Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A New Broadway Business Model? Bring It On!

This week we were treated to the first new musical of the 2012-2013 season when Bring It On officially opened on Broadway.  While I am personally excited for the show, which I think sounds like a blast, I can also understand those who are wary of a musical based on a movie of dubious quality that has no less than four writers.  But aside from being a new show, I think Bring It On represents a new way of developing musicals that while not perfect for every show, could end up being a major boon to the future prospects of certain theatrical properties.
We’re told Bring It On was never intended for Broadway, and while I find that claim suspect (when Tony-winning composers Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are collaborating, any sane producer must at least *consider* Broadway), the fact of the matter is the producers chose to skip the Great White Way in favor of a national tour.  In doing so, they removed a lot of critical pressure from the show, as Broadway-bound musicals are evaluated on an entirely different and much more stringent metric.  These raised standards almost inevitably lead to lukewarm out-of-town reviews, and if the press is overly negative it can lead to the cancelling of the proposed Broadway run.
Shows that cancel already announced Broadway runs inevitably get branded as failures, a major marketing hurdle any future productions or revisions must overcome.  By only announcing a tour, the producers of Bring It On managed to keep media scrutiny to a minimum and in essence gave themselves permission to fail.  A tour is much less susceptible to negative reviews, because by the time bad word of mouth starts to spread it has already moved on to the next destination, one in which a good deal of seats are already sold to the touring house’s season subscribers.  The producers and the production also don’t have to endure the embarrassment of canceling already announced Broadway plans, keeping any potential downsides at a manageable level.
BUT, since the tour received enough positive response to prompt a Broadway run, suddenly Bring It On is positioned to be a pleasant surprise.  In addition to having avoided the massive expectations attached to “Broadway-bound” shows, Bring It On is also arriving in the midst of the summer doldrums, making it the only new game in town for New Yorkers who have seen everything else.  Add to that audience the enormous number of tourists that are currently increasing the box office of every show in town, and you have a musical that is poised to do relatively strong business.  The show’s limited engagement should also help increase ticket sales, as it forces anyone interested in seeing the show to buy their tickets sooner rather than later.
Of course, New York’s famously jaded theatrical press could spoil everything by trashing the show, but I think truly terrible reviews are unlikely.  For one thing, the show has essentially been running for months, meaning that if nothing else it should be the tightest, most polished version of Bring It On possible.  The competitive cheerleading setting also necessitates musical staging unlike anything currently on Broadway, and novelty usually earns at least measured praise from the press.
If Bring It On can manage decent reviews and good word of mouth from audiences, I see no reason why its limited run can’t be extended, making the show more money and increasing the perception of the show as a Little Musical That Could.  The mere fact that the show had a Broadway production brings with it a certain amount of legitimacy that will help catch the eye of regional theatres and other touring houses, which in turn helps widen the show’s exposure.  And perhaps most importantly, the longer Bring It On runs, the better its chances at some Tony nominations, which would be a huge boon to its future prospects on the road and as a licensable property.
Am I saying Bring It On will win the 2013 Best Musical Tony?  Of course not.  It’s far too early in the season to be making those kinds of predictions.  But I am saying that by starting with a tour and then coming to Broadway during the less crowded summer months, Bring It On has maximized its chances of making money and being generally well-received.  This developmental path would not work for every new musical (for instance, the big name stars producers love to build a show around rarely go out on tour), and I expect most shows will stick to the traditional out-of-town or Off-Broadway routes.  But if Bring It On is a success, it gives producers another option on how to develop new work that helps maximize their chances at financial success.  And the more money any musical makes, even a bad one, the more money producers have to develop new works and continue to employ the next generation of theatrical artists.

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