Theatre Lover's Journal 2000

Kenrick in the NY Times

Are Revivals Killing the Musical Theatre?

by John Kenrick

(This letter appeared in the New York Times Arts & Leisure Section on September 13th – the text below includes some comments the Times omitted.)

In "A Crowd of Old Musicals Squeezes the New," the lead article in the August 15th edition of the Sunday New York Times Arts & leisure section, columnist Anthony Tommasini claimed that successful revivals of old musicals on Broadway reduce the number of new musicals coming in. Moreover, he stated that a preoccupation with established shows could lead to the kind of obsession with the past that now dominates opera and other forms of classical music.

To an extent, his arguments make sense. However, the real reason why there are so few new musicals making it to Broadway is because few good ones are being written. I can hear the righteous screams: "Not true! I know lots of great talents out there writing shows that can’t get a hearing!" I always ask people who claim there is great Broadway-quality stuff being written to give me names and specifics, and they never can.

As someone who spent years reviewing the scripts and demos submitted to Broadway producers, I can tell you that 99.99% of the new musicals being written today are pretty damn awful. Of course, that’s nothing new. Even in the 1950’s, when every season brought a new set of hits, every season also brought a dozen or more that failed, as well as hundreds of scripts that landed (usually with good reason) in the trash bin.

Mr. Tommasini holds forth Rent as an example of shows that can’t get a hearing. Well, anyone who works in the theatre can tell you that Rent was one of a kind – there is no army of Jonathan Larsons out there awaiting discovery, anymore than there were a dozen equals of Richard Rodgers who never got recognition a half century ago.

The fact remains that good shows do get produced. When Mr. Tommasini complains that Jonathan Larson turned out musicals for 15 years without recognition, he neglects to mention (or probably doesn’t even know) that Jonathan’s work during those years was not Broadway-caliber. I saw three of Mr. Larson’s pre-Rent shows, and they were highly experimental works that would have had little appeal to Broadway audiences. When Tommasini suggests that Floyd Collins or Violet deserved but did not get Broadway runs, I would ask if these shows had something that would draw 1,200 people a night willing to pay $75 a ticket.

More to the point, would Mr. Tommasini pay $75 for them? We will never know. Critics like Mr. Tommasini don’t pay for theatre tickets – they get complimentary admission to everything they see. Consequently, they forget that when you add parking and dinner to the ticket price, two people seeing a Broadway show can easily cost over $200. At those prices, who wants a so-so show?

Is the musical becoming an out-of-date art form like grand opera? It’s possible. Cultural tastes have changed, and the musical may not fit the trends of the new century. Whether or not this is so, blaming the dearth of new musicals on the successful revivals of old shows is pointless. Good new projects are not being edged out – there simply are not many of them.

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