Do Revivals Inhibit New Broadway Musicals?

Data doesn't lie, they say, which is why I decided to take a data-based look at Broadway musicals. In the first part of my inquiry, I was trying to see whether musicals based on movies and "jukebox" musicals using scores created for other media were crowding out new, wholly original musicals. My conclusions were essentially that: movie material and even, within reason, existing music, are not scourges of Broadway, but the limited number of new musicals produced in any year pose the greater threat to sustaining the form with original books, music and lyrics. Logically, the next step was to look at revivals and their role in the ecosystem.

The conventional wisdom is that we're overrun with revivals. Many feel that the musical theatre past is constantly being dredged up on Broadway: three Gypsy revivals in less than 20 years; two Sweeney Todd revivals in the barely 30 years since the show's debut, with a current London production eyeing New York; three Guys and Dolls in just over a 30 year span. This is the sort of evidence that's given of Broadway going back to the same musical well over and over. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Once again looking at the period from 1975-76 through the 2011-2012 Broadway season, a span of 37 years, I found 138 revivals. This includes return visits by Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly and Yul Brynner in The King and I (twice each in 20 seasons, with Pearl Bailey and Lou Diamond Phillips toplining third incarnations), though recurring Broadway stands like those of Channing and Brynner are now rare. My count of 143 also includes the new trend for returning holiday entertainments (for this study, the second runs of How The Grinch Stole Christmas and White Christmas are revivals). But still, that yields only 138 revivals, for an average of only four per season (3.73 to be precise). And in fact, of those 37 years, only five of them ever saw seasons with more than five revivals, balanced against two seasons with no revival musicals and four with but a single one.

Has there been a huge jump in musical revivals of late? While 2011-12 and 2009-10 each saw seven revivals, the year in between saw only two. The years with seven are the anomalies, not a trend, at least not yet. And while there was a marked lull in the mid-80s, revivals were always part of the landscape; in the three earliest years that I examined, the revival count was four, eight, and five. So everything is hunky-dory, right?

In recent years, there's been a remarkable consistency to the number of new musical productions, be it new work or revival: since 2002-03, there have never been less than 12 new musical productions on Broadway, nor more than 15; the 37-year average is 12.5. What has happened is a seemingly natural homeostasis: in years with lots of new musicals, there have been fewer revivals, and vice versa. While it's impossible to know which book houses first, new shows or revivals, and surely it varies show to show, year to year, it does demonstrate that the limited number of Broadway venues, narrowed by long-running hits and further reduced by the number of musical-optimal theatres, has created a limit on overall musical production. Chicken (new musicals) or egg (revivals)? I can't say whether one controls the other. But together, they seem to have found their level. And it doesn't add up to an enormous amount of new musical productions of either kind.

Since new Broadway musical theatres are unlikely to be built, advocates seeking to raise the level of new musicals above the nine-per-season average might hope that theatre owners would exercise artistic control and favor new works, but that's a naive position. Theatre owners will book the shows with the best prospect of running, whatever their vintage. There might also be a desire to lobby producers to focus on new work, but given the ever increasing costs of Broadway, reviving proven work can seem even safer than new shows with familiar titles drawn from films or scores assembled from the work of road tested composers. In either case, the deciding factor will often be money: those who actually assemble a production and manage to assemble the financing as well will book the few available theatres. And as for success? Once again, a key element is whether they are actually done at all well.

Personally, I would not like to see revivals vanish from Broadway and, finding that they rarely exceed four a season (perhaps 10% of an entire Broadway season), think they're at a level which doesn't do any damage. Broadway does have the ability to play a single production for a very large audience and, as a draw for New Yorkers and tourists alike, it seems proper that our musical theatre heritage maintain a place where it first made its mark. My concern is that with an average of only nine new musicals a year, and of course fewer that which succeed, the pool of musicals worthy of being revived is growing awfully slowly - especially since the biggest hits now seem to run for a generation in their first appearance. Since the producing and critical community tend to express the sentiment that we should only see a work revived once in a generation, especially if the prior incarnation was a hit, the options narrow.

I think revivals actually create a greater problem outside of New York for the overall health of the form. Let me explain. In the mid-70s, when my survey starts, musicals were primarily the purview of Broadway, a range of civic light opera companies, summer stock, and the rare regional theatre like Goodspeed (where I once worked). Since that time, the regional theatres that emerged beginning in the 60s as dramatic companies have discovered the lure of the musical, and it is now rare to find the large regional theatre that doesn't program one musical a year (at least). But I will hazard a guess (I'm not backed by data now) that the tendency is for more of the regional companies to do known commodities than to undertake wholly new shows. In their seasons, the musical slot is the budget balancer, the show that pays for new plays and large classic; new musicals primarily appear when a commercial producer wants a low-cost try-out and dangles enhancement funds as a lure, or when the new tuner is so small in scale that it remains affordable. When it comes to new musicals, are our largest not-for-profit theatres risk averse?

As before, that is not to suggest that there are not worthy organizations dedicated to the development and growth of the new musical repertoire. The question is how much of that material finds ongoing life, and begins to be recognized as a work considered part of the popular musical repertoire?

So to come back to the concern I expressed at the end of my last post: how will new musicals find audiences and how will their creators make lives in this business? If Broadway has but nine slots a year, if not-for-profit companies primarily seek the tried and true, how will new musicals develop creatively and develop a public profile? There needs to be a new model for musical production, one which doesn't rely solely on Broadway for artistic or commercial success and affirmation. America needs more places to do new musicals, in a variety of styles, in which Broadway is simply one alternative, not the pinnacle from which all success derives. To achieve this would require a major reinvention of the ecosystem I referred to at the top of this post.

But musical revivals are in no way hogging the Broadway spotlight, and as with Shakespeare, each generation's great performers should get the chance to play great roles. And perhaps those classics should be celebrated, because they can often show the current generation what craft and talent in the form has looked like in the past, in order to inform the future.

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Notes on process: as noted at the end of my first blog on the subject of new Broadway musicals, I am working with information drawn from multiple sources. To reduce inconsistencies, I completely re-charted the seasons, relying solely on the Playbill Vault. As a result, my number of new musicals crept up; what I originally counted as 309 became 322, as I worked through such fine distinctions as "musical vs. play with music" and discovered that a forgotten work such as Censored Scenes from King Kong should have been called a musical. Consequently, the annual average number of new musicals shifted from a bit over eight to closer to nine, which is why there's not a precise match with the prior post. I have no doubt that were someone else to undertake this review, or even were I to go over it another time, the counts might shift slightly yet again. But as I said in the notes to the first piece, the ratios and trends remain consistent. And those are what tell the tale.