MUSICAL COMEDY RETURNS – the 2000s Kenrick, Musical Theatre, A HistoryChapter 16
James Joyce’ THE DEAD The year 2000 found the Broadway community quite unsure of what the future of musical theater could be. James Joyce's The Dead(111 perfs) was written by men with no experience creating musicals. The plot: after sharing a Christmas celebration with friends, a Dublin couple realizes that their marriage is a sham. A cast of musical stage and screen veterans including Christopher Walken were featured in the cast.
Disney’s AIDA (2000) Disney scored a commercial hit with Aida (1,852 perfs) with Verdi's slave princess and a war hero sharing romance and death in ancient Egypt. The Elton John-Tim Rice pop rock score backed-up the glitzy high tech production.
CONTACT (2000) Susan Stroman'sContact(1,008 perfs) triumphed with a trio of experimental dance pieces that wowed the critics and swept the Tonys. Some protested that a show with no orchestra and no book was not really a musical, but few ticket buyers seemed to mind as they packed the house to see "The Girl in the Yellow Dress" (the ravishing Deborah Yates) taunt handsome Boyd Gaines.
The Full Monty (2000) The following season got off to a promising start when critics raved for The Full Monty (768 perfs)based on the hit 1997 film about a group of unemployed men who try to make a few bucks stripping in a ladies club. David Yazbek'swrote the score and Terrence McNally wrote the witty book.
A time of experiment and revivals London’s Witches of Eastwick (2000) and The Beautiful Game (2000) never made it to NYC. There were two versions of The Wild Party… Andrew Lippa Michael LaChuisa
A time of experiment and revivals The Music Man was revived under Susan Stroman’s direction. Andrew Lloyd Webber revived JCS.
A time of experiment and revivals A new revival of 42nd Street settled into the Ford Center replacing Ragtime.
A time of experiment and revivals SWING!, a dance show, inspired by the success of FOSSE competed against CONTACT and THE DEAD for best musical.
Then Came 2001… Mel Brooks brought in his musical adaptation of his 1967 film The Producers(2,502 perfs). Nathan Lane played the manic producer Max Bialystock, who hopes to make millions staging a Broadway flop, assisted by Matthew Broderick as the nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom. Staged by Susan Stroman, it picked up a record-setting 14 Tony Awards. The full sized, shameless Broadway musical comedy, long considered extinct, was back and roaring. It was a blockbuster!
Ticket prices boomed Few complained, even when Brooks priced the best seats at a chilling $485. It was hard to say which was more frightening – the greed of someone willing to charge such a price, or the stupidity of those willing to pay it. But with Full Monty, The Producers and a sensational revival of 42nd Street running strong, musical comedy was once again the dominant force on Broadway.
September 11, 2001 When a terrorist attack destroyed the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11th, 2001, every theater on Broadway went dark for two days, but the theatre then regrouped and carried on.
Urinetown (2001) Just ten days after the attacks, the outrageous musical satire Urinetown (2001 - 965 perfs) opened to rave reviews. The surrealistic plot involved a drought-plagued city where the impoverished populace confronts a monolithic corporation controlling waste management – a dark send-up of every imaginable theatrical convention, it became the sleeper hit of the season and proved that playful (rather than vicious) satire still had commercial possibilities on Broadway.
Urinetown (2001) Audiences were so busy laughing that they didn't complain when Urinetown spoofed them for needing to be told "that their way of life is unsustainable." Like the great musical comedies of a previous age, Urinetown succeeded by offering humor with an intelligent edge – what some have called "serious fun."
Mamma Mia The London-born Mamma Mia (2001 - still running) roared into town a few weeks later, offering a familiar comic plot (a mother must confront the three men who might be her daughter's father) rebuilt around old hit songs by the pop group Abba. Critics were under-whelmed, but enthusiastic audiences keep the Winter Garden sold out. On Broadway and on tour, Mamma Mia's pure joy sells a lot of tickets.
Jukebox musicals It was the first in a wave of jukebox musicals, "new" shows built around existing pop songs. Some of these pop-athons were revues, but most were book musicals where the songs came first, the plot second..
At Liberty (2002) Broadway legend Elaine Stritch returned in a one-woman triumph, At Liberty (2002 - 69 perfs), winning Stritch the Tony she had waited half a century for – albeit a special award, not one for Best Actress.
The big winner of the 2000-2001 season was Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002 - 904 perfs), a tap-happy adaptation of the 1967 movie musical. The new songs were mediocre, but vintage showstoppers by Gilbert & Sullivan and Victor Herbert combined with sensational choreography to garner several Tonys, including Best Musical.
Baz Luhrmann's updated Australian Opera production of Puccini's opera La Boheme (2002 - 228 perfs) won raves during its brief run. Movin' Out (2002 - 1,202 perfs), was a dance musical built around the pop songs of Billy Joel choreographed by Twyla Tharp.
Broadway marked Richard Rodgers' 100th birthday with rewritten flop revivals of The Boys From Syracuseand Flower Drum Song. Bernadette Peters starred in a minimalist revival of Gypsy (2003 - 451 perfs) that pleased some but disappointed purists.
The long-awaited German hit Dance of the Vampires (2002 - 56 perfs + 61 pvws) offered Michael Crawford in an incoherent blend of misfired comedy and passionless romance, and a well intentioned stage version of the film hit Urban Cowboy (2003 - 60 perfs + 23 pvws) soon two-stepped its way into obscurity.
Hairspray (2002) The new musical comedy trend rocked on with the arrival of Hairspray (2642). Based on a popular 1988 film by John Walters, it told the story of an overweight Baltimore girl finding romance and stardom on a local TV show in the early 1960s. With a hilarious book and giddy period-flavored score, it gave Harvey Fierstein a chance to camp his way to glory as Broadway's ultimate drag mama. Hairspray became the third American musical comedy in a row to win the Tony for Best Musical – and the third winner in a row based on a decades-old movie.
Witches, Puppets and Jukeboxes, 2003-4 The following season brought a lavish musical adaptation of Wicked, the best-selling novel that re-tells Baum's Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch's point of view -- a reminder that history is often told (and distorted) by the so-called "winners." Veteran composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz offered that increasingly rare thing: a sophisticated score that benefits from rehearing.
The massive Wicked was considered a front-runner for the Tonys, but it was unexpectedly eclipsed by a small, unassuming charmer. Avenue Q(still running) was an intimate, low-budget musical comedy about life among struggling 30-somethings in New York's outer boroughs. With Muppet-style puppets, some mild naughtiness (coy ads promised "full puppet nudity") and an irreverent sense of humor, Avenue Q quickly moved from Off-Broadway to win rave reviews and Tonys for Best Book, Score and Musical.
Of course, it helped that the Tony committee classified Stephen Sondheim's brilliant Assassins(2004 - 101 perfs + 26 pvws) as a "revival" -- despite the fact that the show clearly qualified as a new show under previous eligibility guidelines. This daring production had to settle for winning Best Revival and Best Director of a Musical -- for Joe Mantello, who had also helmed Wicked.
The following season saw the zany Monty Python's Spamalot (2005 - 1575 perfs) win the Tony for Best Musical over the toughest competition of the decade. The good news was that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005 - 666 perfs), A Light in the Piazza (2005 - 504 perfs) and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005 - 1,136 perfs) all enjoyed profitable runs, proving that there was still a diverse audience for new, high-quality Broadway musicals.
The second half of the decade would see the show tune give up a forty-plus year battle to stand its ground against changing tides in popular music. Rock and pop would finally reign supreme, and the sound perfected by Kern, Berlin, Rodgers and Sondheim would become a thing of the occasionally revisited past.
Christmas Annuals New York has a long tradition of annual productions associated with the holiday season, most notably the annual Christmas Show at radio City Music Hall, and the Madison Square Garden Theatre's musical version of A Christmas Carol that ran through the 1990s. But the mid-2000s saw two musicals return to Broadway as annual events. How The Grinch Stole Christmas was a charming adaptation of the Dr. Seuss Children's story. And White Christmas was a stage adaptation of the popular film. In 2012, the Kansas City Rep entered the fray with their adaptation of A Christmas Story.
Triumph of the jukebox Audiences cheer for Jersey Boys (2005 - still running), a thinly dramatized collection of pop hits introduced by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, but some in the profession expressed concern when this show became the first jukebox musical to win the Tony for Best Musical. Despite opinions to the contrary, this delightful show will please suburbanites and tourists for years to come.
The Drowsy Chaperone Its main rival was The Drowsy Chaperone (674) a spoof of 1920s musicals that bore no real resemblance to its supposed targets.
The Color Purple - 2005 A handsome adaptation of the hit novel and film The Color Purple(910 perfs) was plot-heavy, but a promising score and generous publicity (courtesy of producer Oprah Winfrey, who plugged the musical on her popular daytime talk show) helped keep the show running strong for more than a year.
The 2006 season was a mix of revivals and exciting new works… The revivals included A CHORUS LINE (2006) and John Doyle’s imaginative COMPANY, a follow-up to his re-imagining of SWEENEY TODD the season before.
Mary Poppins - 2006 Still running at the New Amsterdam, this was a collaboration between Cameron Mackintosh and Disney Theatricals. In order to accommodate the show, Disney transferred The Lion King to the Minskoff, a few blocks away.
Grey Gardens - 2006 Based upon a 1979 documentary film about two wealthy and eccentrics living together in their crumbling Long Island estate with a legion of cats. Christine Ebersole starred as Edie Beale (and in flashbacks, her mother) a relative of former first lady Jackie Kennedy.
Spring Awakening – 2006 Based upon a 115 year old German play about teenagers coming of age, it featured a rock score by Duncan Shiek. The featured performers included Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, Jr. The show received 8 Tony Awards including Best musical.
Some notable failures… Few mourned when Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White (2005 - 109 perfs) and Disney's earthbound adaptation of the animated Tarzan (2006 - 486 perfs) both lost millions of dollars. And there was positive glee when Elton John's unimaginative score helped bury the vampire musical Lestat (2006 - 39 perfs). The spectacular failure of Shonberg & Boublil's dreary The Pirate Queen (2007 - 85 perfs) verified the public was no longer buying the old megamusical formula either.
Young Frankenstein - 2007 And Mel Brooks stumbled with an uninspired adaptation of his own Young Frankenstein (484 perfs). Was the endless stream of Broadway musicals based on films finally coming to an end?
In the Heights - 2008 Like a breath of fresh air, America's growing Latino population made a long overdue appearance with In the Heights(1184), which took actor-songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda from off-Broadway obscurity to Tony-winning fame with a salsa-infused score and tons of critical approval.
[title of show] - 2008 A spunky little musical called[title of show] (102 perfs) that featured its two authors spouting musical theatre in-jokes took an innovative approach. It parlayed several brief runs off-Broadway into an avalanche of low-cost internet publicity, but once on Broadway could not find a substantial audience.
Shrek - 2008 A heavy-handed adaptation of the animated film Shrek (2008 - still touring)had trouble filling seats and closed after less than a year.
On the other hand, audiences packed the tuneless but energetic adaptation of Billy Elliot (2008 - still running), which had three talented young actors alternating in the role of the poor coalminer's son who dreams of studying ballet. While this British import won the Tony for Best Musical, the awards for score and book went to Next to Normal (2008 – 733 perf), a native born show about a family facing emotional meltdown set to a powerful rock beat. Link to homepage Link to homepage
More revivals… Broadway had just offered a full season in which no successful new musical featured traditional showtunes. Those were heard in Patti Lupone's exciting revival of Gypsy (2008 - 332 perfs), a superb restoration of Rogers & Hammerstein's South Pacific(2008 – 996 perf), and a coolly-received bilingual revival of West Side Story(2008 – 748 perfs). But the presence of these Golden Age shows merely made the change all the more apparent. After a reign of more than a century, the showtune was now a dinosaur, even on Broadway. With tourists making up more than 60 percent of its audience, the Broadway musical resigned itself to being little more than another tourist trap…
Since publication… The following shows have opened since the book was published… THE ADDAMS FAMILY (2010) AMERICAN IDIOT (2010) ANYTHING GOES (2011) revival BOOK OF MORMON (2011) CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2011) HOW TO SUCCEED (Revival) 2011
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (Revival) 2010 MEMPHIS (2010) MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (2010) PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (2011) ROCK OF AGES (2010) SISTER ACT (2011) SPIDERMAN, TURN OFF THE DARK (2011)
Kinky Boots (2013) Matilda (2013) Motown the Musical (2013) Newsies (2012) Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012) Once (2012) PIPPIN (Revival) - 2013 The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream (2013)
What does the future hold? On May 26, 2006, Ben Brantley, the chief critic of the New York Times published an article describing the death of the American musical. A similar statement has been made several times. How accurate are these observations? Are musicals dead? If statistics tell us anything, the answer is no. In 2005 $769 million were spent on Broadway theatre tickets—nine out of ten of those tickets were for musicals.
What does the future hold? According to recent statistics, NY theatre audiences are comprised of: New Yorkers 16.7% Suburbanites: 22.9% Tourists: 60% This helps to explain why mega-long-running musicals seem to be the rule today. That means that public taste will determine how the musical survives. New York is no longer the only home for the musical, new works come from all over the US.
AHEM! Is The Musical Dead? All right, it is time for a direct answer . . . Dead? Absolutely not! Changing? Always! The musical has been changing ever since Offenbach did his first rewrite in the 1850s. And change is the clearest sign that the musical is still a living, growing genre. Will we ever return to the so-called "golden age," with musicals at the center of popular culture? Probably not. Public taste has undergone fundamental changes, and the commercial arts can only flow where the paying public allows.
But the musical is far from dead. It will survive, and occasionally thrive, by adapting to changes in artistic and commercial expectations. But change often comes at a price. The new century will take musical theatre and film to places we could no more imagine than the people of the early 1900s could have foreseen the technology of The Jazz Singer or the subject matter of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As it moves forward, the musical will go places some of us may not care to follow. But so long as a song helps to tell a story, musicals will be around.
Just as we opened with a definition of the musical, so now we close with another. This one is courtesy of Oscar Hammerstein II – "It is nonsense to say what a musical should or should not be. It should be anything it wants to be, and if you don't like it you don't have to go to it. There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be – it has to be good.” - as quoted by Stanley Green in The World of Musical Comedy (New York: Ziff Davis Publishing, 1960), p. 7.