Monday, January 17, 2011

The Broadway Musical - An Endangered Species?

Have you taken the time to look at what new Broadway shows this season are still playing? Just as important, what about the productions that have already closed? Right now there are six, yes just six, shows still running (I’m not counting Time Stands Still since that was part of the 2009-2010 Manhattan Theatre Club season). What are the six survivors? Only one musical, if you can call Rain, a tribute to The Beatles, a musical; Colin Quinn’s one man show, if you call 80 minutes a real show; three well-received revivals (Driving Miss Daisy, The Merchant of Venice, and The Importance of Being Earnest); and one original drama, Lombardi. That’s it. Lombardi, by the way, is the sole production that is open-ended. The other five are limited runs.

Twelve other productions – musicals, comedies, and dramas—have all come and gone since September. To be fair, many of these shows were limited runs. However, even some of the limited-run productions ended early (A Life in the Theatre and La Bete). Only one, Elling, was an out-and-out disaster. Scanning through the first half offerings what is most noticeable, and discouraging, is all three new, original musicals (counting Off-Broadway transfers) came and went in the blink of an eye. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with one of the most star-studded casts of the 21st century, received lackluster reviews and, while one of those limited-runs, closed early; Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, while intriguing and variably entertaining, was more of a downtown show and should have stayed there; and The Scottsboro Boys, a controversial, yet artistically satisfying production retelling one of the most abhorrent episodes in recent American history. It limped along for only 49 performances (not the worst in the Kander and Ebb catalogue. That belongs to their 1971 production, 70, Girls, 70 which ran for a paltry 35 performances).

Does the quick demise of these three musicals, plus the somewhat varied morsels still playing have some larger meaning? Or is this just an off-season, an aberration, so far? It depends on how you want to examine the patient known as The Great White Way. If we take a snapshot in time right at this moment then, yes, this season can be described as bleak. If, on the other hand, we wait until May 2011 and look at the entire 2010-2011 Broadway season we may shrug off these early months. In fact, “potentially” (especially with musicals) this could be one of the best years on Broadway in recent memory. Look what’s waiting in the wings:

Original Musicals
  • Catch Me If You Can – based on the movie with a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, their first Broadway outing since Hairspray.
  • Sister Act – yes, based on the movie, transferring from London with a disco-infused score.
  • Spider-Man – already a certified smash even though it hasn't officially opened, but will set the record for number of preview performances, delayed openings, and number of actors injured.
  • The Book of Mormon – from those crazed South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
  • Wonderland – a new Frank Wildhorn composed show based on Alice and the gang.

  • Anything Goes – The best Cole Porter score wrapped around the sensational Sutton Foster. A marriage made in heaven.
  • How to Succeed in Business – two words: Harry Potter. Can Daniel Radcliffe sing? Dance?

One part of me, being the hopeless optimist, will wait to pass judgment until later this spring. To throw in a sports analogy, I hate it when broadcasters write off a team’s chance for success halfway through a season. Who knows? I could be waxing poetic about the incredible number of high caliber musicals that have energized Broadway. The Tony Award for Best Musical could be a real dogfight. Conversely, the realist in me views the past few months as truly depressing and dismal. When is the last time there were no new musicals heading into the winter months? I can only hope that what we’ve witnessed, thus far, is more an anomaly; less a trend then a departure from the norm.