Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Shorter Runs are Good for Broadway

When it first opened on Broadway, Oklahoma!'s 5 year run made it an unprecedented smash.  This past January, Phantom of the Opera celebrated its 25th year on the Great White Way.

Anyone who’s paying attention has probably noticed that even Broadway’s big hits aren’t running as long as they used to.  In a trend kickstarted by the singular sensation A Chorus Line, it seemed like almost every hit musical from the eighties and nineties was guaranteed a nice, long run that routinely stretched past the ten year mark.  Shows like Cats, Les Miserables, and The Phantom of the Opera (whose recorded shattering run has lasted over 25 years) made a compelling argument for hit shows that could run essentially forever. 

But around the dawn of the new millennium, things began to change.  Many of the old stalwarts like Les Miz and Cats played their final performances, and even Tony-winning megahits like The Producers and Hairspray began posting closing notices sooner than expected (although still long after they had turned a profit).  Some people bemoaned this fact; after all, I’m sure more than few producers have sent their kids through college using the money they made from long-running hits like The Lion King and Chicago, and the steady work such shows provide performers and technicians can be a godsend in an industry where stability is a rare commodity.  But I would argue the trend towards shorter runs is actually beneficial for the industry, and not just because there are only so many times I can hear “Dancing Queen” without wanting to punch someone.

To me, it seems the biggest benefit of the end of long runs is the theatre space it frees up.  There are only a finite number of Broadway theatres, and every season Wicked or Jersey Boys run they prevent another, potentially great production from receiving its Broadway debut.  This spring has already seen both The Velocity of Autumn and The Miss Firecracker Contest postpone their announced Broadway engagements due to lack of theatre space.  There is an extremely well-reviewed production of The Glass Menagerie currently playing at A.R.T. in Boston that producers would love to transfer (and I would love to see), but there’s no suitable theatre available.  Simply put, we have reached a point where there are more potential Broadway shows than there are Broadway theatres, and the longer the current shows run the longer we must wait to see what’s next.

An increased number of shows also means an increased number of playwrights, composers, and directors who get the invaluable experience of creating a show on Broadway.  This is particularly true for musical theatre artists, as finding an Off-Broadway venue with the space and resources to mount a new musical is at best challenging and at worst near impossible.  Yes, there are plenty of large regional theatres that are both willing and able to produce new musicals, and while an out-of-town experience is certainly useful, even vital, to the development of a show and its writers, it cannot duplicate the scrutiny and exposure a Broadway mounting brings with it.

The decrease in long-running shows will also help stem the tide of artistic stagnation that has been threatening to overtake Broadway for years.  New shows automatically increase the amount of fresh and exciting ideas circulating within in the industry, while preventing once innovative notions from wearing out their welcome.  A recent visit to the long-running Chicago revival confirmed what I had long feared:  what was once a fresh, exciting production has been overtaken by lackadaisical actors going through the motions, making the entire affair feel rather bland in the process.  This is not to say the show is bad; it still has its moments (the choreography, for example), and many of the tourists who make up the show’s demographic are blissfully unaware that they are experiencing a third rate version of this once first rate entertainment.  But Broadway is supposed to be the top tier of the American theatre industry, and unfortunately the longer a show runs the more likely it is to lose the luster that once made it seem revelatory.

More regular change also keeps Broadway’s performers on their toes, creating an environment where they can grow artistically thanks to a steady stream of new experiences.  While there is certainly something to be said for a steady paycheck, too many talented performers become seduced by that notion and spend three or four years doing the same show, eventually reaching the point where they could perform the show in their sleep.  The skills that are not actively required by that particular role become dull or lost, which will make landing the next job that much harder and keep the actor from achieving their full potential.

Finally, shorter runs lead to smarter budgeting by producers.  While it has never been a sound decision to budget a show so that it must run for years to turn a profit, the eighties and nineties spawned enough examples of long-running shows that producers began assuming every show would be equally successful.  Now that even the hit shows are closing sooner, producers will (hopefully) start creating shows with more sensible, sustainable budgets so that a greater number of them recoup their investment, thereby generating more income that can be used to finance the next wave of productions.

To be clear, I am not saying that long runs are inherently bad.  Good shows deserve financial success, and the employment opportunities afforded by long-running shows are certainly appreciated in these tough economic times.  For instance, The Book of Mormon is an incredible artistic achievement that has earned every bit of its runaway success, meriting the nice long run it will surely enjoy.  Shows like Wicked and Rent have introduced an entire generation to the joys of live theatre, and many of the people entering the industry today were inspired to do so by their experience with those shows.  But I do think that wanting everything to run for decades is neither realistic nor healthy for the industry as a whole, and that shows which run for a more than five years should be the exception and not the rule.

Thankfully, I think Broadway is heading back in this direction.  Now that many of the old juggernauts have closed, the industry seems to be recalibrating its definition of success to a more realistic standard.  A two or three year run is a very respectable achievement for any show, and as those become more standard it should prompt producers to begin budgeting their upcoming productions accordingly.  This way, we should be treated to a steady stream of new shows that will keep Broadway artistically vibrant while ensuring our next generation of writers are fully nurtured and supported.  And that will benefit us all in the long run.

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