What does a Broadway musical appear to be in 2024?

The present Broadway revival of the late Stephen Sondheim’s most infamous flop, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Alongside, has unquestionably reclaimed the present’s popularity, not solely by way of the rave opinions of critics however by garnering the highest common ticket worth of any present this season, with seats ranging as much as $600.

With Merrily raking it in on the Hudson Theatre, final yr’s acclaimed Sweeney Todd revival going sturdy on the Lunt-Fontanne, and the composer’s decidedly experimental present, Right here We Are, garnering a combined reception off-Broadway, it’s maybe value taking inventory of what American musical theater has develop into on this period the place Sondheim is each in all places and nowhere. Whereas Sondheim’s reveals are at present taking part in throughout New York, his affect over the trendy musical itself has develop into considerably more durable to trace.

“There’s a half-voiced concern amongst musical acolytes, comprehensible in a time wherein theater itself is newly underneath siege,” former New York Occasions critic Ben Brantley not too long ago wrote, “that on some stage Stephen Sondheim represents the top of the road for a once-flourishing artwork kind.” If that sounds dire, it’s as a result of the stakes are excessive: It’s a standard axiom that musicals are one of many few purely American artwork kinds; they advanced inside American popular culture to develop into a world export and one among our hottest, enduring types of leisure. However it’s additionally broadly understood within the theater world that for all of the composers like Sondheim who helped make the musical what it’s, a present like Merrily — with unknown songs, a conceptual plot tailored from a little-known play, and a story instructed in reverse — may by no means make it to the Nice White Manner right this moment. That’s as a result of right this moment’s successes are usually jukebox musicals and reveals based mostly on very well-known motion pictures you already know.

This doesn’t imply, nonetheless, that musicals are doomed to wither on the vine as consumerism pushes us towards ever extra by-product, watered-down franchise variations stacked with mediocre songs. It’s simple to imagine this, and to cling to Sondheim because the final nice theater composer. However maybe there’s a distinct perspective on the present state of the musical: That it isn’t dying in any respect, that many doubtlessly worrying elements that appear distinctive to the trendy panorama are as outdated because the medium itself, and that the artform is evolving into one thing new and equally attention-grabbing.

The brand new fashionable musical is arguably discovering its method right into a hybrid kind that routinely performs with construction and style expectations, pairs self-aware storytelling and revolutionary design with conventional crowd-pleasing components, and deploys the mechanisms of social media and TikTok to bolster viewers interactivity and unite reveals with their core fanbases. No, it’s not Sondheim — however in a brand new period of storytelling, we don’t but know what the subsequent Sondheim will look or sound like.

Broadway reveals have all the time relied on pop hits to drive their success

To know precisely the place we’re headed, it’s useful to know that the musical as we all know it has been by way of all this earlier than. First, consider the musical as a sum of its elements. There’s the story — the guide or the libretto — and the songs that go together with the story. No matter no matter else you set onstage, how properly these two components mesh determines whether or not you’ve created one thing coherent.

Which may sound like a foregone conclusion, however the historical past of the shape begs to vary. The musical advanced from two completely reverse impulses: vaudeville, which paired in style songs of the day with entertaining skits and quick sketches, and operettas, which had dense, refined scores descended from operas. So, in a single nook, reveals whose songs have been random and interchangeable — within the different, reveals whose tales couldn’t be instructed with out the music.

Within the center, you had Tin Pan Alley, the place lots of America’s most well-known Twentieth-century songwriters churned out songs at a feverish tempo. On this period, songwriters corresponding to George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin thrived, churning out still-popular hits that helped kind the spine of what’s known as the American Songbook. Usually, these songs discovered their method into frothy reveals whose plots have been negligible and served as little greater than advertising and marketing for the music — which hardly ever had something to do with the story. Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies, which reigned over the Nineteen Twenties, was much more imprecise, delivering conceptually revolutionary spectacle however functioning primarily as a vogue present with music.

In 1928, nonetheless, this began to alter, when Ziegfeld produced Jerome Kern’s Showboat, a difficult drama steeped within the affect of operetta and teeming with social points. Not solely was Showboat’s rating almost steady all through, however the songs have been designed to relay data and perception into the characters. In 1943, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II additional codified these substances once they took a holistic strategy to their first collaboration. In Oklahoma!, the music, lyrics, and choreography have been all utilized to deepen characterization and advance the plot. However, crucially, whereas Rodgers’s lush rating was influenced by operetta, the songs have been all bangers. The songs from Oklahoma! have been so in style that for the primary time in Broadway historical past, the manufacturing made a recording to protect the unique solid, thereby turning the Authentic Broadway Forged Recording) into an indelible a part of the musical theater expertise.

For many theater lovers, the unique solid recording is an introduction to the present itself, lengthy earlier than they ever get an opportunity to see it. However whereas these recordings are a significant advertising and marketing software, it will possibly decontextualize songs from the efficiency. Thus, mockingly, on the identical time Rodgers and Hammerstein have been nailing house the substances for a completely constructed musical, their solid album was instigating the method for its deconstruction.

What even is a Broadway musical anymore? It’s a surprisingly tough query to reply

Most up-to-date Broadway productions fall into one among two camps. Within the first camp, we’ve musical revues — jukebox musicals — that are loosely plotted automobiles for beforehand written well-known songs from pop songwriters or performers. Suppose Jersey Boys, Moulin Rouge, or the latest Britney Spears musical, As soon as Upon a One Extra Time.

Within the second camp, we’ve musicals written within the Disney vein, including songs or different components to a beforehand beloved, well-known franchise. Suppose Imply Ladies, Legally Blonde, Again to the Future, or the upcoming musical adaptation of The Pocket book.

Excluding revivals, the overwhelming majority of latest Broadway musicals fall into both class, with various levels of success. An ever-dwindling third class is what we would consider because the “conventional” American musical — the Hamiltons and Hadestowns, constructed not round a beforehand present juggernaut franchise or pop hitmaker, however round an authentic concept or story adaptation, with a completely authentic rating.

There are apparent limitations to those categorizations. You may argue, completely appropriately, that reveals constructed round beforehand present franchises are additionally “conventional” musicals — they have a tendency to have absolutely or principally authentic scores with a two-act plot construction. On the identical time, these distinctions have develop into ever extra blurry in a musical panorama the place reveals need to attraction to the tastes of each vacationers and hardcore musical lovers with refined palettes and large fan energy. It’s more and more widespread for jukebox musicals like Jagged Little Capsule and the latest Neil Diamond revue A Stunning Noise to not solely interpolate their pop hits however to deconstruct, interrogate, and recontextualize them. Is that also a revue? In the meantime, reveals based mostly on motion pictures like The Lion King and Matilda are easy story variations, however really feel contemporary and transformative based mostly on their musical and theatrical strengths.

Nonetheless, there’s a transparent distinction between reveals that exist to additional the artwork kind and those who exist to additional develop an present IP. With the franchise and jukebox musicals dominating Broadway, it feels necessary to separate the “originals” from the ever-growing crop of reveals that appear to meet the latter objective. It’s arduous to disregard that many of those latter varieties of reveals aren’t solely by-product but additionally sloppy and creatively vapid — and that since Broadway reopened, these reveals have been turning income even at their most muddled and cringe, as different, extra inventive and revolutionary reveals shut up store early.

Making use of the entire Lease sellout debate to a crop of reveals which are bringing Occasions Sq. again to life almost 4 years right into a pandemic that debilitated the American theater, nonetheless, appears at minimal ill-timed and misguided. It additionally isn’t solely correct to say that solely the by-product musicals get all the eye. Of the 10 highest-grossing reveals of the final decade, solely two, Stunning — The Carole King Musical and Jersey Boys, have been jukebox musicals, and solely two, The Lion King and Aladdin, could possibly be stated to suit underneath the “franchise musical” heading. Nonetheless one feels about the remainder of the musicals on the record, nobody can say they aren’t revolutionary. This was a decade that noticed a gradual effusion of authentic musicals, from Enjoyable House and Expensive Evan Hansen to Be Extra Chill, and One thing Rotten, lots of which discovered passionate fanbases. And whilst Broadway limped alongside for many of final season, the three reveals that recouped post-pandemic — up to now together with girl-powered historical past romp Six, the Michael Jackson musical MJ, and the revival of Humorous Woman — arguably represented a variety of concepts and inventive ideas moderately than a narrowing of the sphere.

Nonetheless, the concept Broadway ought to be about extra than simply milking money cows feels noble. It’s arduous to let go of the Twentieth-century dream of an elevated musical kind the place each track feels inextricably linked to a novel character and story delivered to us by consummate songwriters. It’s additionally arduous to not resent the Imply Ladies and the & Juliets for robbing the Unusual Loops of their probability to discover a mass viewers.

The dictum that not even Sondheim may develop into Sondheim within the present setting of American theater is supposed to underscore the truth that culturally, we’ve moved previous the age of visionary composers driving what will get a Broadway manufacturing. The present glut of jukebox/franchise reveals make it extremely tough for less-known and experimental reveals to interrupt by way of. Whereas everyone nonetheless needs to be Sondheim, solely a handful of right this moment’s musical composers have the type of fan following and title recognition that enables them to mount a Broadway present and recoup its funding on the energy of their rating. It’s not simple, as Brantley noticed for the Occasions, “to think about any of them ascending to the unapproachable dominance of their occupation that was Mr. Sondheim’s for roughly half a century.” A facet issue is that lots of them have moved away from the theatrical trenches after recruitment into the Disney fold — a much less dangerous, extra profitable profession path, however not one which results in new reveals.

Radcliffe and Groff face each other with animated expressions and Mendez excitedly hits Groff’s back.

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff. and Lindsay Mendez on the opening evening curtain name of Merrily We Roll Alongside, October 2023.
Bruce Glikas/WireImage

However this concept — that there’ll by no means be one other Sondheim to innovate and push the musical ahead — additionally obscures the truth that almost all of Sondheim’s musicals barely made it to Broadway to start with. (Merrily solely ran for 16 tortured performances.) For many of his profession, Sondheim handled important dismissal and audiences who didn’t know what to do together with his work. It took a long time for a lot of of his reveals, with their famously “unsingable” scores, to develop into the cultural icons that established him not solely as one among America’s most necessary composers, however a popular culture mainstay.

In different phrases, even Sondheim usually persevered regardless of, not due to, the modes and technique of Broadway success. For all we laud “the American musical” as a pure artwork kind, the reality is that Broadway has all the time been a business enterprise, initially, extra carefully tied to Prime 40 pop music than to excessive artwork. The Gershwins, Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe, even Leonard Bernstein — many of the Twentieth century’s honored musical composers have been primarily hitmakers.

This can be a arduous tablet for a lot of theater lovers to swallow. Musical theater’s relationship to classical music and opera has traditionally been such an incendiary topic that each few a long time somebody drops an impassioned rant on the general public about it. The ever-present rigidity between perceptions of “intellectual” and “lowbrow” artwork signifies that theater composers and critics regularly wage warfare over which realm the musical belongs to. It additionally signifies that critics have been handwringing that the trendy musical is lifeless for roughly 20 years — no, make that 40 years. The trendy musical has allegedly been in its loss of life throes since earlier than many people have been born, and but in some way these loss of life throes have produced most of Broadway’s longest-running and profitable reveals, from The Phantom of the Opera to Depraved.

The extra I take into account the period we’re in, the much less I’m bothered by the state of issues. The present Broadway season already holds promise past the remnants of Sondheim: The upcoming jukebox musical Hell’s Kitchen, loosely based mostly on the lifetime of Alicia Keys, guarantees to unite the usual jukebox biopic with the thematic complexity of Jagged Little Capsule. Elton John’s Tammy Faye appears to be like like it would inject a wanted quantity of satirical froth into the combination. Revivals of Cabaret and The Wiz already really feel like they’re arriving at precisely the second we want them most. In the meantime, audiences proceed to return to theaters — and these audiences include fewer vacationers and extra locals and a extra various, younger crowd total. In different phrases, nature is therapeutic, and it needs to sing present tunes.

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