No Plays on Broadway?: Why The Lack of Plays is Bad News for Musicals

Last week, in an attempt to make small talk, a visiting friend of my parents’ announced to me that as of this week, there would be no straight plays running on Broadway. Sounds crazy, right? First of all, it’s not so crazy. It has happened before, at least once in my lifetime and more than once in history I’m sure, although for the life of me I haven’t been able to figure out when it happened most recently using IBDB or Playbill Vault. (If you know the answer, comment below and I’ll be eternally grateful.) Second, it’s not technically true, though also not far from the truth.

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva /

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in Lady Day. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva /

Let’s take a look at the facts. After Of Mice and Men closes on July 27, there will be only one play on Broadway—Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill—until This Is Our Youth starts previews on August 18. When Lady Day closes (temporarily, as it was just extended for a third time) on August 31, Youth will in turn be the only play until The Country House arrives on September 9 and Lady Day resumes on the same day. So, there won’t ever be zero plays, but there will sometimes be just one. And one is not a lot, especially when Broadway has 40 theaters, 26 of which will in early August be occupied by musicals.

Does this make me afraid that Broadway plays are dying out? Not really. It’s not that plays aren’t coming to Broadway, it’s that more and more of them follow one of two models––they feature a movie star headliner with a tight schedule, or they exist as part of the season at nonprofits like Roundabout and Manhattan Theater Club—and in either case they have limited runs. But both of these models allow original work to see a Broadway bow, and as long as that’s the case, I’m not too worried. (If there’s anything about last season’s crop of new plays that concerns me, it’s the lack of diverse representation—as evidenced by five white male playwrights being Tony-nominated for Best Play—but that’s a topic for another post.)

If the 26:1 ratio of musicals to plays doesn’t make me fear for the future of plays, does it make me rejoice for the future of musicals? That’s another “no.” Why? Because, as I mentioned above, I’m most concerned about the opportunities afforded to original work and new writers, and a closer look at the numbers shows that all is not well in that area. If you take the 26 musicals and remove revivals and the ones that feature pre-existing music, either from the pop canon or from the scores of movies they’re adapted from, you’re left with just 11 that feature original scores written for the stage, appearing on Broadway for the first time. Of those, just 5 are by writers making their Broadway debuts. (That number goes down to 3 if you don’t count The Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots, which boast hybrid teams of Broadway veterans and artists who’ve achieved considerable fortune and fame in other entertainment media, but now I’m just splitting hairs.)

My point is this: these numbers don’t paint a very rosy picture for new works from artists who are anything less than super-famous. Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), Stephen Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and Tim Minchin (Matilda) are the ones who beat the odds, but what about those who don’t?

The cast of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.

The cast of 2014 Tony-winning Best Musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

For musical theater writers who aren’t household names just yet, the road to Broadway is a tough one—that much we already know—but might that road be getting harder as time goes on? I don’t have any more numbers to back up that hunch, and I’m fully aware that we theater types are often prone to paranoia of the “musical theater is dead!” variety. And I admit that examining what’s currently open, rather than looking at a whole season, is an imperfect and arbitrary way of measuring the situation. But the thing is, people are arbitrary. As long as people like my parents’ friend put stock in arbitrary measurements and allow them to inform ticket-buying decisions, it’s in the best interest of the industry to pay attention to them as providing valuable information about our consumer base.

I’ll end on a note not of fatalism, but of healthy concern and curiosity. I wonder whether the numbers in which original, underdog musicals make it to Broadway are actually changing for the worse. I’m going to investigate further. Stay tuned.

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