new talents to keep new hits coming - and an audience large enough to make the results profitable. One wonders how many creative people will be willing to attempt the costly, high-risk process of creating musicals for Broadway in years to come especially when film and television offer far more lucrative employment. A hit musical takes years to pay its creators anything like the six figure income a sitcom writer earns in just one season.
There is also the ongoing trend of "jukebox musicals" -- shows built around an existing catalog of old pop songs. These range from plot-based book musicals (Mamma Mia, All Shook Up) to essentially plotless semi-revues or dance musicals (Movin' On). Contact (2000) mixed classical and pop recordings, dispensing with any songwriters, live musicians or singers -- and still managed (in a feeble season) to win the Tony for Best Musical. While traditionalists may not be happy with jukebox musicals, it is hard to deny that the best of them sell lots of tickets on Broadway and on tour. So long as the money keeps flowing in, this trend will continue. One can only hope it does not reach the point where Broadway turns into Las Vegas East.
AHEM! Is The Musical Dead?
But the musical is far from dead. It will survive, and occasionally thrive, by adapting to changes in artistic and commercial expectations. But change often comes at a price. The new century will take musical theatre and film to places we could no more imagine than the people of the early 1900s could have foreseen the technology of The Jazz Singer or the subject matter of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As it moves forward, the musical will go places some of us may not care to follow. But so long as a song helps to tell a story, musicals will be around.
Just as we opened this series of essays with a definition of the musical, so now we close with another. This one is courtesy of Oscar Hammerstein II
This ends our History of Musical Stage & Screen
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