Broadway's pop culture revival
The musical Catch Me If You Can. (Joan Marcus)
Nearly ten years ago, one of New York’s biggest attractions was in trouble. After the attacks of 11 September, tourists stayed home and many Broadway shows went dark.
But in the last few years, audiences have been flocking back to the Great White Way. The 2009 to 2010 season brought in a record $860.6 million in tickets, up from $775.8 million the season earlier. And in a controversial shift from the traditional, many of the musicals responsible for Broadway’s financial success — like the Lion King and Billy Elliot – rely heavily on pre-existing movies, songs and stars.
“It's become less about the art. It's less about what else can we do with this musical form,” said Professor George Hillow, who teaches a class at Christopher Newport University called From Broadway to Hollywood and Back. “It's more about how can we make a killing on Broadway using something that's got a proven fan base."
On the other hand, Broadway League executive director Charlotte St Martin points out, musicals that do not meet the high expectations of theatregoers, regardless of their origin, do not stay on Broadway for very long.
“As a show is getting its legs, before there's time for word of mouth, the brands are great. But what sustains a show is a great show,” St Martin said. “If people don't like it they don't buy tickets or it doesn't last very long.”
No matter what side of the debate you land on, Broadway’s 66th season offers something for everyone: the traditionalist, the film buff and the music lover. If you are heading to New York to witness the next big thing, make your selection soon. After 12 June’s 65th annual Tony Awards, some tickets will be nearly impossible to find.
With Broadway's post 9/11 struggles in the rear-view mirror, it is clear that musicals are once again one of the biggest attractions in the Big Apple.
Hollywood to Broadway
Hollywood producers used to jump at the opportunity to turn a successful musical into the next blockbuster —West Side Story and The Sound of Music were winning Tonys long before they won Academy Awards. And while successful musicals — such as Rent and Mama Mia! — still find their way to the big screen, the relationship between Hollywood and Broadway has largely been reversed. With average ticket prices near $80, the financial success of film-based musicals has proved that plenty of theatregoers tend to spend their cash on familiar brands.
Since Beauty and the Beast came out in 1994, four of the 10 longest-running new musicals – including the Lion King, Hairspray and The Producers – have been based on films, according to research from the Broadway League, the industry's national trade association. Film-based musicals comprised about half of the top 10 grossing musicals in each of the last 10 years. And about one-third of the musicals appearing on Broadway this season are based on films, including Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which opened this year.
Billy Elliot, which is set in a poverty-stricken British town in the 1980s and tells the story of a young boy discovering his love of dance, has been one of the most popular musicals since it debuted on Broadway in 2008. A score by Elton John and a book and lyrics by Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay for the 2000 film, make this whimsical comedy/socially conscious drama one of the best musicals on offer.
If you are looking for something breezier, consider Sister Act, which has been nominated for a handful of 2011 Tony Awards, including best musical. Several changes have been made from the 1992 film, chief among them is that the singing and dancing nuns are now grooving in 1970s Philadelphia rather than 1990s Reno and San Francisco.
Relying on the jukebox
Ever since Mamma Mia! delighted crowds with its 2001 Broadway debut, so-called jukebox musicals have also been capitalising on a built-in fan base.