“Ugh. Another season of jukebox musicals, revivals, and adaptations of big-budget Hollywood movies. Honestly, where are all the ORIGINAL musicals these days? Doesn’t anyone know how to write an ORIGINAL show anymore?!”
Chances are, if you’re a theatrically-inclined person like myself and frequent the theatrically-inclined spaces of the internet, you’ve heard the previous sentiment expressed time and time again. Frustrated theatregoers are looking at what they perceive to be uninspired Broadway seasons and wondering what happened to the good old days when original musicals were fearlessly championed by producers and lauded by the public. More often than not, they tend to arrive at the same conclusion: The reason that quality original musicals are not being produced is simply that there are no currently active writers capable of producing a quality original musical. And it’s not just audiences who feel this way, as even some high-ranking members of the industry have bought into this manner of thinking. In a recent op-ed article, a BIG name producer claimed that his motivation to produce the upcoming revival of [who-the-hell-cares-because-we’ve-all-seen-this-show-and-they’re-not-going-to-make-it-better] was that there are no contemporary musical writers capable of writing a good song.
At a quick glance, this idea that there are no good writers anymore does seem to have some measure of credibility. Our cultural mythos surrounding Broadway holds that it’s this magical place where the most talented actors, singers, dancers, directors, choreographers, and writers will inevitably end up if they pay their dues and put in enough hard work. Hence, an original musical would surely make it to Broadway if only it were “good enough”, right? We could then assume that producers are putting up jukebox shows and movie tie-ins because they simply have nowhere else to turn for material, yes?
No. As a recent graduate of the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU Tisch, and someone who takes it upon myself to see as much original work in the city as I can, let me assure you: There are phenomenally talented composers, lyricists, and playwrights out there right at this very moment, and they’re putting out fantastic, beautiful, inspiring work. So if that’s the case (and it is), why are we seeing increasingly little truly original work represented in contemporary commercial theater? What’s the deal here? To begin to understand the issue, we need to take a good look at how the industry works.
The first thing to understand is that Broadway is a business, and it’s BIG business. The current average price of a ticket to a Broadway show is just over $100. Top price tickets have been seen going for well over $400. The weekly gross of a typical week on Broadway is in the neighborhood of twenty million dollars, with particularly lucrative weeks ending up well above thirty million. In addition to ticket sales, once you factor in merchandising and money spent by theatergoers at nearby businesses (restaurants, hotels, shops, etc.), you have an industry that brings a MASSIVE amount of revenue into New York City. Simply put, when that much money is in play, it becomes increasingly difficult to find enough people willing to take a risk on an original new work.
Of course, many producers are quick to point out that there are no “safe choices” when putting up a show on Broadway, and essentially they’re right. There is no guarantee that any given show will succeed, no matter how much of a sure thing it appears to be given the brand recognition or talent involved or any similar factors. However, while there may be no “safe” choices, there are certainly safER choices, and when we take a look at the audience makeup of a typical Broadway show, it makes sense why it’s better to err on the side of being safer. While it’s the savvy New York-based theatregoers who will most frequently and loudly complain about the lack of quality offerings on Broadway, they are not the majority of audience members. The biggest demographic of just about any Broadway audience is TOURISTS (and ever increasingly, international tourists). For a Broadway show to be a financial success, it’s critical that it appeal to as broad and diverse an audience as possible, and without some kind of pre-existing brand recognition, that’s incredibly difficult.
Also, with these shows becoming more and more expensive to produce, it takes a show longer and longer to recoup its’ original investment and be officially qualified as a success as opposed to a flop. It used to be the case that a show could open on Broadway, run for several months and recoup the original investment, close on Broadway and perhaps go on tour, and this would be considered a success (and likely the kind of opportunity given to a talented but untested young writer or writing team). Nowadays, that kind of scenario is virtually impossible; most Broadway shows take well over a year to recoup their original investment, meaning that your show has to run for a much longer time (and be a much bigger hit) in order to even be considered a “success” at all, at least from a financial standpoint. When you’re a young unknown writer, this isn’t very likely to happen, no matter how talented you are or how good your show is. Even when a quality original musical does appear on the great white way and gets high praises from critics and audiences, there is still no guarantee of its’ financial success. To illustrate this point, let’s look at what I consider to be two quality original musicals from this past season: The Bridges Of Madison County and A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder (before you protest that “Bridges isn’t an original musical, it’s based on a book/movie!”, let me clarify what I mean when I say “original musical”: by this I mean a musical with an original score which, if it’s an adaptation, does not intend to capitalize off of the popularity of its’ source material. Anyway, moving on…).
Bridges had a score by Jason Robert Brown and starred Kelli O’Hara, both very well-known names in the Broadway community but probably not too recognizable to those outside of the theatre scene. The source material, while familiar to the over-40 crowd, was far enough removed from the musical that I don’t think it could be said that they were counting on people who had read the book or seen the movie to all rush out and buy tickets. The show received relatively mixed reviews from critics but garnered very favorable reactions from audiences. Despite being an audience favorite and containing a slew of GREAT songs (seriously, with this show alone I could debunk the whole “nobody can write a good song anymore” notion), the show closed after just a few months. As someone involved with the production told me, “We all did great work, we were really proud of it, but it just didn’t sell enough tickets.” Most people would agree that the show was an artistic success, but at the end of the day that didn’t translate to dollars at the box office.
As for Gentleman’s Guide, we have a very different yet nonetheless interesting story. The show is, by all means, a complete success: It boasts a fantastic original score and book, great reviews from critics and audiences alike, and the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical. And yet, all of these accolades haven’t translated into the show being a massive, runaway hit. With an intricate and complex plot, a score based around dazzling wordplay, and no tunes with which the audience is already familiar (again, original score), Gentlemans Guide is unlikely to be exceptionally popular with tourists, especially those for whom English is not their first language. The show is doing fairly well at the box office, especially since the Tonys, but it’s not breaking the bank. This brings us to the challenge that producers face when deciding what shows to back. Gentlemans Guide could in many ways be considered a best-case scenario for an original musical with no big names attached, but purely in terms of commercial success it doesn’t stack up to the mega-hits. So the options a producer faces are: You can back an original show by untested authors and, best-case scenario, you’ll do pretty well and make some money –OR- You can back a show with a pre-established brand and/or catalogue of songs and, best-case scenario, you’ll make crazy, obscene, jacuzzi-filled-with-cocaine amounts of money. The results typically do not turn out so well for writers of original work.
Before I go on, I should take a moment to cut producers some slack, as up to this point it seems I’ve more or less been portraying them as a bunch of nasty, cartoon-ish villains. While there are certainly a few producers out there who only care about the bottom line, there are many out there who deeply care about the art form and are passionate about finding quality new work to develop. Problem is, the amount of money involved in the production of a Broadway show actually hurts young, savvy producers as well as young, savvy writers. If you look at a show from fifty/sixty/seventy years ago, you’ll likely see two or three names above the title; today, you could easily see thirty or forty. Even for producers who want to be the next Hal Prince, it’s much easier to get two or three people on board with your show than thirty or forty, so you’re kind of up a creek unless you’re independently massively wealthy.
Let me also to take a moment to state that I don’t think the fact that there is a lot of money involved with Broadway productions is INHERENTLY a bad thing. While I may raise my eyebrow about which shows are getting productions, that doesn’t negate the outstanding work of so many in the industry who care deeply about what they do. Furthermore, the fact that so many people are coming to the city and choosing to spend their money at the theatre is indicative of the fact that Broadway is “cool” in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time. We may roll our eyes at the popularity of shows like Glee and Smash with their inconsistencies and questionable portrayals of the industry, but the fact is that people across the country are seeing these shows and becoming excited about musical theatre and want to be in on what’s happening in our industry. When all is said and done, Broadway being big business is all well and fine, but we should be conscious of where and how our money is being spent.
Now, enough about money, let’s get back to my initial question. “So”, you may be saying to yourself, “Maybe we’re not seeing many original shows on Broadway because the cost of production is so prohibitive, fine. But if there are all these great writers out there, why aren’t we seeing great stuff rise up through the ranks? Why aren’t we seeing shows as great as West Side Story or Sunday In The Park With George popping up out of random Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theaters? Won’t the really good works just ‘find a way’ to be successful? Answer me THAT!” Well, it’s a complex issue with no one easy answer, but let’s take a look.
First of all, obvious as it may sound, those who make statements about the state of musical theatre should probably make an effort to, you know, actually get out and see some of it. The impression I get from the majority of people who complain about the supposed lack of new musicals and writers is that they’ve never even been to see a show that wasn’t on Broadway. There’s a widely-held belief amongst many Broadway fans that any show playing in the scary, untamed theatrical wilderness below 41st Street is going to be bad quality and/or so artsy-fartsy-weird as to be incomprehensible. The truth is, there all KINDS of shows being written and performed Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. Yes, some of them are pretty out there and experimental, which is great in its’ own right, but many of them are every bit as accessible and catchy as what you’d see in a big commercial production on Broadway. Stereotypes abound about what a “contemporary musical theatre” show looks and sounds like, but if you actually take the time to seek the new stuff out, you’ll find plenty of shows that are smashing those stereotypes to bits.
So let’s say you DO venture out and go to see a new show that interests you – great! Now, forgive me for talking about money yet again, but there’s another thing you’ll need to keep in mind: Production value. Of course, we all realize that seeing a show in a smaller venue is going to entail a smaller budget, but I think it’s important to take a look at what production value does to our psyche when we see a show. When we wax poetic about our favorite shows of yesteryear and think to ourselves “Ah, what great songs!”, we’re almost certainly thinking about them in the best possible settings they could be presented. We think of hearing these songs performed by the likes of, say, Audra McDonald, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. We think of the songs performed in opulent settings by the best singers and musicians in the world, which is simply a scenario that can’t happen for writers still trying to break their way into the industry. Of course, this is not to imply that there aren’t fantastic musicians and singers working in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway settings, there certainly are, but they have to work with what they have; you’re much more likely to see them performing new work recorded on a cell phone from a basement piano bar than in a hi-def special on PBS from Carnegie Hall. While any theatregoer would likely realize on an intellectual level that the production value of a show SHOULDN’T have any bearing on the underlying material, seeing a really high-value production does affect the psyche of even the most theatre-savvy audience member. To drive this point home, let’s conduct a thought experiment.
Take your favorite musical: Let’s say for the sake of this example that it’s Guys & Dolls. Imagine that you’re seeing the show for the very first time, and you know absolutely nothing about it. You’re not familiar with anyone on the writing team, you’ve never heard any of the songs before, you haven’t heard anything about it from a friend or a coworker, you have ZERO specific expectations about the show and you’re going in with an entirely clean slate. Now, instead of seeing the show in a big impressive Broadway house, you’re seeing it in a small, unassuming theatre downtown, with let’s say 100 seats. Because of the budget, sets are virtually nonexistent. There are some costumes and a few props, but they’re meant to suggest the world of the show rather than fully realize it. Instead of a lush Broadway pit orchestra of 15-20 musicians, there is one pianist playing the entire score. Instead of a cast size of 25 to 30, there are 8 or 9 actors. The cast and creative team does not include any celebrities or recognizable names, but let’s say for the sake of argument that they’re every bit as capable and talented as who you’d see on Broadway. And so the show begins: It is word-for-word, note-for-note EXACTLY Guys & Dolls, but performed in this very scaled-back setting out of necessity. Would you run out and tell people that this is the greatest show you’ve ever seen? Maybe you would. But maybe you wouldn’t. When we see a dazzling, high-budget production, more often than not it tends to numb us to the quality (or lack thereof) of the original source material. I use Guys & Dolls as an example because it’s a show I believe DOES hold up to scrutiny: Take away all the fancy extras and razzle dazzle that a high-budget production would afford you, and you still have a brilliant score and book. My point is that, even amongst very intelligent and observant theatregoers, we’re simply going to respond more positively to a polished high-budget production than a rough-around-the-edges low-budget production of exactly the same material, and that’s problematic when you’re a writer trying to move your work to the next level.
There’s another thing to keep in mind when seeking out new work, and I consider it to be the second most important point I’m going to make in this long rambling essay of mine (the first most important point is coming up, just sit tight there, champ). Up until this point, I’ve been using the term “young writers” quite a bit, which is true of most relative unknowns writing for Off- and Off-Off-Broadway spaces right now. And the funny thing about young writers is that they’re… well, YOUNG. You see, we have some funny perceptions about this thing called “talent” in our culture today. The way most people talk about it, it would seem that talent is this mysterious thing that just falls out of the sky and, in the words of miss Mama Rose, “Ya either got it, or ya ain’t!” We love to share videos online with titles like “10 year-old girl singing ‘Wicked’ ZOMG FIERCE BELTING!!!” and “6 year-old piano genius plays BETTER THAN EVERYONE EVER!!!”, furthering this cultural narrative that talent is something you either possess or you don’t, and things like skill or craft or training or lessons or years of experience are more or less irrelevant. This manner of thinking comes into play when people remember their favorite Broadway writers of the past with sentiments like “All the good ones are gone!” and “They just don’t make them like THAT anymore!”, as though there were a time when little Gershwinites would spontaneously emerge from the East River, stroll into the nearest bar, and start playing stride piano on cue.
While most of these great writers did display natural talent at an early age, it wasn’t until they amassed skill and craft and training and lessons and (most importantly) years of experience that they wrote their greatest works. George Gershwin wrote Porgy & Bess when he was 37. Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote Oklahoma! when they were both over 40, and hadn’t collaborated previously. Cole Porter wrote Kiss Me, Kate when he was 57. Irving Berlin wrote Annie Get Your Gun when he was 58. Nobody was expecting them to plop out a masterpiece at the age of 19. And when you look at the early works of many of these people who we’ve come to regard as geniuses, they fall considerably short of what they went on to create. Take Stephen Sondheim’s very first show, Saturday Night: It’s a solid first outing from a clearly very talented composer and lyricist, it’s good, but it’s not brilliant (apologies to those readers who worship unquestioningly at the Altar Of Sondheim – feel free to come beat me up in the parking lot later). Or take Jonathan Larsons’ tick, tick… BOOM!, which I saw just recently at the Encores! series at City Center: Again, a solid first outing from a clearly very talented composer and lyricist. Is it a towering work of monumental genius? Hardly. But we root and cheer for the protagonist, knowing who he’ll go on to become.
The problem we face with our young writers of today is that we don’t just want them to be great, we want them to be great RIGHT THE F*%! NOW. We are INCREDIBLY impatient. We’re basically telling an entire generation young writers, “LOOK, if you can’t write something as great as Sunday In The Park With George RIGHT NOW, when you’re 23 and fresh out of school, never mind the fact that Sondheim was nearly 50 with decades of professional experience under his belt when he wrote that show, then you clearly have no talent and aren’t worth our time”. We could be telling the potential future George Gershwins and Cole Porters and Stephen Sondheims to pack up and go home because they didn’t come flying out of the gate with a masterpiece on their first attempt, and I believe this is detrimental to everyone involved. When we see new work being staged by young and untested writers, we shouldn’t view it as the culmination of everything that they will ever be, but rather as a window into who they are and what they could become.
And now, we arrive at what I consider to be the most important point I’m going to make in this article, which is as follows: Any time that you go see a new work, you’re taking a risk. You don’t know for sure that you’re going to see a good show. There’s a lot of new work that’s terrible. REALLY terrible. Maybe that’s what you’ll see. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll see something great. With the soaring cost of Broadway ticket prices, it’s certainly understandable why many people simply don’t want to take a risk. Many marketing campaigns of popular shows try to reassure us with catch phrases like “All your favorite songs are here!” and “You already know you’re gonna love it!”, because the average ticket-buyer doesn’t want to take a chance on something they might not like if they’re paying $100 for their seat. But for all of this comfort and safety that you’re assured in most commercial theatre, you lose out on a sense of discovery, the sense that you’ve found something fresh and exciting, something that really speaks to you and engages you. We need to ask ourselves as theatregoers whether we want to be actively engaged or simply placated by what we see on the stage. Because I assure you, the next truly great musical isn’t going to rocket straight to Broadway with pomp and fanfare and comforting reassurances of “You already know you’re gonna love it!” It’s going to be something different, something untested, something strange. It’s going to challenge you. It’s going to make you think. And an awful lot of people are not going to like it, at least at first. But whatever it is, it will be great.
As young writers trying to make our way in the world of musical theatre today, we face an interesting uphill battle. We’re trying to make our voices heard in a community that is at once wondering aloud where we are yet screaming in our faces that we don’t actually exist. How we overcome this obstacle is anyone’s guess at this point. But what I can assure you of is that, no matter what happens in the industry at large, we will continue to write. The next great generation of musicals is being created as we speak, in basements in the East Village, on patios in Brooklyn, in living rooms in Washington Heights, in every rehearsal room and tiny performance space we can manage to secure. Will they end up on Broadway as certified mega-hits? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe in these coming years Broadway will no longer be the place to see genuinely interesting and exciting new work. Whatever happens, we will continue to write. We will continue to create. And if you truly want to go out and experience new work, all you need to do is come find us. Come see a new show. Come see something you’ve never seen before. Trust me, we’re not trying to keep this stuff a secret. All we can do right now is keep writing, and hope that our work will impart the mantra shouted over and over again by those little beings on that little speck of dust in that classic story by Dr. Seuss: “We are here! We are here! WE ARE HERE!”
James K. Ballard
A sometimes insightful, hopefully entertaining look into my career and everyday life.