A Producer’s Guide to a Sure Fire Hit

Matthew Miller

  • OnStage Columnist

Throughout twelve years of Artistic Directing and Producing various levels of theatre, I have found myself on numerous occasions looking for a list of plays and musicals that were guaranteed to sell tickets.  Something like a database or list that could help point me in the direction of a “sure fire hit.”  Not every show needs to sell out, but sometimes a producer needs a title that balances out their next pet project production of Anyone Can Whistle or Next to Normal?  In each of my efforts, I have never been able to find a definitive guide for a “sure fire hit,” so I decided to create one from scratch.  

There are a lot of factors that can contribute to the success of a production, including but not limited to, how many times a show has been produced in an area or certain geographic characteristics that may lead to a community embracing a particular production For example, I recently produced The Music Man in an actual River City in Iowa and it was received better than when I produced the same show in the Napa Valley.  This list does not take any of those things into consideration but offers a cross-section of titles that have done exceptionally well around the country.

To create this list, I used personal experience and statistics gathered by contacting over 100 Directors and Producers around the country.  Their anonymous surveys serve as the backbone for this analysis and the research for these conclusions.  

The results from the survey are conclusive.  When asked, “In your experience, what is the best selling genre of theatrical production?”  Over 83% of those surveyed said “Traditional Musical.”  Respondents were allowed to check more than one box and still the runners-up were not even close. 32% said “A Moviecal (a musical based on a movie), 30% said a “Fresh from Broadway Hit.”  Non-Musicals had a very poor showing with “Comedy (play)” receiving 14%, “Thriller (play)” receiving 5% and “Drama (play)” receiving not a single vote.

With the knowledge that a traditional musical is typically going to sell better than other genres, the list of best-selling titles will not come as a complete surprise.  

1) Grease
When it comes to selling tickets, Grease is definitely “the word.”  Misogyny aside, audiences love this show and come in droves (and sometimes costumes).  The musical’s popularity is largely based on the original movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John and because theatre’s audience base, traditionally people in their 60’s and 70’s with time and disposable income, see it as a nostalgic trip back to their childhood.  Be advised that the Samuel French licensed script is significantly different (and more PG-13) than the movie and audiences are usually surprised.  That said, four of the songs written for the movie are now available to license for an additional fee.  Interestingly, my professional summer stock theatre recently did a five show season that included Grease, South Pacific, The Music Man and The Odd Couple, four very popular shows with audiences, and Grease not only outsold the others but its pre-sales were higher than the other shows’ total run numbers.

2) Sound of Music
The hills are alive with the sound of money when you produce this show. NBC wisely began its live television musical broadcasts with this gem, adding to audiences’ desire to see it onstage. 

3) Les Miserables
Please do not do a bad production of this incredible piece.  That said, audiences will flock to hear the people sing when you produce it.  Just make sure that you have someone who can sing Valjean first… not for your box office but for our ears.

4) Mary Poppins
This show is one of two new Disney Musicals on this list.  If you can figure out the technical demands audiences will eat it up like a “spoon full of sugar.”

5) Beauty and the Beast
Great score and a tale as old as time.  Audiences come in big numbers to see this beast… just beware of the costumes… or rent them.

6) South Pacific
The second of three Rodgers and Hammerstein Musicals on the list and the only Pulitzer Prize winner.  Perhaps I am a cockeyed-optimistic but this incredible piece of American Drama will provide your audiences with some enchanted evening.

7) Peter Pan
Lots of technical demands, but stock up on pixie dust because this musical has potential to fly away with box office records. 

8) The Little Mermaid
The generation who grew up with the Disney classic loves to bring their children to see it live onstage.  Make this show part of your world and it will go swimmingly.  

9) Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Fifteen years ago and this musical would have been much higher on the list but over-saturation of this dated piece has led to it dropping in popularity.  Even so, the catchy tunes and high energy atmosphere continues to please crowds.  Any dream will do when you cash the check from your sold-out audiences.

10) Oklahoma!
Oh what a beautiful morning it will be when you see the box office numbers from this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Other productions that received multiple votes include-

Million Dollar Quartet

Add to the list by contributing your biggest hits in the comments section below.