The contemporary death of the original Broadway musical

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Beverly Pan/Staff

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Last year, Broadway hosted 33 new productions. Of these productions, 10 were musicals. Of these 10, seven were original musicals. Of the seven eligible for the Tony Award for Best Musical, zero were based on truly original source material. Zero were not based on famous discographies or films or billion-dollar sensations. Zero were instances of pure, risky creation.

When considering the state of Broadway musicals today, it is hard not to be disheartened by the 2018 Tony nominees. This year, “Mean Girls,” “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical” and “Frozen” — all huge corporate phenomenons, all with majority-white casts — constitute three of the four shows nominated for Best Musical. The Tony nominees are supposed to represent the best of what live theater has to offer, but as time goes on, this seems less and less accurate.

The only other Best Musical nominee, “The Band’s Visit,” stands as the saving grace of the 2018 Tony nominees. The musical is based on an Israeli film from 2007, and the music is different and unique to the show, with Middle Eastern influences and impressive musicality for musicality’s sake. Unlike that of its competitors, the production’s music has a purpose beyond being catchy and light. The New York Times picked “The Band’s Visit” as a favorite to win the Tony this year, and while that remains encouraging, the complacency on display with the onslaught of nominees this year is disheartening.

To be fair, Broadway is a risky business. According to the Economist, only one in five shows makes a profit. When shows are so rarely successful, the incentive for risk-taking disappears almost entirely. Shows such as “Spongebob” or “Frozen” can pull audiences with their names alone, and early box-office success often means longer runs.

This year, only seven new shows that premiered on Broadway were eligible for the Best Musical award. With so much work and money being put into each individual show, the goal often becomes to appeal to as many people as possible, resulting in art for the lowest common denominator. This denominator is, more often than not, upper-middle-class white people and tourists.

With the financial risks being what they are, it is much safer to produce shows that are guaranteed successes. “Frozen” broke movie box-office records in 2013 and 2014, and its Broadway counterpart possesses an almost identical soundtrack and plot. “Mean Girls” not only possesses a secure name brand after the success of the 2004 film — it also had another show’s successful off-Broadway run to guide its way.

The original 2004 “Mean Girls” itself is in essence a remake of “Heathers,” a cult classic film starring Winona Ryder from the 1980s. In a truly remarkable example of history repeating itself, “Mean Girls: The Musical” is just a less-good version of the off-Broadway show “Heathers: The Musical,” which premiered four years ago to widespread praise and success, though with a much smaller budget. “Mean Girls” now has the opportunity for Tony gold, though it did little of the legwork necessary to set the stage.

The irony here is that despite their flaws, the Tonys seem to recognize and reward originality in form and content among their winners. It’s in the nominees that the Tonys become bogged down with bubble gum shows and high-budget theatrics. In the past 10 years, musicals such as “The Book of Mormon,” “Fun Home” and “Hamilton” all took home the top prize; all possess scores and concepts as inventive as they are engaging. Despite this, Broadway tends to host just a handful of original shows each season without big names attached to them.

Broadway is, and always has been, an elitist medium. But now more than ever, it feels like an elitist corporate medium, touting big names rather than innovative productions. It is futile to ask for Broadway to take more risks with shows. To reach out to lower-level creators or produce off-Broadway shows, instead of pumping out surefire smash Disney musicals, doesn’t make good business sense. But this year, the Tony nominations feel like if the Oscars were only for movies with budgets of more than $150 million.

It is important to note that the music for “Mean Girls,” “Frozen” and “Spongebob” is all fine. Good, even. All have the kind of music that gets stuck in your head, the kind of music that kids love. They’re the predictable, cookie-cutter, pop-musical soundtracks filled with female belters and funny drivel that are pumped out season after season.

While this year’s productions largely stuck to the script, attendance for Broadway shows is still at an all-time high. Over the past few years, Broadway has experienced a surge of attendance. It’s now making more money than ever before. The 2017-18 season brought in $1.7 billion, with higher attendance than that of the 10 professional New York and New Jersey sports teams combined.

As smash successes prove themselves to be more and more profitable, shows are demonstrating just how much money can be made on Broadway. In an attempt to pull in more and more profit, productions are losing their flavor while seeking what is safe rather than what is needed. Although theater is talked about more in American pop culture after “Hamilton,” seasons such as this year’s are what keep people viewing theater as an archaic and vapid art — its shows are largely unoriginal and made for and by the white upper-middle class.

None of this is to say that the musical theater world doesn’t hold within it an immense capacity for creative energy. Fantastic work has been done and continues to be done on Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and beyond. The ultimate issue is this: The Tonys, with their full-dress performances and professionally shot teaser clips, serve as the best example of what great theater looks like for those stuck coastally opposed to the Big Apple, or even those who live in New York and can’t afford to shell out $100 for a matinee.

As shows such as “Spongebob” and “Frozen” continue to bring in more and more money, they reinforce the idea of theater as the last stop of a cultural phenomenon’s victory tour, rather than a culturally relevant art within itself.

Kate Tinney is the assistant opinion editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.

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