Making a Broadway Musical: Part VI

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)

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

Opening on Broadway

Victor/Victoria invitation (11331 bytes) An invitation to the gala opening night party for Victor/Victoria.

Broadway shows still have glamorous official openings, but the critics are nowhere in sight. Since the 1980s, New York critics have opted to catch late previews, experiencing a show with something closer to a normal audience and allowing them a few days to polish their reviews. However, these reviews cannot be made public until the official opening night.

Openings are still terribly exciting backstage. Flowers, gifts and congratulatory telegrams are received. Spirits run high, and good wishes of the traditional "break a leg" variety are exchanged. Just before curtain time, directors give the cast a final pep talk, and the "Gypsy Robe" ritual takes place. These robes are plain canvas material, and are passed on from one Broadway musical to the next. The most senior dancer in the chorus parades the current robe around the stage to bring good luck. Before passing it on to the next production, the cast embroiders a memento on the robe. When all the space on a robe is used up, it is retired and a new one starts from scratch. Several of these robes are preserved by the Museum of the City of New York's Theater Collection.

Playbill adds a top line to the main credit page announcing "OPENING NIGHT" and stating the date. The producers and a mostly invited audience (in larger houses, some seats may be sold to the public) dress in their finest and give the show (no matter how good or bad) an enthusiastic reception. In recent years, it has become customary for all shows to receive a standing ovation on opening night. However, it is not too hard to tell the difference between an audience that leaps to its feet in delight and people who are just standing up to slip into their coats.

For publicity purposes, the producers make the opening night party as lavish as possible. Everyone involved with the show is invited for food and (usually) an open bar. The venue can be a restaurant, a hotel ballroom, or something more exotic. The opening night party for Rent was held on the covered ice rink at the Chelsea Piers athletic center – people kept complaining about cold feet! The climax of the evening comes when the reviews arrive, especially the all-important New York Times review. When the reviews are enthusiastic, the producers find a microphone and read out the raves to delighted cheers. The better the reviews, the better the remainder of the party. If the reviews are less than glowing, they will be quoted selectively. Outright bad reviews cause all microphones to disappear. The papers are either quietly passed around or blatantly ignored while most guests figure out how to make inconspicuous exits. Die-hards mob the bar and drown their sorrows as they loudly proclaim, "Well, I loved it!"

Making It Run

The producers, press rep and advertising team meet the next morning to plan their marketing strategy. Most bad reviews can be mined for one or two positive quotes, and wise producers keep a reserve fund to run extra ads right after a show opens. When a show is an obvious pre-sold hit, you can usually count on major critics to make a point of including a good line in even the most critical review – it means their quote can appear on the front of the theatre for years to come. For example, New York Time critic Ben Brantley hated The Lion King, but included a rapturous description of the opening number that has been quoted in their publicity for years.

When the reviews are truly vicious and a show has little advance ticket sale, sensible producers usually decide to close. A few shows like Kelly and Dance a Little Closer have not even bothered with a second performance, but most producers try to give a show some kind of a chance. A few major musicals have successfully bucked the critics. Every reviewer in New York lambasted the 1994 revival of Grease, but it went on to run 1,503 profitable performances. However, most new musicals find it impossible to turn a profit after truly ghastly reviews. Dance of the Vampires (2002) was ripped to pieces by every critic, but held on for several weeks – which only succeeded in losing its producers another million dollars or more.

It can take several years for a multi-million dollar production to return its investment and (with luck) turn a profit. So the real challenge is to keep a successful show vital once it has opened. The stage manager and director make sure that the cast keeps the performance fresh, while producers and press agents must find ways to keep the public interested. Hiring popular replacement stars, cast appearances on talk shows and parades, the all-important highlights on the annual Tony telecast – all help keep a show's name in people's minds.

A successful musical will spawn one or more road companies that use simplified sets, slightly smaller ensembles, and smaller orchestras. (I saw a tour of Disney's Beauty and the Beast that had a measly five pieces in the pit – in Boston's 3,000 seat Wang Center!) When the Broadway company needs cast replacements, producers often look to the road company. Before Brooke Shields stepped into the revival of Grease, she spent several weeks polishing her performance on the road. All producers and authors hope that someone will want to purchase the screen rights to their musicals, bringing millions in additional income. However, thanks to Hollywood's ongoing disinterest in musicals, the sale of screen rights has become rare.

Fame and fortune are possible in the musical theatre, but so unlikely that no one can realistically expect to achieve them. Of the 20,000+ members of Actors Equity, less than 2,000 make a living as actors. The only way that producers, designers, writers, actors and crew can work in the musical theatre today is if they love it. In a way, that's how it has always been. To make musicals, you have to love 'em.

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