Bound By Broadway
The State of the American Musical
It is no secret that Broadway is the driving engine behind the development of new musical theater, largely because it’s one of the only ways a musical can be profitable. When musicals succeed on Broadway, an entire channel of distribution opportunities open up, from tours to licensed productions at regional theaters that have trained their audiences to expect a Broadway brand. The American musical had its origins as popular entertainment, coming from vaudeville and operetta, and while it has always been primarily a for-profit business, it was an essential part of the cultural landscape. Over the past few decades, however, the market reach of musicals has been reduced to a very specific niche market while the artistic ambitions of the artists that create it have continued to grow and evolve. The art form is driven by commercial success, but opportunities for that success have condensed as well, as even commercial Off-Broadway has become the realm of musicals that have achieved a Broadway brand first.
The result of this condensation of the available marketplace is that new musicals are increasingly being evaluated according to a Broadway paradigm. That is, will the musical appeal to a Broadway audience and have a chance at becoming profitable? The question of “Is this musical commercial?” that gets bandied about frequently amongst the producers of new musical theater, is in actuality, “Is this musical a Broadway show?” The prescience of that question in the annals of development of new work invariably limits the form by forcing that work into the specific and singular environment of Broadway theater.
Producing on Broadway doesn’t allow for a variance of options. The available theaters are mostly old, landmarked, and proscenium spaces located in a twenty-block section of one city. The costs are exorbitant and so are the ticket prices, resulting in an audience made up of mostly white, well-off individuals from the suburbs and tourists on vacation. Even with these limitations, it remains one of the few launching pads for new musical theater with a profitable upside, and as long as it remains the sole viable distribution point for new musicals, the art form’s evolution will be severely curtailed.
The community of readers here at HowlRound will recognize some of these same issues in the development of new plays, but for all of the talk throughout the theatrical community of the plight of the playwright, the reality is that while there are income and livelihood issues of great importance that need to be addressed with playwrights, the fact remains that there are plenty of institutions throughout the U.S. that are dedicated to the development of new American plays and frequently produce them. These writers may not be able to make a living off their plays, but there is at least a chance they will have them done. There are currently no major non-profit producing theaters in this country whose core or sole mission is the development and production of new musicals. Though major regional theaters will occasionally mount brand new musicals in their seasons, when they take one on it is often a project that has been incepted or optioned by a commercial Broadway producer who has made a substantial enhancement to the theater’s budget. There’s nothing inherently negative about this arrangement. Often, it is an effective development tool for these producers. But it feeds the notion that the granting of artistic life to a new work of musical theater is solely tied into its viability as a Broadway property.
Though major regional theaters will occasionally mount brand new musicals in their seasons, when they take one on it is often a project that has been incepted or optioned by a commercial Broadway producer who has made a substantial enhancement to the theater’s budget. There’s nothing inherently negative about this arrangement. Often, it is an effective development tool for these producers. But it feeds the notion that the granting of artistic life to a new work of musical theater is solely tied into its viability as a Broadway property.
So what do the writers of musicals do with their ideas that don’t get traction commercially, aren’t perceived as commercially viable or simply aren’t right for the types of spaces available on Broadway? There are service organizations like the National Alliance for Musical Theater and the BMI Workshop, and various festivals that provide matchmaking, nurturing, and early stage opportunities to writers, but where does the next generation of musical theater composers, lyricists, and bookwriters go to grow? Where do they go to dream, experiment, and perhaps even be allowed to fail? What are the intermediate steps for them? We have a crop of very talented and promising musical theater artists coming up through the ranks who have never had a fully realized professional production of their work. Through their frustration, they begin to write shows that are scalable and that can work effectively in a festival environment, or even worse, they learn to write for the music stand. They aren’t getting the opportunities to see their work done theatrically with a professional team or paying audiences…experiences that are invaluable and essential to their artistic and creative growth.
The Broadway producing community should find this issue worrisome, as it won’t be long before it begins to impact their product pipeline. No matter how corporate or commercial the ideas for new musicals become, there will still be a need for competent writers who understand the form and can translate these ideas into something theatrical. While the Broadway business model itself isn’t necessarily flawed (when it works it works big and because of the incredible pay-off potential it’s not likely to dramatically change soon), the fact remains, there are few, if any, other options currently available. Here’s why it’s incredibly problematic if the sole tastemakers of musical theater are Broadway producers: the very nature of producing commercially on Broadway disallows for the sharing of ideas and concepts and more global discussions of what the art form could be or should be evolving towards. These producers have a fiscal responsibility to their investors and are often very project-by-project focused.
The complexity of mounting a show on Broadway makes it nearly impossible to be concerned with the uber issues of the art while they are in the thick of it. The perspective these producers could provide in an aesthetic discussion of musical theater would be invaluable, but these discussions rarely happen amongst the commercial producing community, as there are no strong counterbalances to their perspective. Differing perspectives that might provide this balance are hard to come by in official or credible channels, as the criticism and academic discussions of musical theater as an art form are considerably limited. Many of the books written about musicals are from a historical or popular culture point of view, dealing more with the personalities of the players or the business successes or failures of certain productions as opposed to a dramaturgical assessment of creative and artistic success or effectiveness. These works frequently are loaded with nostalgia for the “golden age” of musical theater and often lament the progress and changes made to the form such as the influx and incorporation of more modern musical stylings and narrative structures.
In addition, there are few educational institutions with programs that encourage the artistic exploration of the form at the graduate level that are not performance-based. In fact, because musical theater exists primarily in the commercial mode, the form is looked down upon by many theater makers and is considered to be more akin to the latest big-budget Hollywood romantic comedy than a worthy form of artistic expression. This might be partially attributed to the fact that the form is relatively young and has yet to reach a highbrow status (if you start counting at Oklahoma, book musicals as we know them have only existed for seventy years). But I believe that musical theater has matured to a point where it will be difficult to grow any further until it begins to be treated with the same reverence and aesthetic scrutiny that we place upon plays. There are artists out there who are passionate about the form with varying ideas, who want to create work that is envelope-pushing, different, and meaningful, but who need institutions that want to nurture new voices in musical theater.
In order for the full potential of the American musical to be reached, we will need institutions that will give these artists the chance to grow in an environment free from the pressures of commercial Broadway entertainment and expectations of financial success, allowing us to better differentiate between musicals that are purely populist and musicals that have aesthetic significance. Though popularity and the essentialness of a work of art may be linked, they are certainly not dependent upon one another. In fact works of art that are progressive and unfamiliar may not be fully understood by the public at the time their creation. It is the reason that major not-profit cultural institutions exist: to provide the artist with a space to showcase their work that is not entirely dependent upon the forces of capitalism and the malleable nature of public opinion moving favorably in their direction. So must it be with musical theater if it is ever to mature and take its place among the great art forms.
Mass appeal, or a perceived potential for it, cannot be the only reason a piece of musical theater is brought into the world. All of this is not to say that the Broadway model is counter to the creation of great works of art. Indeed, Broadway is one of our country’s most cherished and important cultural landmarks. However, as costs continue to skyrocket it becomes increasingly difficult for it to be a place where this kind of progressive artistic success happens with any consistency or regularity. Broadway can and should continue to exist as the ultimate goal and top-level distribution point for works that are called to reach a wide audience. But there must be opportunities for musical theater to thrive and exist outside the Broadway sphere. Our definitions of success must be broadened so that we can feed both the future of the form and Broadway itself.