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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 means 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 12 months’s acclaimed Sweeney Todd revival going sturdy on the Lunt-Fontanne, and the composer’s decidedly experimental present, Right here We Are, garnering a blended reception off-Broadway, it’s maybe price taking inventory of what American musical theater has turn into on this period the place Sondheim is each in every single place and nowhere. Whereas Sondheim’s reveals are presently enjoying throughout New York, his affect over the fashionable musical itself has turn into considerably more durable to trace.

“There’s a half-voiced worry amongst musical acolytes, comprehensible in a time during which theater itself is newly below siege,” former New York Instances critic Ben Brantley just lately wrote, “that on some degree Stephen Sondheim represents the tip of the road for a once-flourishing artwork type.” 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 varieties; they advanced inside American popular culture to turn into a worldwide export and one in all our hottest, enduring types of leisure. However it’s additionally extensively 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 informed in reverse — might by no means make it to the Nice White Approach at the moment. That’s as a result of at the moment’s successes are usually jukebox musicals and reveals primarily based 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 diversifications stacked with mediocre songs. It’s straightforward 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 features that appear distinctive to the fashionable panorama are as previous because the medium itself, and that the artform is evolving into one thing new and equally fascinating.

The brand new fashionable musical is arguably discovering its approach right into a hybrid type 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 following Sondheim will look or sound like.

Broadway reveals have at all times 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 means of all this earlier than. First, consider the musical as a sum of its components. There’s the story — the guide or the libretto — and the songs that associate with the story. No matter no matter else you set onstage, how nicely these two components mesh determines whether or not you’ve created one thing coherent.

That 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 fashionable songs of the day with entertaining skits and brief sketches, and operettas, which had dense, subtle 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 informed with out the music.

Within the center, you had Tin Pan Alley, the place a lot of America’s most well-known Twentieth-century songwriters churned out songs at a feverish tempo. On this period, songwriters equivalent to George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin thrived, churning out still-popular hits that helped type the spine of what’s known as the American Songbook. Typically, these songs discovered their approach into frothy reveals whose plots have been negligible and served as little greater than advertising and marketing for the music — which not often had something to do with the story. Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies, which reigned over the Twenties, was much more imprecise, delivering conceptually revolutionary spectacle however functioning primarily as a trend present with music.

In 1928, nonetheless, this began to vary, 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 practically steady all through, however the songs have been designed to relay info and perception into the characters. In 1943, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II additional codified these elements after 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 fashionable that for the primary time in Broadway historical past, the manufacturing made a recording to protect the unique forged, thereby turning the Authentic Broadway Forged Recording) into an indelible a part of the musical theater expertise.

For many theater lovers, the unique forged 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, satirically, on the identical time Rodgers and Hammerstein have been nailing house the elements for a totally constructed musical, their forged 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 in all two camps. Within the first camp, we now have musical revues — jukebox musicals — that are loosely plotted autos for beforehand written well-known songs from pop songwriters or performers. Assume Jersey Boys, Moulin Rouge, or the current Britney Spears musical, As soon as Upon a One Extra Time.

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

Excluding revivals, the overwhelming majority of current 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 current juggernaut franchise or pop hitmaker, however round an authentic concept or story adaptation, with a totally authentic rating.

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

Nonetheless, there’s a transparent distinction between reveals that exist to additional the artwork type and people who exist to additional increase an current 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 exhausting to disregard that many of those latter varieties of reveals will not be solely by-product but in addition sloppy and creatively vapid — and that since Broadway reopened, these reveals have been turning earnings even at their most muddled and cringe, as different, extra inventive and revolutionary reveals shut up store early.

Making use of the entire Hire sellout debate to a crop of reveals which might be bringing Instances Sq. again to life practically 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, Lovely — The Carole King Musical and Jersey Boys, have been jukebox musicals, and solely two, The Lion King and Aladdin, might be mentioned to suit below the “franchise musical” heading. Nevertheless one feels about the remainder of the musicals on the checklist, nobody can say they aren’t revolutionary. This was a decade that noticed a gentle effusion of authentic musicals, from Enjoyable House and Pricey Evan Hansen to Be Extra Chill, and One thing Rotten, a lot of which discovered passionate fanbases. And whilst Broadway limped alongside for many of final season, the three reveals that recouped post-pandemic — to this point 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 reasonably than a narrowing of the sector.

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

The dictum that not even Sondheim might turn into Sondheim within the present atmosphere 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 means of. Whereas everyone nonetheless needs to be Sondheim, solely a handful of at the moment’s musical composers have the form of fan following and identify recognition that permits them to mount a Broadway present and recoup its funding on the power of their rating. It’s not straightforward, as Brantley noticed for the Instances, “to think about any of them ascending to the unapproachable dominance of their career that was Mr. Sondheim’s for roughly half a century.” A facet issue is that a lot 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 the majority 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 vital dismissal and audiences who didn’t know what to do along with his work. It took a long time for a lot of of his reveals, with their famously “unsingable” scores, to turn into the cultural icons that established him not solely as one in all America’s most necessary composers, however a popular culture mainstay.

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

This can be a exhausting 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 stress between perceptions of “intellectual” and “lowbrow” artwork signifies that theater composers and critics ceaselessly wage struggle over which realm the musical belongs to. It additionally signifies that critics have been handwringing that the fashionable musical is lifeless for roughly 20 years — no, make that 40 years. The fashionable musical has allegedly been in its loss of life throes since earlier than many people have been born, and but by some means 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 contemplate 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 primarily based 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 seems like it can 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’d like them most. In the meantime, audiences proceed to return to theaters — and these audiences include fewer vacationers and extra locals and a extra numerous, younger crowd total. In different phrases, nature is therapeutic, and it needs to sing present tunes.

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