Opinion: Has Broadway Lost Its Original Rhythm?

Nora Dominick ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County. Photo Credit: Broadway.com.
Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County. Photo Credit: Broadway.com.
With the Tony Awards rapidly approaching I decided to go back and take a look at all the Broadway musicals that premiered during the 2013-2014 season. Upon my review I realized that Broadway is filled with adaptations and jukebox musicals and has strayed away from new work. Is this change good? For me, Broadway is losing its original rhythm.
In an ever changing world, Broadway has been swept into the latest craze: adaptation musicals. Over the past several years a genre of Broadway musicals that deals with updating the book and creating original songs has swept across the Great White Way. This new style has begun to surpass and in some cases replace completely new work. More and more Broadway is leaning towards musicals that will sell the tickets and draw in the biggest audience. Completely original Broadway shows are becoming less and less common.
This season we saw a completely new score from the mind of Jason Robert Brown with The Bridges of Madison County. This show adapted from Robert Waller’s bestselling novel showcased Brown’s incredible talent as a composer and lyricist as he combined Midwestern folk with classical Italian opera musical styles. The music coupled with a book by Marsha Norman was very reminiscent of the “Broadway Golden Age”, an age where new musicals with a classical style thrived. This year, The Bridges of Madison County was the only new show that was reminiscent of this old style. Sadly, this amazing piece of theatre closed on May 18, 2014 after only 100 regular performances.
Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Broadway has undergone massive changes in terms of style and content over the past few years. Is this due to a change in audience? and will we ever get back to the good old shows of the “Broadway Golden Age?” First, let us take a look at the major shifts Broadway has undergone in the past.
During its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, new Broadway musicals dominated the Great White Way. One songwriting duo controlled this period of time. Their names? Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. This duo created such classics as Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959). Their music and writing style forever changed Broadway and eventually other shows emulated the Rodgers and Hammerstein iconic style. Some shows that followed their formula for success were Annie Get Your Gun (1946), My Fair Lady (1956), The Music Man (1957) and West Side Story (1957). West Side Story also saw the emergence of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s protégé, Stephen Sondheim, into the Broadway songwriting world.
Suddenly, Broadway saw their first major shift in the 1960s. With the emergence of Rock and Roll, the classic Broadway scores of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era began to dwindle. Rock musicals were in and classical music was out. This period saw the emergence of musicals such as Hair (1968) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971). These shows transformed the once tranquil and classical orchestras to the Rock and Roll orchestras. This trend continues today. In recent years Rent (1996) and Spring Awakening (2006) continued to thrive on the Rock and Roll genre and became instant classics in a new age of musicals.
Still from The Lion King. Photo Credit: Broadway.com.
Still from The Lion King. Photo Credit: Broadway.com.
Out of the Rock and Roll era came the next major shift for Broadway: the jukebox musical. This genre began to take shape with Disney and Julie Taymor’s successful production of The Lion King (1997) (which is still running to this day). Since then, jukebox musicals have become a common trend. With musicals such as Lennon based off the songs of John Lennon, Good Vibrations with music from “The Beach Boys”, Motown: The Musical with music from the Motown music genre and most recently the 2014 Tony Award nominated musical Beautiful: The Carole King Musical which showcases the music of Ms. King. All of these musicals have succeeded on Broadway and have created a new genre. The biggest company that thrives in this category is Disney.
Disney thrives on taking their very successful movies and turning them into Broadway hits. It’s a smart business move. The music is already well know and the book is basically built. All they need to do is to find a producer, secure a theater and it will be profitable. Producers love this because it is not a risk. The name alone will sell the tickets. The jukebox musical genre has proven to be a staple in recent years and appears to be staying. My only issue with the genre is that it boxes out original work like The Bridges of Madison County. Broadway has become consumed by the easy way out: recreate a well known concept for the theatre.
The latest craze that I alluded to earlier is the adaptation genre. In recent years, adaptation musicals have become the latest craze. With Tony Award winning musicals like Once (2012), Kinky Boots (2013) and Matilda (2013), adapting musicals from well known films seems to be a common trend. This trend took over Broadway this season with musicals like Aladdin, Rocky and Heathers: The Musical. All have been met with high praise and continue to sell the ticket.
Terence Archie and Andy Karl in Rocky. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy/Broadway.com.
Terence Archie and Andy Karl in Rocky. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy/Broadway.com.
For a devoted Broadway fan like myself I fell in love with The Bridges of Madison County because it reminded me of the “old Broadway.” It was very sad that others could not see past the ticket sales and give this musical a chance. This exhibits that audiences have changed. They are no longer travelling to the theatre because of the story, the music or the theater experience. Instead they want to go see the big star or the well known story. Audiences do not want to spend hundreds of dollars on a ticket to a musical  they know nothing about, they want to spend their money on a story or music they are familiar with.
Hollywood stars have begun to migrate to Broadway.  With this happening, solely Broadway stars are being boxed out of the ring. This year alone Broadway has welcomed film and TV veterans like Bryan Cranston, Neil Patrick Harris, James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester, Denzel Washington, Carly Rae Jepsen, Fran Drescher and Orlando Bloom. Although some like Harris and O’Dowd are simply making their return to the theatre, it’s their name that has audiences interested. Yes, the shows they perform in are simply extraordinary but their name is the box office draw.
Broadway stars have also migrated to TV shows and movies. They recognize their “Broadway name” isn’t enough to sell out the theatre night after night. Broadway favorites like Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, Audra McDonald, Jeremy Jordan, Cristin Millioti, Andrew Rannells and Megan Hilty have been involved with TV shows and/or movies in recent years. They have begun to grow their fan base outside of theatre however, what does this mean for those who simply want to stick with Broadway? Will their shows still sell tickets?
Idina Menzel in If/Then. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
Idina Menzel in If/Then. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
The two actresses that come to mind that exemplify this problem are Kelli O’Hara and Laura Osnes. Both have had small roles on TV and Osnes even received her Broadway start by winning the NBC Reality competition Grease: You’re The One That I Want! Both stars are throwbacks to the “Broadway Golden Age” and have enjoyed success in classical-style musicals.
O’Hara has participated in musicals like The Pajama Game, The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific and Nice Work If You Can Get It. While Osnes has enjoyed success in Grease, Anything Goes, South Pacific (she actually replaced O’Hara), The Sound of Music, Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and The Threepenny Opera. Both have also tried to branch out into the original musical genre in recent years. Osnes in Frank Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde, which earned her a 2012 Tony Nomination, and O’Hara in The Bridges of Madison County, which earned her a 2014 Tony Nomination. Bonnie and Clyde unfortunately only ran for 36 performances and closed mainly due to low ticket sales. The Bridges of Madison County closed like a mentioned previously after 100 performances due to low ticket sales as well.
Both Bonnie and Clyde and The Bridges of Madison County showed O’Hara and Osnes in a different genre and both were original works. These shows failed to sell out the theatre night after night and were simply swallowed up by adaptations and jukebox musicals that filled both seasons respectively. O’Hara and Osnes are celebrity names to me however in the mainstream TV and Film mediums they have no name recognition. The closing of both phenomenal shows showcase that audiences were not buying tickets for a show they knew nothing about starring two relatively unknown actresses. This makes me think, will Osnes and O’Hara eventually need to branch out into TV and Film to sustain their Broadway careers? All I can say is “God I hope not!”
Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. Photo Credit: Broadway.com.
Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Photo Credit: Broadway.com.
Broadway’s original rhythm has changed dramatically. The shifts in audience’s perception of musicals have caused more and more adaptation to make it to Broadway rather than original work. Broadway stars now need to make a name for themselves in the mainstream media in order to sustain a true career in the theatre.
I recognize that Broadway has changed and has become more about the spectacle, the stars, and the recognition rather than the art form however, I wouldn’t mind going back to the years where Rodgers and Hammerstein ruled. Where the lights would go down in the theatre, the orchestra would play a five minute overture and you would be transported to world you knew nothing about. I would welcome the fresh, exciting, and new musicals with open arms.

Show More

One Comment

  1. Not quite right. Bridges is an adaptation of a book. It was also a film. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button