Is Original Musical Theatre Dying or Are We Killing It?

Original Musical Theatre. Something that appears so rarely anymore, or is that what we’re just being led to think? This is a discussion I’ve been meaning to bring up for a while now here on Luner on Theatre as it one of the most important issues that we deal with as theatre progresses in this new century. So, join the argument as Luner on Theatre goes in-depth to discover the truth behind the question we pose for you today of “Is Original Musical Theatre Dying or Are We Killing It?”

It’s so easy for anyone these days to say original musical theatre is dying. It’s almost a second-hand phrase used now a days in the theatre community. And with some good reason. After years of tacky musicals here and there with juke box musical after juke box musical, Broadway and theatre fans have declared the idea of original musical theatre dead. Something once so important to the way of life on The Great White Way. But, Is original musical theatre actually dead? I don’t think so at all. We might just be killing it off.

Original musical theatre is something that was once so important to Broadway and still is to this day, whether people think that or not. In recent years, there have been plenty of new original pieces of musical theatre on Broadway. And while some of these productions have done very well, some of them have just absolutely tanked. And interestingly enough, some of the ones tanking are the best examples of new original musical theatre. But who exactly is to blame for this? Producers? Fans? Well, it’s really a combination of both creating a formula that if it continues on Broadway, no one should expect new original pieces  on The Great White Way for quite some time. Today I have three examples of fantastic new pieces of original musical theatre that had their way to Broadway in the past two years, but no longer exist. Why? Come with Luner on Theatre as we take a better look into exactly why Broadway is killing off original musical theatre.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a musical that made its way to Broadway in September of 2010 after a successful Off-Broadway run earlier that year. The musical features a music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and a book by Alex Timbers. It tells the story of Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president, and about the creation of the Democratic Party in America. The musical portrays Jackson however as an emo rock star as he deals with issues of the time, most specifically the Indian Removal Act. The musical received positive reviews all around from critics even The New York Times which said “there is no-show in town that more astutely reflects the state of this nation than Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson began previews on Broadway September 21st, 2010 with an official opening on October 13th, 2010. However, the production closed on Broadway January 2nd, 2011 after only 120 performances. The reason for closing according to many? Poor ticket sales.

Ticket sales are hands down one of the biggest factors in the theatre business especially in New York. It very easy for theatre-goers to resort to a classic well-known musical they know they will love such as The Phantom of the Opera or Wicked as opposed to taking a chance on a smaller and more unknown production such as this one. And I know with the price of show tickets, it is harder to take a chance and just see a show for the heck of it or one you have never even heard of. However, if theatre-goers continue to not take chances and expand their Broadway experience, their Broadway experience will soon be defined by only these big blockbuster shows and smaller, newer original musical theatre will cease to exist on Broadway. Take a chance. See a show you don’t know. 

The Scottsboro Boys is a musical that found its way to Broadway in October of 2010 as well after having a successful Off-Broadway run earlier that year. The musical features a book by David Thompson with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Kander and Ebb of course being the famous American pair for writing musicals such as Chicago and Cabaret. The Scottsboro Boys is a musical based off the real life story of nine African-American who were convicted of raping two women solely based on the color of their skin when it turned out the two women had made false accusations. The musical follows their lives from being arrested, through multiple jail terms and their life after which was short for many and never existed for a few.

The Scottsboro Boys began previews on Broadway October 7th, 2010 with an official opening on October 31st, 2011. However, the musical closed on December 12th, 2011 only after 29 previews and 49 performances. The reason for closing according to many? The subject material was still very sensitive to the general public which resulted in a lack of ticket sales.

Subject material is always something interesting when it comes to new musicals. And while in recent years, many original musical theatre pieces have followed cheesy concepts and story lines, many new shows are now turning to something not only solid but something that actually happened. History is slowly creeping its way into many new original productions in New York. And while that may seem boring to many, history is something that explained through theatre not only brings to life our past but teaches us the lessons we didn’t learn the first time around. Yes, the story of the nine Scottsboro boys is horrible. But how many Americans known that story? We cannot erase our past because of the mistakes we have made. We must look at these mistakes and mishaps and figure out how to never allowed them to happen again. The Scottsboro Boys is the greatest example of that in theatre and the production was never even given the chance. How can we expect people to tell the story if we try to pretend the story didn’t exist?

Bonnie & Clyde is a musical that made its way to Broadway in November 0f 2011. The musical features a book by Ivan Menchell with music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Don Black. The musical is based off of the true life story of famous American outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The musical not only follows their epic crime spree but also tells the story of their blooming love interest over time. We also get a chance to see how their actions not only affect their family and friends but the world around them.

Bonnie & Clyde began previews on Broadway November 4th, 2011 with an official opening on December 1st, 2011. However, the musical is set to close December 30th, 2011 after only 69 performances on Broadway. The reason for closing according to many? Negative reviews resulting in a lack of ticket sales. However, Producers did not even really ever give this show a chance.

There has been a huge lack of support when it comes to Producers involving new original musical theatre on Broadway. Don’t get wrong, there are plenty of producers will to bring these new shows to Broadway. However, when they get there, they aren’t giving them to time or chance to try out to the New York audience. Bonnie & Clyde officially opened on December 1st and on December 8th, producers made an executive decision to only sell tickets till the end of the month. However, the show wasn’t closing. One Week. One week is not nearly enough time to by any means assume how the production is going to do. And while yes there was close to a month of previews beforehand, ticket sales for Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway were not god awful. Producers are putting up these new shows and then ripping them right back down before anyone even has the chance to see them. I understand the producers concern when it comes to the money placed behind the production and what not. However, if a continued lack of producer support for new musicals on Broadway continues, many original productions will never see the light they deserve.

And by any means while it is so much easier said then done, producers need to take a chance. Because if you don’t take a chance on a new show, you’re only wasting your own time and money if you are not personally 100% invested in that show. If you’re going to tell the story, commit. And commit so the general public can then commit themselves to experiencing that story and giving said production a chance. Original musical theatre on Broadway is a system that has to work from two forces coming together to give a story a chance to be told. And if neither of those forces are willing to, how can we expect anyone to want to tell a story. A story that is being brought to life on stage because we should experience it. There is something in that story we as a general public should experience.

One final point to mention about all this is the fact that these musicals have received notable recognition only backing my points of them being fantastic pieces of original musical theatre. This recognition comes in the form of theatre awards and theatre awards nominations. Mentioned below are only those that pertain to Tony Awards. However, many more exist for these shows for other award organizations. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson received two Tony Awards nominations in 2011 including Best Book of a Musical. The Scottsboro Boys received a record 12 Tony Award nominations including Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Musical just to name a few. And only time will be able to tell us the 2012 Tony Award nominations and if Bonnie & Clyde receive any. But here is even more proof that these are solid pieces of original musical theatre whose time in New York has been far too short.

And while some may say that this is the business of Broadway, I would have to say I agree with you. Theatre comes and goes almost daily in New York City. However, original musical theatre that isn’t given a chance is on another level for me. Putting an end to good theatre does nothing but hurt theatre itself. A story untold is a lesson not learned. Original musical theatre can’t be expected to flourish if we are consistently chopping away at it. And that’s why I challenge everyone to give original musical theatre more of a chance. Go out and see a show you have never heard of. The shows mentioned above are by no means the only pieces of original musical theatre given too short a life on Broadway. And no one problem plagues only one show. However, they are some of the strongest examples of great original musical theatre pieces on Broadway. How are we able to say that the original musical theatre art form is dying if we ourselves are mostly responsible for killing it off?

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4 comments

  • Pingback: Game Over! Lysistrata Jones on Broadway to Close | Luner on Theatre

  • I have a friend who is in love with original musical. When we came to New York in Christmas Eve, she went to see two shows and I must say she was really excited for the first time seeing Broadway musical. I didn’t go since the tickets so expensive for my student budget. But if there is next time in Broadway, I will go to see at least one show.

  • I think musicals per se don’t have enough of promotion. I’m from Europe, have no chance to watch any performance on Broadway (I watched once Wicked only there), and no one cares to release any DVD, ie. with the musical. Rent was one of the very few, still in Region code, so unavailable here.

    In these times, youtube serves as the ideal medium of information, why no official video cuts from the performances? I’m a big fan of US and Korea musicals, but all I have are just fanmade cuts because no one cares about releasing DVD. I know DVD is not exactly the same as the live performance, it lacks the atmosphere, but anything is better than nothing, right?

    Maybe this (except for the things you mentioned) is also one of the reasons the interest in musicals is waning?

  • Leon H Kalayjian

    Watch children’s TV it seems some of the musical writers are writing for sophia, bubble guppies and other shows

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