Broadway is looking more like Universal Studios than the epicenter of great theater these days. Mainstream brands are squeezing out scintillating art that once dominated the boards. Exeunt: “Sweeney Todd,” “Gypsy” and “Rent.” Enter: “Margaritaville,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Frozen.”
One longtime theater critic told me the last 10 months of shows made up “the worst Broadway season in memory.”
It’s a shocking reversal. In 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking hit “Hamilton,” a hip-hop history of America’s first Treasury secretary, conquered pop culture. And only a year ago, Broadway was celebrating three other highly innovative and exciting new musicals, which sprung from daring narrative concepts: “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away” and “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.”
“The Great Comet” is an electro-pop adaptation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” “Come From Away” looks at how 9/11 changed life in a small Canadian town where flights were grounded for days. “Evan Hansen,” meanwhile, bravely confronts teen bullying and suicide. The latter two musicals are still some of the hottest tickets on Broadway, while “Hamilton” continues to be, well, “Hamilton,” regularly grossing more than $3 million a week.
What did we learn from their boffo box-office success? Nothing, apparently.
The unfortunate shift to schlock comes as Hollywood, the media, publishers and just about anybody with something to sell are aggressively courting Middle Americans, whom they previously neglected, in the wake of President Trump’s win.
But, like a husband trying to make up for a forgotten anniversary with an Edible Arrangement, the apology is worse than the original oversight.
In their clamor to coddle audiences, Broadway producers have forgotten that Middle Americans actually have pretty good taste. They’re not simpletons hell-bent on seeing familiar names and titles; they’re just regular people looking for a great night out.
“The assumption has been that only big brands and movie stars are sure bets for tourists,” one Broadway producer told me. “But audiences are basically looking for shows that speak to their humanity.”
Those savvy tourists are the industry’s lifeblood. During the 2016-17 season, they purchased 61 percent of Broadway tickets, according to the Broadway League. Domestic tourists numbered 6.1 million — or 46 percent of all attendees. But many of the shows currently catering to them belong in a Times Square gutter, not a legendary theater, and theatergoers are telling producers just that with their wallets.
“Escape to Margaritaville,” a boneheaded jukebox show full of Jimmy Buffett’s tequila-tinted tunes, would seem a Holy Land for Parrotheads, worshipers of the “Cheeseburger in Paradise” singer, who frequent his concerts, restaurants, bars and hotels. But the critically maligned musical has been struggling to sell full-price tickets. Last week, “Margaritaville” took in $675,850. That’s less than half of its potential gross (generally 60 percent is considered healthy-ish.) Critics and audiences are rightfully loathing the show’s hokey heartlessness — and even Jimmy diehards are steering clear. “Why pay for a flight and tickets to a dud musical,” they must think, “when we could go see a fantastic Buffett concert instead?”
Another brand-name musical failing to absorb audiences is “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which opened in December. Based on the Nickelodeon TV program aimed at kids aged 8 to 11, the show has been about 60 percent full during its worst weeks, and is at risk of becoming a beached whale by the Tony Awards in June.
Will future shows replenish theaters with original, out-of-the-box work? It looks unlikely
Even “Frozen” — the theater adaptation of Disney’s popular ice-queen movie — isn’t selling a blizzard of tickets. Though the source material is creative and lovable, on Broadway it’s as lively as a Madame Tussauds wax figure. Which could be why the stage version of one of the most popular animated movies ever made was just 93 percent full last week, less than a month after opening. Meanwhile, “Hamilton,” “Come From Away” and “Dear Evan Hansen” were all standing-room-only.
The resale market — the best indicator of a show’s true demand and longevity — tells the same story. Go on StubHub right now and you’ll find individual tickets to “Hamilton” on sale this week for $600. “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away” for $230. Penny-pinchers can spend the night at “SpongeBob” for $45 and “Escape to Margaritaville” for $75. Disney’s seeming juggernaut “Frozen”? A measly $49.
This isn’t to say that shows with brand recognition can’t resonate with audiences. But “The Lion King,” still going strong at 21 years old, did not become Disney’s most successful musical ever just because people know the title. Director Julie Taymor totally redefined it for the stage, making unprecedented use of traditional masks and puppetry. Theatergoers were thrilled and moved. Meanwhile, another cherished Disney property, “The Little Mermaid,” was a flop that closed in less than two years because it was more concerned with pointless design flourishes than Ariel’s rich emotional life.
Will future shows replenish theaters with original, out-of-the-box work? It looks unlikely. The very good but extremely commercial “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” opens Sunday, while “Pretty Woman: The Musical” and “King Kong” are currently on the docket for next season.
“Recently, the fear is that Broadway is on its way to becoming a theme park,” my producer source told me.
Whether from the Upper West Side or Kalamazoo, Mich., audiences coming to Broadway want to see the hot show, with great word of mouth and critical acclaim, knowing full well they’ll leave moved and entertained. It looks like the glory days of 2017 are far behind us.