The death of the “serious musical”


At the end of last week, it was announced that the revival of Side Show would be closing on Broadway after 77 performances. Shows close all the time, of course, but this musical about conjoined twins received some of the best reviews of the season, hailed as “thrilling” and “electrifying” by The New York Times, and The Washington Post declared “Anyone not knocked out by this ravishing musical is hereby ordered to have their vital signs checked.”

Apparently, this acclaimed musical had been suffering from low sales. Even though the investors were prepared to continue running the show until Tony Award season (where they hoped it would pick up enough nods to boost demand), the musical’s landlord (Jujamcyn Theaters) threatened to invoke a “stop clause” in their rental agreement – reserved for situations where a show is not generating enough revenue, and the venue wants to make room for a new production.

In The New York Times, Jack Tantleff, Side Show’s Creative Supervisor made a chilling statement about the state of mind of musical theatre audiences: “When it comes to musicals, if the perception — not the reality, but the perception — is that this will be challenging for me to sit through, it seems to hugely affect ticket sales. We don’t see that with plays. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is challenging, mature material that is selling very well on Broadway, but if it was Curious Incident: The Musical, I think it would be an altogether different story.”

Sharing a similar sentiment, the Broadway fan message-boards were on fire this weekend with disappointed die-hard fans lamenting the state of musical theatre. One post on caught my eye titled “Side Show and the serious musical/Sondheim.”

I saw Side Show last week and thought the production was thrilling-the staging, acting and the music gloriously sung. The fact that it could not attract an audience sufficient to keep it going really makes we wonder whether there is any interest in serious musicals on Broadway… The closing notice also makes me wonder if Sondheim were starting out today would he be able to reach an audience? With no successor to Hal Prince in sight would we have ever seen Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney and Sunday?

As you can imagine, as an Artistic Director of a company dedicated exclusively to “serious musicals,” this sort of pessimistic reflection on contemporary musical theatre is terrifying. So I was fascinated, but not necessarily comforted, but this reply that was posted within the thread:

My unscientific list of ‘serious’ musicals and their fates. I’ve tried to err on the side of being generous about what ‘serious’ means.
While there were more serious musicals a while back … from 2000-2014 6 were more or less successful. From 1985-2000 6 were more or less successful. From 1970-1985 5 were more or less successful - and that including FOLLIES that lost a lot of money but ran over 500 performances.

[Brackets denote number of performances on Broadway]

American Idiot (422)
Caroline or Change (136)
Fela (463)
Grey Gardens (307)
The Dead (120)
Next to Normal (773)
Once (1136)
Spring Awakening (859)
Light in the Piazza (504)
Scottsboro Boys (49)
Side Show (56)
The Wild Party (68)
Urinetown (965)
Women on The Verge (69)

City of Angels (879)
Dangerous Games (4)
Falsettos (486)
Into the Woods (765)
Juan Darien (49)
Kiss of the Spider Woman (904)
Parade (85)
Ragtime (834)
Side Show (91)
The Capeman (68)
Titanic (804)

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (7)
A Dolls Life (5)
A Little Night Music (601)
Amen Corner (28)
Ballroom (116)
Cry For Us All (9)
Follies (522)
Goodtime Charley (104)
I Remember Mama (108)
King of Hearts (48)
Merrily we Roll Along (16)
Nine (729)
Pacific Overtures (193)
Raisin (847)
Sunday in the Park with George (604)
The Grass Harp (7)
The Lieutenant (9)
Working (24)

This poster’s research is not entirely comprehensive (works like Sweeney Todd, Company, A Chorus Line and others are missing as noted by later commenters). I would also argue that works like Les Miserables and Wicked are both hits and “serious musicals.”

But all in all, it’s interesting that a genre with many “serious musical” classics like Fiddler On The Roof, Cabaret, and Carousel has not successfully sustained more thought-provoking works on a commercial scale for the last 45 years.

We are so lucky to have found an audience in Toronto who are looking for musicals that touch both the mind and the heart, but I do worry about the long-term success of this corner of the genre if writers start to only create frivolous musical works in hopes of commercial success.

What is it that appeals to audiences who flock to Oscar-nominated films with meaty subject matter that doesn’t translate to the musical theatre buying experience?

I didn’t see Side Show and can’t speak to its merits (or lack thereof). But I am certainly curious how to reconcile artistic ambition (which should be celebrated) with consumer preferences in the musical theatre. After all, if an intelligent musical falls from the sky and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

  • dan

    I actually saw the Side Show revival three days ago. It was very good, I thought, but it’s not surprising to me that it flopped. In particular, the love plots are all more than a touch icky (the “best” one is the secretly gay man who wants to marry the one conjoined twin), and a show that is top-to-bottom about exploitation of disabled people is not exactly an easy sell during the holiday season. I’m glad I saw it, but unsurprised that other people didn’t want to in huge numbers.

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