Sophie Schulman has just graduated from American University in Washington, DC with a degree in musical theatre. She is now trying to figure out what to do with her life and where to do it. To kick-start our AYT USA blog series, Sophie considers the future of Broadway.
According to some, Broadway was dead before I was born. A very depressing prospect for someone who just graduated from college with a degree in musical theatre. Apparently, I don’t have much to look forward to.
While I can understand why some people may be frustrated with the apparent lack of interesting and original new musicals, I believe it is a fallacy that these shows don’t exist. The problem is not that no one is creating new and fascinating works, rather that no one is producing them and that on the rare occasion that one is produced, it usually can’t survive a long commercial run.
Last week, I saw The Scottsboro Boys at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, California. With a book by David Thompson, and a score by Kander and Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys opened on Broadway in October 2010 and ran a mere 49 performances before it closed, despite positive reviews. The show is based on a real court case where nine young African-American men were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train going through the American South. It’s told in the minstrel tradition, a great source of shame for the American people. Minstrel shows were performed by either white or black actors in blackface and reinforced negative stereotypes about African Americans by exploiting them for comedic effect. The Scottsboro Boys uses this usually offensive art form in an ironic and satirical way to comment on the events of the trial and on the racist attitudes of the time.
I truly enjoyed the show and it made me think and question so many things in a way that not many new musicals have done. That is not to say that there have been no great Broadway musicals produced in recent years, but when you look back into theatrical history and see that Wonderful Town, Guys and Dolls, Kismet, South Pacific, Damn Yankees, Finian’s Rainbow and Pajama Games were all part of the 1955 season on Broadway, it’s easy to wonder what changed between then and now. This year, for the first time in Broadway history, two straight plays were nominated for best score. There is obviously a bit of a musical drought on the Great White Way.
So, what is the reason for all of this? The obvious answer is money. Audiences aren’t willing to risk what little cash they have on a ticket to something they’ve never heard of, and producers aren’t willing to risk their money on shows that won’t put butts on seats. After all, The Scottsboro Boys was a great piece and I’m sure none of its producers got anywhere close to recouping the investment they made in the show. So, they make safer choices by putting their money into musicals based on popular movies and books, and sometimes these pieces are amazing and sometimes they just aren’t. Yet even the mediocre shows with recognisable names end up making more than the good ones that aren’t familiar to tourists.
But what is the solution, aside from fixing the economic crisis in our country? Do producers have a responsibility to develop and foster new work? As a young performer I constantly hear my collaborators perform pieces by new composers and lyricists. Adam Gwon, Peter Lerman, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk, Pasek and Paul, Jonathan Reid Gealt, Joe Iconis… all of these artists are creating great work, but very little of it gets produced commercially. So, we know there is talent out there and people should be backing it, right?
I have a hard time telling anyone they have a moral obligation to invest money in something. As I said, I just graduated from college, I know what it means to be on a budget. Whether it’s the hundred dollars often needed for a Broadway ticket, or the millions of dollars needed to produce a musical, who am I to tell others how to spend their funds? I can understand that losing millions of dollars would probably not be particularly fun or exciting. So, I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not sure how to fix this problem, but I do know that this is a vicious cycle that has to be broken. Otherwise, there really may not be a Broadway by the time I get there. Or, at least not the kind of Broadway I want to be a part of.
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