The Death of the Dramatic Musical

Chris Peterson 

Every year my best friend and her husband, along with me and my wife, go to NYC during the holiday/winter season. We do some shopping, have a really nice dinner and usually take in a show. During the process of choosing which show to see, I suggested Side Show or The Last Ship. My friend replied, "But I don't want to spend $100 to see something dramatic, I want to see something fun."

Now I could ridicule my friend for saying something like that, but the thing is, she's right, and her opinion matches the majority of Broadway audiences today.

This past season the long awaited revival of Side Show closed, after 77 performances(the original production ran for 91). The Last Ship closed its curtain on Jan 24th after 105 performances. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney's most dramatic piece, isn't transferring to Broadway. With these shows closing, it proves once again, that if you want a hit on Broadway, it can't be with a dramatic musical.

To be clear, Side Show and The Last Ship didn't simply because they are dramas, they closed because they didn't make money. But in 2014-15 Broadway, the odds for a drama are stacked against them before the cast even steps on stage. First of all the costs are sky high, Side Show reportedly cost $540,000 a week to run, The Last Ship cost $625,000. And that's about average for a large ensemble musical on Broadway nowadays(Wicked costs over $700,000). But with seating capacities in theatres, the shows needed to either sell out just about every performance or raise their prices to astronomical levels in order to make a profit or at least break even. And for the average Broadway audience member, they're not going to spend over $100 for a balcony ticket to see a dramatic musical, especially if it doesn't have a big name star in it. Even with Sting himself appearing in his own show, the box office reported that the theatre, on average, houses were only 83% full.

But these two shows are just the latest examples of a disturbing trend on the Great White Way. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, some of the best dramatic musicals of all time have appeared on Broadway, unfortunately none of them are still on playing. In fact since 2000, you could argue that only one drama has won the Tony for Best Musical(Spring Awakening) and only a handful have even been nominated.

I spoke with a friend of mine who works for a producer and she had some great insight on why dramas just don't perform well anymore.

"It starts with the average audience member. In most audiences, less than 25% are monthly viewers(meaning they go to a Broadway show at least once a month). So the overwhelming majority of your audience are either tourists or this is a special event for them to come to NYC to see a show. With that mindset, they're not going to spend $100 to sit in the balcony for a drama. They will for The Lion King or Wicked but not a drama. That's why the highest grossing musicals of all time are either comedies or epics(Les Miserables, Phantom, etc)."

This speaks to a larger issue, which is how society views Broadway theatre. To the average audience member, they're looking for an escape, something to lift their spirits, leave them in awe or make them laugh. They're not looking to sit through something that is going to depress them or make them cry or doesn't have a happy ending, especially if they only do this once or twice a year. This is because going to see a Broadway show nowadays is a luxury (which is the subject for another column for another time). But this theory also carries to community theatres as well, most local theatres would admit that their big musical comedies do much better than the dramas.

She also spoke about the view from the theatre owner,

"The leash for dramas without a name is incredibly short. Owners aren't going to wait very long for buzz and word of mouth to turn profit. That's why Jujamcyn Theaters(where Side Show played) pulled the plug. They weren't seeing the results and have a buzz worthy, name filled comedy(Something Rotten! with Christian Borle and Brian D'Acry James) in the wings to replace it."

So what's the solution? How can a dramatic musical survive on Broadway? The first answer obviously starts with casting. While you and I would jump at the chance to see Erin Davie and Emily Padgett in Side Show, clearly the average audience member didn't. Finding Neverland will feature Glee star, Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer. Even Fun Home has Broadway stars Michael Ceveris and Judy Kuhn. I am willing to bet that these shows will do much better, given the casts they have. I am willing to bet that Doctor Zhivago, given its cast and reported cost, will be the first to close of all the dramas.

My biggest fear is that we're heading down a road where you will rarely get a chance to see great character driven dramatic musicals on Broadway. For years I've heard friends and colleagues say that Broadway has become more of a tourist attraction that wants upbeat romantic musical comedies. With the shows that are succeeding and failing, it looks like they're right.