Not Just One Singular Sensation

In a recent blog post, I admitted to a love-hate relationship with Broadway.

Kinda like a boyfriend you wanna break up with, who used to be awesome but is now just lazy and nihilistic and annoying, and who smokes all your pot and empties the fridge. Sure, you remember the good times, the joy and the fun, but then you realize how long ago that was. Is it time to move on?

Well, I can't really.

Despite the fact that commercial Broadway success no longer has any correlation to quality or artistry, still most of the most serious, most talented, most ambitious musical theatre writers still gravitate toward the Big Bad Apple, partly because Broadway used to be The Place for new musical theatre, and partly because if you can succeed commercially in New York theatre, you might be able to make a decent living making musicals. So I understand why writers often head there.

But these writers (and, I'd argue, actors and others) are in an abusive relationship. They keep thinking they can change Broadway, by producing work like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys, but Broadway doesn't change. Not anymore. At least, not for the better.

Picture the young tourist couple at the TKTS booth wondering what shows they and their eight-year-old would all enjoy. They see Next to Normal on the board and the wife says "Look, a rock musical! You enjoyed Jesus Christ Superstar at the Fox..." Or better yet, "Oh look, honey, a funny musical about Andrew Jackson! It'll be educational...!"

One word: PTSD.

So because Broadway is a commercial enterprise, that tourist couple's taste becomes Broadway's taste. And Broadway isn't going to change as long as they're serving that audience and as long as Broadway musicals cost north of ten million dollars to produce. Which makes the ticket price crazy high, which makes theatre-going a Special Event, not a habit – and not the time to Try Something New. For many people, it's a Special Event you attend only when you're On Vacation. It's all a big, fat Catch-22. So Broadway isn't going to change.

But as long as so many of our best writers live and work there, I'll keep an eye open and an ear to the ground. Still, I'll be careful not to ignore the rest of the country, or I'll miss gems like The Ballad of Little Mikey, Bukowsical, and Night of the Living Dead. As far as New Line is concerned, Broadway and off Broadway are good conduits for us to find strong new work, but we don't care if Broadway or off Broadway gave the shows their Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or not. They're not a reliable judge of quality, for two reasons. First, the only measure of success in New York is ticket sales. Success means financial success. Second, too often, unconventional material is sabotaged by its Broadway production team who can't escape their narrow view of what a musical is.

Not that I have strong opinions about all this...

Lest I get too ranty, let me stop and admit that when I was young, Broadway was as magical and magnificent to me as it is to young people today. In college, I spent more time in the cast album section of used record stores than in classrooms. But two things were very different then. First, there weren't regional theatres all over our country in the numbers they exist today. St. Louis didn't have dozens of theatre companies like we do now. The only place I could see new shows was on tour and that was expensive. Second, when I grew up, most of the people seeing Broadway shows lived in the New York area, so the artists could be much more adventurous for this more sophisticated audience who went to the theatre regularly. It's different today. According to the Broadway League, in the 2012–2013 season, tourists purchased two-thirds of all Broadway tickets. International tourists, many of whom don't speak English, made up a quarter of the audience, the highest percentage in recorded history.

So how could a Broadway producer really be fearless...? No wonder they make lots of terrible choices with a financial Sword of Damocles hangin' over their heads.

Of course, those who still worship Broadway (I was once one of them) give me epic shit for my less enthusiastic position. And I do feel a little guilty, like I broke up with Broadway, but I still love her... but she's also a crazy bitch and I still have a scar from when she threw that shoe at me (let's just call that a metaphor for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark)...
Broadway: How can you just leave? How can you give up on us?
Scott: I just don't feel as close to you as I used to.
Broadway: But why? We're so comfortable!
Scott: Exactly.
Broadway: Can we still be friends?
Scott: Sure. Of course.
Broadway: Wanna have dinner Friday night?
Scott: Gee, I'm really busy this month... I'll call you.

But there are also those on the other side, those who reflexively reject Broadway, who think commercial success is a disqualifier, the ones who think theatre companies should only do the newest, most aggressive, least accessible work, preferably only work by local writers. That's not what we do.

In a recent Facebook conversation, someone said that they weren't aware that New Line ever did new work. So I told him that New Line often does new work and we have done three new musicals in just the last five seasons, which I think is pretty cool. But then this guy replied with (I may be slightly paraphrasing), "Yeah, but you just did Rent."


Producing Rent cancels out other shows we've produced? How does that work? So Rent is evidence of artistic apostasy just because it connected to a wide audience? Sure it ran for twelve years on Broadway, but it's also one of eight musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, right along with Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Both good and bad shows can be popular, usually for different reasons. Popularity comes from a strong connection to the audience. And great art creates a strong connection with the audience. Sometimes, they overlap; other times, they don't.

I encounter a similar thing on a personal level with Andrew Lloyd Webber. I love early ALW shows. I mean, I love them. New Line has produced both JC Superstar and Evita, both of which I think can be outstanding pieces of theatre when done right. And I have great affection for Joseph, which is really smart and clever, and just enough ironic and smartass to keep me happy. I also really like Tell Me on a Sunday (I'd like New Line to do that someday) and I must admit I really loved Cats the first time I saw it, and I still love listening to the score. But I hate pretty much everything ALW wrote after that. And so I've been branded my whole life as a Lloyd Webber hater, when my actual opinion is much subtler.

We choose shows for New Line to produce based on a lot of factors, but nothing is ever more important than good storytelling and a good score. We also consider the physical, financial, and casting demands. And because we do have to keep New Line alive, we are aware that we can't fill a season with three weird, difficult shows no one's ever heard of. So to that extent, we do think, last, about ticket sales – even in our somewhat insulated world, complete commercial failure does cause us problems.

But while it may cost you $400 for an orchestra seat to a Broadway musical, it only costs $25 to see a New Line show. So it's much easier to take a chance on an unknown musical. It's much easier for our New Line audience to be as adventurous as they are, with only $25 at stake.

I'll continue with my love-hate relationship until musical theatre writers can make a living writing for regional theatres, and I don't know when or if that will happen. Until then, we'll keep our unholy alliance with commercial New York theatre, but we will never bow to its limitations and narrow boundaries. We are artistic and emotional adventurers here at New Line. We're not interested in what's familiar and comforting. We'll leave that to others.

We'll just keep doing the best, most exciting musical theatre this new Golden Age has to offer. Sometimes it'll come from Broadway (though it will almost never originate there); sometimes it won't. We just hope you'll keep coming to share it with us.

Long Live the Musical!