C. Austin Hill
- OnStage Ohio Columnist
Recently it was announced that Hasbro will be partnering with a producer to bring a musical based on the board game Monopoly to Broadway. While the creative team hasn’t been announced, I am going to call my shot—this endeavor will invariably fail. While I’m here, I’m also going to call my shot on the upcoming revival of CATS—this one will fail as well. And, though I’m sure some will loudly disagree, it has everything to do with Hamilton.
Let me begin with a short disclaimer—I LOVE CATS. I have seen 4 different touring companies (from Equity to bus-and-truck) , I own at least 2 different cast albums, I own the DVD, I have been a Broadway cat more for more than one Halloween, and I know every single word of the show (and am still FURIOUS when productions cut Growltiger’s Last Stand and the Ballad of Billy McCaw). I love Gillian Lynne’s choreography, I love the costumes, and I love the music. To me, CATS is best understood as a dance show with singing, and when viewed that way, it might just be purrrrfection (SORRY). None of that matters anymore. Not on post-Hamilton Broadway.
The key ingredient for a theatrical success is a firm understanding of the target audience. When CATS first opened, Cameron Mackintosh understood that the play would be a difficult sell—it was weirdly structured, strangely costumed, and concept heavy. Instead of casting pop stars and praying for their fan-base to carry the ticket sales, which is apparently the sales pitch of the revival, Mackintosh entirely changed the way that Broadway shows are marketed. All over NYC billboards started to appear featuring the show’s now-famous cat eye logo. No Text. No dates. No title. No pop stars. No explanation of any kind. Instead, these cryptic billboards made people talk. The talk led to interest, and the interest led to HUGE ticket sales. The production used actual theatre people—not pop signers—and incredible production values to continue their sales. CATS was innovative, the music felt fresh and new…moog synthesizers abounded, there was a certain rock element to the thing that seemed SO 1981. The quirky little show sold well for 18 years.
Unfortunately, the producers of the revival seem to have completely failed to pay attention to what’s happening on Broadway lately—or more likely, they seem to have little understanding for why Hamilton is selling out and shows around them are packing up. What Hamilton did is nothing short of a theatrical coup. The lament of theatre producers for decades is that the younger generation(s) are staying away from the theatre in droves. Hamilton changed all of that. While ticket prices are a major barrier, the younger generation—the Millennials—can’t seem to get enough of the show. The cast album has gone platinum, and is currently sitting at number 3 on the Billboard top 100. This is only the third Broadway recording to reach the Top Ten in 50 years. The grant-funded school performances are the talk of the town. The Chicago production will undoubtedly sell out in minutes, as will every single tour stop. Why? Because the show was WRITTEN for the Millennial mindset. It was created specifically to attract the sector of potential theatre-goers that producers seem to want most, and miss most frequently.
This attempt to court the younger audience sector isn’t really new, and it isn’t all that unique. Hair and Rent certainly knew their target audiences. The Lion King and all other Disney musicals knew who they were targeting. Wicked has no misconceptions about their market, and the show continues to thrive because of it. But there was an interesting moment at the 2016 Tony Awards…you might have missed it. There was a very quick joke about the only audience for Phantom being your aunt from the Midwest and international tourists…and that is exactly right. Who is going to see Phantom? Not the Millennials. Not NYC locals. CATS will have this same problem, only first, unlike Phantom for whom this happened decades ago, the revival will have to recoup expenses…which will never happen. People will come for the pop star and the costumes, realize that it’s really just a rehashing of the show they saw in 1981, or 1992, or on tour, and go away. They won’t come back. They will not camp out for tickets in Chicago. They did not pay attention.
That’s not to say that CATS couldn’t work. They have hired Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler, for crying out loud…but, unfortunately, the producers hired him to “recreate Gillian Lynne’s choreography” and THEN allowed Lynne access to the cast during which she entirely undermined his authority and artistry, and THEN let Lynne publicly discuss her lack of faith in his work. This is NOT how to reach a new audience. This is how to create a museum piece. Sorry, but I have the DVD of Lynne’s work already. I’ll stay home. In droves.
Which brings me to this ill-advised Monopoly debacle. You’d have thought that Hasbro would have learned from the failure of recent board-game-based films, or from the disaster that was Clue: The Musical…this isn’t going to go well. Who is their audience? Monopoly players? Pro-tip: The Millennials don’t play Monopoly, and those that DO will certainly understand the irony of plunking down $200 for tickets to watch someone pay $400 for Boardwalk. What could the plot be of a Monopoly musical? Watching a real estate developer help kill off Atlantic City? Will the developer have orange skin and terrible hair? They are promising some sort of audience participation…how will that work?
I might be wrong about all of this. Perhaps the pop-star marketing scheme will work for CATS even while it’s failing to work for Chicago which is playing to 50% capacity even with a 20th anniversary marketing push. Maybe Monopoly will be the harbinger of new and highly successful board-game crossover musicals…I’m excited about Connect Four: The Musical. But, really, I hope Broadway producers all figure it out and stop bringing tripe and/or museum pieces to the stage.