Broadway Musical Overload: What Survives a Crowded Season?
The 2015-2016 Broadway was an exciting one, musicals were plentiful, and many of them compelling. Not every musical, however, survives in such a crowded field because people gravitate toward what they want, critical response can be persuasive (or dissuasive), and even a poor or confusing title make or break a show. Of course, then there is the brutal culling that is the Tony nomination process, an assured kiss of death for those who aren’t baptized with an honor. Finally, there is the actual Tony ceremony itself, a live-telecast where either you represent your nominated show effectively with a scene that appeals to the masses, or you bring home enough trophies to prove that your show is amazing despite how your live-scene plays. Preferably, you achieve both. Remember, at this time last-year, we had high hopes for Bright Star, Tuck Everlasting, American Psycho, Disaster!, and Shuffle Along. The survivors of the season were Hamilton, Waitress, On Your Feet! and The Color Purple.
The 2016-2017 Season has been just as overflowing with new musicals and the occasional revival. Tony nominations are just around the corner (about a month away) and, not counting the shows that have already closed this season, is it interesting to speculate as to which titles will survive the next few months and which ones will survive the summer and/or year to go on to healthy, profitable runs. Limited engagements aside, today’s column rates this season’s crop of new and revival musicals and puts their chances of longevity on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best chance of a successful run.
Please understand that this rating system is neither a review of these shows, nor is it meant as a diatribe against certain properties. What I am hoping to do is merely assess the situation from ticket sales, star power, reviews and word-of-mouth, cost of recouping, marketing strategies, the promise of certain composers, and the overall appeal of the premise.
Dear Evan Hansen
It is safe to say, already, that Dear Evan Hansen is the juggernaut to overcome for this season’s Tony Awards. It’s popularity (and ticket sales) have been through the roof, and the cast album is exciting and relatable, especially to a younger crowd in a way that is similar to Hamilton’s momentum going into Tony season. The story of an emotionally isolated young man, his challenges with connecting to his peers in this complicated world, and the inspiring things he makes happen, all stemming from a misunderstood and misplaced letter, is a compelling and inspirational story. Audiences love it. Ticket sales have already ensured its longevity.
An a cappella musical set in a New York subway station seems like an unlikely foundation for a Broadway musical, but here we are with just that exact property playing on Broadway in the form of In Transit. Exploring the interconnectivity of New Yorkers brought together in a station of the most common form of travel in the Big Apple (the subway), In Transit is a slice-of-life that offers a variety of perspectives on the variety of people who compose the city’s population. Reviews for the show were generally mediocre, with critics blaming the cliché-ridden storylines of the character types that inhabit the show for keeping it from taking off. Still, an able ensemble and an energetic staging earn the show some points, but that may not be enough to keep In Transit running for the long term.
Come From Away
After Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away is the best-reviewed new musical (so far) of the season. The musical also has a cost-effective, manageable cast size, a unit set, a small onstage band, and a premise that is bound to speak to just about every American. The musical is set in Gander, Newfoundland in the week following 9/11. The denizens of this town must figure out how to feed, shelter, and comfort the people onboard the 38 planes that are re-routed to their small town. The musical unfolds with an ensemble of actors playing many roles each, from the displaced travelers to members of the town, reflecting with refreshing honesty and gripping drama the world-changing event that briefly doubled the size of their town.
If diva power wins the day, then War Paint could have a chance of coming out as a season survivor. Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole playing rival cosmetics mavens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden (respectively) are both two-time, Tony-winning actresses with enormous followings (deservedly so). This star power alone, if marketed correctly, has the draw to transcend the tepid to middling reviews that the musical received upon its opening. Points are also given for a score by Frankel and Korie who gave us the heart-stopping Grey Gardens, the legacy of that show adding some gravitas to War Paint’s credibility.
Not much is being said about Bandstand thus far, and it makes one wonder if they are purposely trying to tip-toe into town and set up shop, sneaking in with something special that will surprise us. That being said, one would like to know a little more about Bandstand and it’s easy to question its marketing campaign for its subtlety. What we do know is that it will star two engaging, spirited performers in Laura Osnes and Corey Cott, with support by the always reliable Beth Leavel. This trio’s attachment to the project suggests that something lies within that will win us over. The story follows a group of military veterans who come together as a band to win a national radio contest. It has possibilities, but I’m holding back any further conjecture until we know more.
How it hurts me to give Amélie such meager chances of surviving, since it was the show I was most looking forward to seeing this season. Regardless of my hopes, I am afraid that this is the musical that gets lost in the hoopla of bigger, more revolutionary shows. Hamilton star Phillipa Soo certainly adds a certain cachet with her presence, but critics have been quick to point out that the whimsy that made the film so enchanting simply does not translate to the stage. The story of a young French woman who makes amazing things happen for the people in her lives should have soared, and yet it appears to never really find that “je ne sais quoi” that made the film so blithe and brilliant.
Word-of-mouth on Groundhog Day has already been good, with its staging, physical production, and the performance of Andy Karl getting the strongest praise of the production. The story, about a man who is forced to live the same day over-and-over again until he gets it right, already has name recognition from the popular 1993 film on which it is based. Will this translate into longevity for the piece? Tim Minchin’s score is not on a par with his successful and distinctly original Matilda, and some of the songs feel unnecessary, but others are quite effective at thematically recreating this day that musically adjusts as it replays. Ingenuity might be just what keeps this show buoyed for a successful run.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
This may be the biggest wild card of the 2016-2017 season. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 had a long and successful Off-Broadway run, then it came to Broadway and received mostly positive reviews, but in doing so also brought with it a singing superstar in Josh Groban. Is Groban’s presence in the show what is driving its popularity and how will his absence affect its durability when he departs the show in July? We already know it is a strong musical both in popularity and critically, but didn’t many people see it during its Off-Broadway inception? When Groban goes, its real test will begin.
There is a success that usually attaches itself to one family show every season or two, and this season Anastasia is poised to be that musical. It is perhaps odd to say that a piece that uses the execution of a Tsar and his family, as well as the mystery around his unaccounted-for daughter, would be a success as a family musical, but the animated film on which this musical is based was an enormous success at the box office. What Anastasia particularly has going for it is the atmospheric and memorable Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty score from the film, plus new songs by the same team. The cast is stacked with some of Broadway’s finest talent, particularly Ramin Karimloo, Derek Klena, and Mary Beth Peil.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
If any version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was going to be successful on Broadway, it would have already been done. It also would have included the popular Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley score that made the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) a beloved classic. Though it might appeal to family audiences, it is simply going to suffer (unfairly) by comparison with everything we remember from that magical film. Audiences will likely walk away feeling cheated. Also, the story is so chock-full of magic that it will be hard to recreate the myriad locales within the factory and effectively capture the wackiness and whimsy that Wonka’s inventions require. A successful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a tall order, but I give it 50/50 odds of surviving as it capitalizes on our affection for that Roald Dahl masterpiece and employs the sublime character actor Christian Borle as Wonka.
As long as Better Midler (or any star worthy of comparison) stars in Hello, Dolly!, this revival of the Jerry Herman musical about a colorful matchmaker will run. The show is already sold-out for Midler’s tenure on the production, and producers will most-assuredly guarantee its longevity with a long-line of stunt casting akin to the musical’s original Broadway engagement in the 1960s. It will win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical (not much competition in this category this season) and audiences will fall in love with Dolly all over again. What’s not to love? It’s a delightful, farcical musical with some of the catchiest earworms ever written for the stage. “Dolly will never go away again”… at least for a while.