I once asked the following question in my BroadwaySpace.com group discussion for Bookwriters and Songwriters:
If you look at some of the big shows that have succeeded in the recent past, you find many non-traditional shows . . . puppets, spelling bees . . . or big film-based hits the average joe could never get rights to . . . Disney shows, Spamalot, Legally Blonde, The Wedding Singer.
Can the traditional book musical without a snappy hook be a hit?
Perhaps a better phrasing would have been “Can the traditional book musical without a snappy hook get produced?,” but the meaning of the question is still the same—What constitutes a produce-able new work these days?
For some thoughts, we turn to the 2007-2008 season.
In the Heights—The big winner is an original book musical—a rarity these days—but it probably got noticed for its hook, a contemporary hip-hop infused pop score accompanying a traditional book.
It’s also important to note that the show also got some pretty good reviews, if I am remembering correctly.
A Catered Affair—Because the source material is so obscure (at least to the under-50 crowd), A Catered Affair could almost be considered a completely original work. The rumor on the street is that the music wasn’t so great. While I would like to experience the OBCR, I would have to say seeing Tom Wopat and Faith Prince chatting on The View sold the show much better than the drippy song the producers selected to showcase their work on the Tonys telecast, which probably only worked to strengthen any hesitation future audiences may have had.
Kudos to the show for a beautiful advertising campaign, though it may have worked better with the older folks in the matinee crowd that the average New York theatergoer.
Cry-Baby—Best Advertising Campaign of the Year Award goes to Cry-Baby which balanced hip with a retro look. Honestly, other than In the Heights, Cry-Baby was probably the new musical showcased on the Tonys I wish I could have seen. If only those reviews hadn’t done it in (or, perhaps, if only the people creating the show hadn’t done it in by earning the reviews).
If we categorize Cry-Baby, it’d definitely be a movie adaptation, though it is curious to think that Cry-Baby never would have happened had it not been for Hairspray.
Passing Strange—Okay, so I still don’t really get this show, but if you were categorizing it, something unique and eye-catching this would be. This show—or is that concert?—definitely stood out from the crowd.
The Little Mermaid—Disney does kind of get its own category. Yes, The Little Mermaid is a movie adaptation complete with “lift him up on your shoulders like a cheerleader” choreography that, I swear, was lifted right from the Chugwater High School musical last year, but it deserves its own categorization because only a Disney show could be as bad as Tarzan was and actually survive.
Young Frankenstein—This is a movie adaptation. How it remains open after showcasing “Deep Love” on the Tonys telecast, I’ll never know, but I truly wish Beth Leveal the best of everything.
Glory Days—Four people, young show creators—now that’s unique! Closing on opening night? Not as unique but certainly different.
Looking over that list, we have two extremely unique, stand-out they’re so different types of shows—Glory Days and Passing Strange. If you look at what catches people’s eyes, what stands out, these two shows would be it . . . but oddly enough, they didn’t.
The movie adaptations didn’t fare much better—The Little Mermaid will run for years, but A Catered Affair, Cry-Baby, and Young Frankenstein have not been big hits. Young Frankenstein will probably turn a profit and tour successfully, but the other two will probably not. We’ll all be fortunate if we can even buy a Cry-Baby OBCR, which it sounds like will not be released.
As for original works—We have the big winner of In the Heights, which is also pretty unique, though it is traditional at heart. If we consider A Catered Affair original, it didn’t fare so well.
Interestingly enough, what matters most about the shows, what it boils down to most, was—get this shocker—the quality of the storytelling. Name recognition saved Young Frankenstein and The Little Mermaid from their reviews, but the show that cost less to produce and could very well end up grossing the most was an original show with, get this, a great story! Just like Hairspray succeeded based on its storytelling, as did Wicked, Urinetown, and pretty much every other hit has. Some of the successful shows were unique and bold—Rent, Avenue Q, Spring Awakening; some successful shows have had name recognition—Hairspray, Beauty and the Beast, The Color Purple; some just had were original—Urinetown, In the Heights, The Drowsy Chaperone. But the key is that they found their audiences because they were great shows. No gimmicks, no stunts, no super-creative marketing campaigns to cover up flaws. They were great shows.
Let’s repeat that.
The key is that they found their audiences because they were great shows.
If I had money to invest in Broadway or was looking for a show to produce, that’s what I’d look for.
If I was looking for a project to adapt into a musical or was starting from the ground up, that’s what I’d be most concerned about.
the Broadway Mouth
June 26, 2008