Expanding... Pt 3: Why Broadway Isn't the Solution

Part 3 of my series on Expanding Musical Theatre Development.

1. The Value of Unknown Writers

2. The New Musical Process

3. Why Broadway isn’t the Solution

4. The Soul of Musical Theatre

5. Regional Theatres

6. Streaming

3. Why Broadway isn’t the solution

Broadway is the only place that pays musical theatre writers money for writing full musicals. Hollywood does occasionally, but it’s rare, and original film musicals only half commit to the genre—5-10 songs, rather than 12-20 (or 30 if you’re ambitious, or 40 if you’re Les Mis). TV only uses musical theatre as a gimmick. Off-Broadway and regional theatres may pay some, but it’s pennies when compared to the years of work that precede those productions.

Looking to see how many new writers get a shot each Broadway season, I compiled a list of the 87 musicals playing during 2014-2015 through 2019-2020 seasons

33 were revivals, revues, or into a longer run

16 were wholly original/no rights attached

  • 14 had a Broadway writer debut

  • 3 had writers who were already successful in another medium

21 were full adaptations, with previous media rights attached

  • 11 had a Broadway writer debut, usually not the composer

  • Of those 11, 10 had at least one writer who was already successful in another medium.

17 were adaptations with pre-existing musical scores

  • I didn’t look into the writing debuts here. I figure anyone given an opportunity here, if it’s their debut, they’re well-connected.

That means of 87 shows, only 12 shows had no authors with prior Broadway-or-other-medium and 11 of those 12 were wholly original/no rights attached.

Based on this info, if you’re writing an original musical, there are about two Broadway slots per year available. Three if you have success in another medium. If you want to do something based on material with rights, you’d better have someone successful on the team to get those rights.

Looking at the list of new shows with Broadway debut writers, you’ll see Dear Evan Hansen, Gentleman’s Guide, Hadestown, and Six, and think “Those shows are really successful. If Broadway would just produce more original musicals, by unknown writers, we’d have more smash hits!”

Unfortunately, this category is actually the least likely to recoup costs (see Allegiance, Amazing Grace, Be More Chill, and In Transit). There are a number of possible causes of failure of any show, but these shows are more likely to experience things like:

the piece doesn’t work in New York

  • Adaptations are usually based on stuff that already appealed to the masses

  • Revivals are more “tried and true”

  • Writers with prior success have somewhat figured out the New York game

the piece doesn’t currently work anywhere

  • Adaptations are building on successful frameworks

  • Revivals are more “tried and true”

  • Writers with prior success typically have chops, and definitely have more support

the piece is good, but takes too long to build momentum

  • Adaptations and revivals have name recognition

  • New writers, new shows do not. Word of mouth, rave reviews are required.

  • the piece may have been selected by debut producers with a lot of money, but not a lot of industry experience

You can try to find a better show. You can rewrite the shows you’re working with. You can improve marketing, ticketing, accessibility. You can stunt cast for name recognition, if it doesn’t compromise the quality of the show too much. You can rely on off-Broadway, non-profit theatres, regional theatres, etc. to find the shows for you (common). You can even stream your productions, for visibility and extra income. But if Broadway producers could magically filter their inboxes with pitches for sure-fire New York hits, they’d have done it by now.

It’s tempting to follow that line of thinking with, “We just need to improve the development pipeline, so every one of those 16 shows over 5 years draws people into New York theatres like Hamilton did. Then maybe the 16 will eventually expand to 25.” One big problem with that. Hamilton isn’t leaving Broadway, nor is Book of Mormon, nor is Wicked, nor is Lion King. The more each show sells, the fewer shows make it to Broadway. Success makes the pipeline even tighter.

Between that reality, the expense of taking risks on material on a Broadway stage, and the need for theatres to sell tickets starting with opening night, Broadway isn’t equipped to pay very many people to write musicals. The fact that they are the only ones paying is the real problem.

The trick is finding a new solution that offers a genuine development process, including a musical’s relationship with its live audience, and bottles it up for the masses.

You know where this is going. So now I’m going to talk about subversion, instead.

Next: Part 4

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