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.
Generally speaking, jukebox musicals are defined as productions that use a pre-existing group of songs for the score. The song catalogue can be used to narrate a biography, such as the 2006 Tony-Award-winning Jersey Boys, which is based on the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, or it can be similar to Mama Mia!, which uses a decade's worth of ABBA songs to tell the fictional tale of a bride's attempt to discover her father's identity.
At least one-fourth of this season's Broadway musicals could be considered jukebox musicals. Jersey Boys and Mama Mia! have been two of the highest-grossing musicals every year since they each opened. This season, Baby It's You!, based on iconic girl group the Shirelles and producer Florence Greenberg, joined the 2010 hit Million Dollar Quartet and 2009's Rock of Ages.
If you grew up rocking out to the sounds of Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Poison, make sure to check out Rock of Ages before it hits movie theatres next year. The plot is a little thin, but witty writing, charismatic performers and a musical score comprised of 1980s hits make for quality entertainment.
If big hair is not your thing, consider Million Dollar Quartet, which is based on the legendary 1956 jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. In addition to portraying the rocks stars, actors play their own instruments as they pay tribute to the musical icons.
A number of producers are still willing to take a risk on original music and storylines, and for some it has paid off. Three of the last five Tony winners for Best Musical -- Memphis, In The Heights and Spring Awakening -- had no pre-existing brands and may soon be headed to movie theatres.
The Book Of Mormon, the story of a pair of Mormon missionaries travelling to Uganda, has been a critical and financial success, but Broadway producer Ken Davenport suggests that if the creators of South Park were not behind it, this season's most subversive musical might never have made it to the bright lights of Broadway. While the Book Of Mormon's famous creators may be responsible for initial ticket sales, it is the promise of memorable performances and riotous laughter that keep the house packed. Nominated for 13 Tony Awards, make sure to plan ahead if you want to score tickets. It is currently sold out until August.
After winning the 2010 Tony Award for best musical, Memphis continues to be one of the highest-grossing productions on Broadway. The musical tells the story of how a white radio DJ’s passion for music transcends race and his love for a black singer challenges the societal values in 1950s Jim Crow south.
Musicals can get rather pricey, with tickets to some shows averaging more than $100, but those who are flexible about which shows they want to see and are willing to stand in line can score reasonably cheap tickets to most shows.
TKTS discount booths in Times Square, South Street Seaport and downtown Brooklyn offer tickets at a 20% to 50% discount the day of the show. Most theatres offer rush tickets — which require anything from being at the box office when it opens to entering a lottery — and standing-room-only tickets on the day of the show for as little as $20 to $30. Each show has different offers, so check out playbill.com to find discount information.