History of the Musical Stage
2000-2009 Part II: Tourist Traps
by John Kenrick
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Audiences cheered for Jersey Boys (2005 - 2,300+ perfs, 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. With a score consisting entirely of old hit from the pop charts, this pleasant tuner would delight suburbanites and tourists for years to come.
Its main rival was The Drowsy Chaperone (2006 - 674 performances), a spoof of 1920s musicals that boasted an original score but bore little genuine resemblance to its supposed targets. A handsome adaptation of the hit novel and film The Color Purple (2005 - 910 performances) 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 for more than a year.
Several costly failures drew attention. Few mourned when Andrew Lloyd Webber's mawkish The Woman in White (2005 - 109 performances) and Disney's earthbound adaptation of the animated Tarzan (2006 - 486 performances) both lost millions of dollars. And there was barely concealed glee when Elton John's unimaginative score helped bury the vampire musical Lestat (2006 - 39 performances). The spectacular failure of Shonberg & Boublil's dreary The Pirate Queen (2007 - 85 performances) verified the public was no longer buying the old megamusical formula either. And Mel Brooks stumbled with an uninspired adaptation of his own Young Frankenstein (2007 - 484 performances). Was the endless stream of Broadway musicals based on films finally coming to an end? Like a breath of fresh air, America's growing Latino population made a long overdue appearance on Broadway with In the Heights (2008 - 1,184 performances), which took actor-songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda from off-Broadway obscurity to Tony-winning fame with a salsa-infused score that attracted critical approval and enthusiastic audiences.
And a Little Child Shall Lead Them . . .
A spunky little musical called [title of show] (2008 - 102 performances) that featured its two authors spouting musical theatre in-jokes made it to Broadway via an innovative pathway. It parlayed a debut in the NY Musical Theatre Festival and a brief run off-Broadway into an avalanche of low-cost internet publicity. Once on Broadway, all the social networking on earth could not attact a substantial audience. A lavish adaptation of the animated film Shrek (2008 - 441 performances) offered ample entertainment but had such trouble filling seats that it lost millions despite a year-plus run.
On the other hand, audiences packed the tuneless but energetic adaptation of Billy Elliot (2008 - 1,100+ performances, still running), which had three talented young actors alternating in the role of the British coalminer's son who dreams of studying ballet. While this import won the Tony for Best Musical, the awards for Best Score and Book went to Next to Normal (2009 - 733 performances), a native born show about a family facing emotional meltdown set to a powerful rock beat.
Although no one dared say it, Broadway had just offered a full season in which no successful new musical featured traditional showtunes. Those were heard in a series of popular revivals.
- Patti Lupone gave the performance of her career as the scheming Rose Hovick in Gypsy (2008 - 332 performances).
- Lincoln Center Theatre staged a superb restoration of Rogers & Hammerstein's South Pacific (2008 - 996 performances) that restored this show's reputation as a classic.
- Audiences embraced a bilingual revival of West Side Story (2009 - 748 performances) that drew mixed reviews.
- The once revolutionary rock musical Hair (519 performances) returned in a brilliant staging that made the hippies of the 1960s seem downright charming -- and its hit-packed score never sounded more appealing.
- Sondheim's A Little Night Music (2009 - 425 performances) made its long overdue return in a remarkably compact production. Catherine Zeta-Jones receiving a Tony for her performance as Desiree, and Angela Lansbury winning cheers as the cynical Madame Armfeldt.
But the presence of these vintage hits merely made the change in musical theatre all the more apparent. After a reign of more than a century, the classic showtune was now a dinosaur, even on Broadway. With tourists making up more than 60 percent of its audience, Broadway had resigned itself to being little more than a tourist trap -- like the soul-less floor shows of Las Vegas, but with occasional sparks of invention.
This sad state was all the more apparent when the final Best Musical Tony of the decade went to Memphis (2009 - 1165 performances). The story of a white radio disc jockey daring to play "black" music in the 1950s featured enough high energy choreography to help audiences to overlook a third rate rock score and a cliché-ridden script.
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 to profitable houses each December through the 1990s. But the mid-2000s saw several new musicals make repeat appearances on Broadway as holiday events.
- Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2006/2007) was a charming adaptation of the classic children's story, adding several new songs to those written for the 1964 TV animated version.
- Irving Berlin's White Christmas (2009/2010) turned a popular 1954 film into a critic-proof crowd pleaser. As in the much loved 1954 film, Berlin's evergreen songs made it easy for audiences to overlook a flimsy story line.
- Elf (2010/2012) proved profitable with no major stars and weak reviews. The well known film title sold tickets, as did a tuneful score which featured the impossibly titled but surprisingly catchy "Sparklejollytwinklejingly."
- The strongest of these holiday specialties was A Christmas Story (2012). Based on the popular comic film about a young boy who wants an air rifle for Christmas, it had a well-crafted score by newcomers Benj Jasek and Justin Paul, and even earned a Tony nomination for Best Musical.
Although these shows were limited to November-December runs, they became popular staples in regional theatres desperately seeking new musicals to offer audiences during the holiday season.