What On Earth Is Happening to Broadway?

STORY BY Candace Bryan

Published: May 4, 2013

What’s happened to Broadway? It feels like the time when great musicals were made is dead and gone.  This year, there were four nominations in the Best Musical category for the Tony’s: Matilda, Kinky Boots, Bring It On, and A Christmas Story. Notice anything funny about all of these nominees?

They’re all based on movies.

It’s no coincidence. Last year three out of the four Best Musical nominations were also based on films: Leap of Faith (based on the 1992 American film starring Steve Martin), Newsies (based on the 1992 Disney film) and Once (based on the 2006 film). The fourth nominee was Nice Work If You Can Get It, which though not based on a specific movie, merely used popular American tunes by George and Ira Gershwin for its score.

The year before that, 2011, there was even a musical based on the film Catch Me If You Can among the two nominees. Miraculously, though, the original (non-movie-based) religious satire Book of Mormon was there to balance things out. But Book of Mormon is obviously an exception. The last many years have seen an incredible pattern of commercialization on Broadway, with Disney leading the charge - adapting so many of their classic animated flicks for the stage.

Is this all Americans want to see? It’s one thing that these movie-based plays exist, but that every single Tony nomination for Best Musical is based on a film seems ridiculous.

I’m not saying these plays aren’t good. I’m sure Bring It On had a well-written book and a sophisticated, moving score. But what does it say about the state of American musical theatre that only plots and characters that an audience can recognize are able to get any funding, any popularity? This sad state of theatre, combined with the fact that so many movies these days are mere remakes (do we really need a new Spiderman series so soon after Tobey Magruire’s?), make it feel like America is currently in a bleak cultural era.

Whereas other decades have given us rich, artistic works, what will this generation be known for? Will this be the twenty-year period where Americans completely lacked originality? Or is this lack of inspiration indicative of a greater decline? Are there really fewer ideas, or is the corporate power that enables movies and plays to be produced manipulating the American people? It’s hard to say. In the heyday of Broadway, producers absolutely cared about ticket sales. That’s nothing new. But it seems that modern-day producers don’t think Americans want to be exposed to new or provocative ideas, plots, and people.

I have trouble believing that could be true. Just look at the current state of television. Television ironically seems to be the last vestige of American culture right now. Some of the most popular shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones are all highly original, and at times even scandalous. And Americans are watching. Their popularity shows that at least some Americans are enjoying exposure to new ideas. Even the popular comedy Modern Family subtly challenges what is widely accepted as a traditional family, and the gender roles within it. They’re not just doing a remake of I Love Lucy. Why is there a discrepancy between theatre and television? Why is theatre the one that is suffering?

Perhaps it has something to do with the economy. With television, you don’t have to dish out a lot of money to go see a show. You pay monthly, and can sit in your pajamas and tune it. If you’re displeased with a show, a simple click on a remote can change the show or turn it off. But when you buy a ticket to the theatre, or to a movie, you are taking a chance. There’s no alternative. If you pay a hundred dollars to see a Broadway show, and then you hate it, you’ve basically thrown a hundred dollars down the toilet. Money is a tough issue for many Americans right now, and I think that it’s taking a toll on the culture of the theatre. People are only willing to pay to see a play or movie if they feel they have a guarantee that they’ll like it. That’s why even Book of Mormon, though not based on a movie, was a success: it was written by the men who wrote South Park. That in itself served as a guarantee of laughter.

Maybe I’m optimistic, but I hope that in a few years, the American economy will gain enough momentum to save Broadway. I can’t bear the thought of Disney and Steve Martin movies reigning supreme forever.

Other Stories by Candace Bryan
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