Only 18% of musicals in the past 30 years have been wholly original. To some people, this is a sign of the decline of musical theatre. It’s proof that outside forces are intruding on the Great White Way and taking everything we hold dear with it. They act as though if we loose originality, we loose all the things—good lyrics, amazing visuals, breathtaking performances—that make musicals great. However, this mindset is based off the flawed assumption that original musicals are inherently better than other musicals. The truth is, original musicals are not God.
When I talk about an “original” musical, I mean musicals that are not based off another work in any form or fashion, musicals whose story lines only exist onstage. As previously mentioned, this is a small percentage of musical theatre overall. Since the very beginning, musicals have been inspired by other works. Whether you consider Oklahoma! or Show Boat to be the first musical, the former is inspired by the play Green Grows the Lilacs while the later is based off the Edna Ferber novel of the same name. And they certainly aren’t alone in the list of musicals that have changed musical theatre while still maintaining their status of un-original, among them powerhouses like Rent, Sunday in the Park with George, and Chicago.
Most of the musicals cited as causing the downfall of Broadway are based off movies, so maybe our negative outlook on unoriginal musicals is a result of us disliking the idea of Hollywood encroaching on the Great White Way. We want theatre to be for theatre’s sake, not for a few extra dollars that can be made off an existing franchise; We don’t want our artists to have ulterior motives. This mindset, however, blatantly ignores the fact that all art has ulterior motives. No artist wants to starve. More importantly, judging a musical based on the reasons it was created and not by it’s content is unfair to the artists who created it. Sometimes a good idea can produce bad art and vice versa, given the talent of the people working on it. When we discuss musicals only in terms of being original or unoriginal, people allow that distinction to cloud their judgement—and suddenly Legally Blonde: The Musical isn’t a real piece of musical theatre, despite the fact it was nominated for 7 Tony Awards in 2007.
The real problem lies when original and unoriginal become synonyms for good and bad and starts to stifle the conversations we have about Broadway. Originality is an admirable quality for a musical to have, but it is not as important to the quality of a musical as good character development, memorable music, or a coherent plot. Ultimately, talented artists have worked on both original and unoriginal musicals. Praising originality is a misunderstanding of the artistic process. After all, all art is based off other art in some form or fashion—we shouldn’t demonize musicals that are simply less subtle about this leap.