In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I write about the dire state of the large-scale Broadway musical. Here’s an excerpt.
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Each May, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle votes on the best play, foreign play and musical of the season. This year it chose not to give a best-musical award. What’s more, the NYDCC (of which I am a member) made the same call in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2010. To be sure, nearly all of the 19 members loved “The Band’s Visit,” but it won last year’s best-musical award after opening off Broadway in 2016. As for this year’s shows, only two Broadway musicals got any support, “Mean Girls” (one vote) and “SpongeBob SquarePants” (two votes)….
In addition to “The Band’s Visit,” my 15-year tenure as the Journal’s drama critic has seen the arrival on Broadway of such memorable shows as “Avenue Q,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Fun Home,” “Hamilton,” “The Light in the Piazza” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” But all of them, even “Hamilton,” are small-to-smallish-scale musicals that either originated off Broadway or were developed at regional theaters elsewhere in America. What I’m not seeing are any considerable number of first-rate large-scale Broadway musicals, the modern-day counterparts of such beloved golden-age shows as “Oklahoma!” and “Guys and Dolls.” Instead, we’re getting more and more of what I call “commodity musicals,” unchallenging confections like “Mean Girls,” “Frozen” and “School of Rock” that are more or less slavishly adapted from Hollywood hits of the past…
When I last wrote about the decline of the Broadway musical in this space nine years ago, I cited the growing dominance of the commodity musical as the number-one problem facing the genre. I still see these shows as roadblocks that stand in the way of fresh creative thinking. But I now regard them as a symptom, not a cause. The real problem goes deeper.
Broadway musicals were central to American pop culture well into the Sixties. Their songs were played on the radio and performed on top-rated TV variety shows, and in due course the best of these shows were turned into hit movies. But their popularity was contingent on the existence of what could be broadly described as a common culture that was shared by Americans of all kinds. Back then, everybody from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to Ray Charles sang show tunes….
Once our common culture started cracking up, it was inevitable that the Broadway musical would lose its creative footing….
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Read the whole thing here.