In a past column, we already talked about cycles, and the importance of cycles to bring new energy, new ideas and new vitality to the art and the business that is the theatre. Along the same lines, this industry as a whole goes through cycles of ups and downs and highs and lows, in more than just its profitability and business health. The content, the artistry, the taste, and the sense of what will work what won’t, also change periodically. Cycles and trends are two manifestations of the same phenomenon, the ability of any system to adapt and respond with feedback.
But more interestingly maybe than the fact that trends exist and, even than the reason why they do, what’s intriguing is what the current trends in modern stage theater are, what the thinking is that motivated the trendsetters that first pioneered them and the ones that – so to speak – jumped on the bandwagon. There are two interesting phenomena that have characterized American theatrical productions in the last decade, both of which seem to be a reaction to the rising costs of mounting a production on the Great White Way, and thus an attempt to reducing the risk to which investors are exposed, in the hope of making it easier to attract theater-goers to any one individual show.
The first trend can be named the “recognizable commodity trend” and affects primarily the production of musicals. With every theater season that passes it is increasingly more rare to find new, completely original musicals being produced. The cost of producing musicals has been on a steady raise, with shows raising capital for anywhere between $8M and $30M+ depending on the size and complexity of the production. With such a huge investment upfront, producers and investors alike are understandably unwilling to rely on sole marketing spend and word-of-mouth to affect sales.
The trend has therefore been that of producing more and more often musicals that are either the adaptation of beloved and universally known movies, or the collection – stringed together by an often weak story – of universally known music with a built-in audience, the so called “juke-box” musical. What’s remarkable is that some of these “less than fully original” musicals have gone on to become all around successes at the box office, and have therefore suggested to producers that this would be a perfectly viable avenue to lower-risk commercial success. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about the “recognizable commodity trend,” but it inevitably reinforces a lack of original material being produced on Broadway.
I personally prefer a different solution to the inevitable marketing challenge (both to investors and to audiences alike) that any original script will encounter. Broadway has seen another trend develop in the past years as a response to the fact that audiences are less attentive to reviews and make buy decisions based on word of mouth and quick, spur of the moment, judgments about shows, today more than ever. This is the ‘star driven show’ trend which has seen a variety of shows, revivals and originals, musicals and plays alike, bet the farm on the fact that a recognizable and beloved celebrity will provide that initial momentum to filling the seats of an otherwise unknown show. The idea and the hope is that the strength of the material will then carry it for the long run, stimulating and provoking viral and word of mouth growth.
Now here is the catch – shows can run for a (hopefully) very long time – but most star contracts are up in a year or so, or stars may have to abandon a production due to health issues. If the show can’t sustain itself or hasn’t quite generated the buzz and attention it needs to survive on its own sole strength, then a star – or a full cast – departing can signify the end of a show. So, by all means, bring back the heroes of our past, tv stars and film celebrities alike. Everyone wants to do Broadway nowadays – but let’s keep the standards high, and have great material being produced and portrayed by great – albeit famous – actors. It may be that audiences will curiously get in the seats to see how a beloved star does Broadway, but if we as producers will have played our cards right, they will leave mesmerized and moved by a wonderful production and will tell all their friends.
So trends are just that – trends – patterns, repeated behavior in search of a result – and when the balance tips and the returns are no longer with, then trends die, and new ones are born.
PhotoCredit: Ali Gold