Broadway’s Big Problem: Introducing the Collaborator’s Corner

Gretchen Midgley

Broadway’s got a problem. According to producer Ken Davenport, since 1965 under a quarter of all new musicals opening on Broadway are completely original; that is, not based on books, movies, real people or events, or any pre-existing material, and without any pre-existing music.  In 2014, only one completely original musical opened on Broadway (If/Then). Same goes for 2015 (It Shoulda Been You). Two have a projected 2016 opening (The Band Stand and Paramour, the new Cirque de Soleil show) and lists just one “in the works” original musical headed for Broadway post-2016 (The Prom) as of this time.  

Meanwhile, mega-hits such as Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Lion King continue to run without signs of stopping any time soon. What do these shows have in common? All are adaptations and all are written by star composers (not to mention all have become mega-franchises). There are only forty Broadway theaters, with even fewer available considering the indefinite runs of the Lion Kings and Wickeds of the world. Of the available theaters, all have waiting lists years long, and considering the astronomical cost of producing a show on Broadway (average $9.6 million),  producers are hesitant to take a gamble on a show that doesn’t have built-in appeal, whether through a pre-existing franchise, familiar music, or known characters, stories, or historical events.

This isn’t to say the original musical on Broadway is dead. The greatest and most successful new musicals of this century have included original shows (Next to Normal, Avenue Q, In the Heights), adaptations of lesser-known works (The Light in the Piazza, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Fun Home), and adaptations of iconic or well-known works (Matilda, Little Women, Shrek). This is also not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with adaptations; adaptations can be truly wonderful and the bulk of the greatest musicals ever written were not totally original, from Oklahoma! and Carousel to Gypsy and West Side Story. Some might even wonder if the lack of original shows on Broadway is a problem at all. But soaring numbers of jukebox and franchise musicals, as well as the abysmal ratio of original shows to not, point to a reason original shows just aren’t opening that isn’t lack of available material. 

Every year, hundreds of new shows open around the country at reputable regional theaters and festivals such as NYMF and New York Fringe that will never receive another production, save maybe at another regional theater or festival. Again, is there anything wrong with regional theater and festivals? Absolutely not! It is at these venues, as well as the not-for-profit theaters in New York such as The Public and Manhattan Theatre Club, that the most exciting, challenging, and innovative theatre is being produced. Shouldn’t these shows have the opportunity to reach wider audiences though? It is these kinds of shows that have the potential to change the landscape of American theatre, but they will never get the chance to unless they are able to play past La Jolla, Goodspeed, or NYMF.  Is every new musical Broadway material? No. And do some shows make it? Sure. But for every Hamilton there are countless other musicals that never get their day. 

So if the problem isn’t lack of material, what is it? It’s money. It’s lack of theaters. It’s catering to tourist audiences with a reputation, whether deserved or not, for short attention spans and shrinking away from challenging material. It’s producers scared to put money behind something they are not one hundred percent certain will sell—and understandably so, considering only 21% of shows in the past ten years have recouped.  These are the problems, but what is the answer? I don't know. All I know is that the lack of fresh, original material is affecting everyone, from actors who don’t get to sink their teeth into new roles to audience members who are getting gipped of the chance to be challenged or moved in a new way, but no one more than the writers themselves who are creating new material and struggling to be heard. The theatrical and musical voice of the next generation is getting lost in the shuffle, pushed out of the way in favor of Disney adaptations and hits of the ‘70s. But it seems like that “next generation” is stronger and bigger than ever before. A Facebook group called “Women Who Write Musicals” boasts three hundred-and-eighty-two members (and in order to join, one must prove she has written a show). sells the music of forty-nine collaborative teams and composer-lyricists and gets scores of inquiries from new writers every week. boasts one hundred-and-twenty-nine writers. There are quite literally hundreds of young aspiring writers clamoring to get their voices heard, and I am one of them. 

My name is Gretchen Midgley and I am twenty-two years old. I am a lyricist-librettist and, yes, my goal is to one day be on Broadway. I’m joining the ranks of young artists who will be applying to writing programs, writer’s retreats, new work showcases, and grants (thanks, American Theatre Wing!) in years to come. I’m also starting a new column right here at On Stage, called The Collaborator’s Corner. Though I’m just starting in my career, I’ve already had the opportunity to work with some really incredible artists, including my current collaborator, John, who have made me realize how much I absolutely love collaborating and how it is at the heart of musical theatre itself. The Collaborator’s Corner will be dedicated to the art of— you guessed it— collaboration, through spotlights on collaborative teams past and present, as well as musings on the creative, collaborative process and the journey towards becoming a professional musical theatre writer. Although this is just my story and I don’t mean to speak for every writer, I do hope to provide insight into what it means to be a young musical theatre writer today, building from the ground up. It’s here I hope to begin exploring my answer to “the problem.” Enjoy— and welcome along for the ride!