Recent Broadway Musical Trends, or Fun With Charts!
Remember when I said I was going to investigate “whether the numbers in which original, underdog musicals make it to Broadway are actually changing for the worse”? Well, I did, and I’m back to share some fascinating charts with you.
In my last post on this topic, I was looking at data based on the shows that are open on Broadway now, in the dead quiet of summer between theater seasons, which by definition are those that have some staying power in the tough Broadway landscape. But I realized pretty quickly that it’s extremely difficult and time-consuming to collect good data about what shows were running on Broadway at a given time in the past, so I shifted my focus to looking at what shows opened on Broadway in a given season, regardless of the length of their run. So we’ve lost our look at longevity, but we can still learn a lot about what shows are making it through the pipeline of development to the Great White Way.
Before we dive into the data, a quick disclaimer about it: I’m not looking at every single year, which means that the data isn’t exact as it could be. I looked at every 5 years from 1980 to now: the seasons ending 1981, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011, and the current season, 2014, even though that’s not quite a five-year gap. I threw in the season ending 2005 for good measure, because there were some wild and crazy jumps between 2001 and 2006 and I wanted to understand them better. But there are still lots of holes. I can’t make any big pronouncements based on this data. But I can make observations about possible trends.
My first chart is pretty basic: the number of new musicals that opened on Broadway in each of the seasons I looked at. This doesn’t involve any judgment of originality; it’s just an accounting of the musical theater pieces that opened that were not revivals.
Pretty encouraging, right? We can see that there was a decline in the arrival of new musicals on Broadway from about 1985-2000, but things are on a steady upswing now. I like the look of that line. But let’s take a closer look at what kinds of musicals those are.
This is a chart of how many original musicals opened in the seasons I examined. Here I define an original musical as one that is not based on pre-existing story material such as a book, movie, or play. We’ll talk about pre-existing music later. The shape of this is pretty much the same as the last one. A decline in the late 80s and 90s, and an upswing now. Though I do have to give a special mention to the 1990-91 season, when 4 out of 6 new musicals were original—that’s the highest percentage I looked at.
But there’s a catch. For that chart, I counted as original the bio-musicals, that particular genre of shows that write a new book to pull together a musical artist’s songs to tell the story of his or her life. I think an argument could well be made, though, that those stories are not actually original—isn’t bringing a person’s life story to the stage as much an act of adaptation as doing the same for a movie or book? Thus, another chart of original musicals that are not bio-musicals:
Now, this tells a different story. Putting aside bio-musicals, the number of truly original musicals reaching Broadway has not yet climbed back to the level of the 1980-81. And in fact, the number does not seem still to be climbing—the line has kind of plateaued.
Because bio-musicals use existing music by definition, this chart goes hand in hand with another, which looks at the changing number of musicals whose scores are entirely or predominantly pre-existing.
There’s no doubt about where that line is going. Up, up, up. This is the clearest trend of any factor that I looked at. From 1981-2001, no season I looked at had more than one show with a pre-existing score. Last season had five: A Night With Janis Joplin, After Midnight, Beautiful, Bullets Over Broadway, and Aladdin. After Midnight, as a revue, had no book, but the other four shows all had new books. It would seem that new books, buffeted by the recognizability of existing music, are making it to Broadway in higher numbers than new scores.
So. Truly original stories have flatlined, and pre-existing scores are on the rise. That must mean the Broadway musical is dead, right? Well…not quite. Because there’s a flipside to all of this. Look at a chart of how many shows in each season had at least one writer making his or her Broadway debut:
I like the look of that. Yes, there was a dip in 2010-11, but that number was still higher than ten years before. The baseline is higher. The trend is upward. I said in my previous post that I was afraid that fewer musical theatre writers were having the chance to make their Broadway debuts, but my data tells me the opposite is true.
How can it be, you might wonder, that writer debuts can be increasing when original musicals are not? The answer lies back at the beginning of the post, where I said that not all new musicals are original musicals. Recent seasons have seen a rise in adaptations, movie adaptations in particular, and we all grumble about it, but there’s a silver lining. Just like existing music can create opportunities for new bookwriters’ work to be seen, recognizable stories can do the same for new composers and lyricists. Like The Wedding Singer did for Beguelin and Sklar. Like A Christmas Story did for Pasek and Paul. And that’s just the beginning of the list.
There’s a lot of data here. It’s not conclusive, and it shouldn’t be, incomplete as it is, but it’s interesting. Those are some of my observations and thoughts. Please share yours in the comments! And if you’d like to look at the hard numbers these charts came from, you can collect it yourself on IBDB, like I did…or ask to see my spreadsheet, and I’ll be happy to share.
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