Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Reasoned Explanation of Why Some Shows Just Need to Close Already

Sorry all you ABBA fans, but it's time for these "dancing queens" to retire.

Last season turned out to be a pretty prolific season for new musicals, with 12 brand new tuners officially debuting on the Great White Way.  But looking ahead at the 2014-2015 season, the situation is a lot less cheery.  Holler If Ya Hear Me already came and went, and looking at the currently announced shows for the next season, there are a whopping 3 new musicals scheduled to come to Broadway: The Last Ship, Honeymoon in Vegas, and An American in Paris. 

Yes, there are a handful of other musicals which have announced their intentions to come to Broadway next season, but as far as I'm concerned a musical isn't officially happening until it has a specific date and theatre lined up.  Even then, it isn't a done deal (see the very public collapse of Rebecca) but once those qualifications are met it becomes significantly more likely the show will happen.  So while a show like Finding Neverland (currently premiering at ART in Boston) will most likely come to Broadway, and shows like Bull Durham and Allegiance have announced intentions to come to Broadway sooner rather than later, they aren't guaranteed just yet.

Now obviously, any season that only produces 4 new musicals is depressing (especially when one of them has already flopped).  But what's more troubling is what this says about the current state of Broadway.  If you look at the Upcoming Broadway Shows list on, you can see the problem isn't a lack of new works.  After the 3 confirmed shows mentioned above, there are no less than 16 musicals with producers and creative teams attached that have announced Broadway intentions.  I count 9 shows that could reasonably be ready for a Broadway bow by spring 2015, as all 9 have already had world premieres or are scheduled to have them by this winter.  A few of them do have some well-documented behind the scenes troubles (Rebecca chief among them), but the majority of them are waiting on just one thing: an available theatre.

And that is what really bugs me about this upcoming season.  We have too many long-running productions on Broadway right now, many of which have become tired and a few of which weren't particularly good to begin with (for my purposes, long running means anything that premiered before spring 2013).  These productions are exclusively musicals, several of which wore out their welcome long ago, and as far as I'm concerned it would be better for everyone if those shows ended their runs to make room for new blood. 

Whenever someone expresses the sentiment that a show (or shows) need to close, certain segments of the industry are quick to point out that those shows mean jobs.  Now, I won't deny that Chicago and Mamma Mia! have employed a lot of people over the years, but the flip side of that is they have only employed a specific type of person.  If someone is not right for these shows (and many actors aren't), the productions' continued runs are actually preventing that actor from working by taking up theatre space which could be used for a show the performer is perfect for.  Both Mamma Mia! and Chicago long ago became the almost exclusive domain of tourists (or New Yorkers entertaining out of town guests), and there has also been a noticeable decline in quality in both productions.

When did it become the norm for a show to run for 10+ years? (Answer: the 1980s.)  The original production of Oklahoma! was considered an unprecedented smash when it ran for 5 years; in today's climate, a production with the kind of acclaim Oklahoma! received would be considered a mild disappointment if it "only" ran that long (many people were surprised when The Producers shuttered after 6 years).  This is a problem, in that it creates both unrealistic expectations for the vast majority of shows and eats up valuable theatrical real estate as producers try to chase these new standards.

Unless the production is poorly budgeted/horribly mismanaged, it really shouldn't take more than a couple of years for a Broadway musical to turn a profit.  Even a major musical like Kinky Boots, which had a capitalization of $13.5 million, managed to turn a profit in less than a year.  So rather than viewing a show as a disappointment for closing after 3 years, especially a profitable one that won good reviews and industry acclaim, I wish the theatrical community would celebrate a 3 year run as the achievement it is, letting more shows gracefully exit the limelight so new productions can take their place.

A perfect example of this philosophy is what Disney has done with Newsies.  Considering the excitement and strong notices that greeted the Broadway production, no one was particularly surprised when its "strictly limited engagement" became an open-ended run.  What was surprising was when the show, which still pulls in a very respectable weekly gross, announced it was closing at the end of the summer after a 2 year run.  Make no mistake, Disney could run this show longer if they wanted to.  Newsies could easily sustain itself until Christmas, and could probably limp along through next summer if it wanted.  After all, it recouped its capitalization ages ago, so as long as the weekly box office covers operating costs the show isn't hurting anyone financially.  But instead Disney has smartly decided to let Newsies go out while still on top, rather than wearing out its welcome and thereby damaging the show's overall brand.

It is a win for everyone involved.  The show turned a profit and made its producers money.  It has run more than long enough to be seen by everyone who was seriously interested.  From now until the end of time the show can be marketed as "the (Tony-winning) Broadway musical Newsies," with all the attendant prestige that description brings with it.  Without worrying about protecting the Broadway profits, Disney can tour and license the show to their heart's content.  And now the Nederlander Theatre is free to house a different show, increasing the number of new productions for the general public to consume.

Coming back to my original observation, I do believe the number of new musicals for next season will exceed the four announced, potentially by a lot.  There are several Broadway productions I have trouble seeing last through the holidays, and there are no shortage of shows looking for a suitable Broadway home.  As long as all the theatres that open up aren't snatched up by revivals (although I do hope Side Show finds a home sooner rather than later), next season should turn out fine.  But imagine how much more exciting things would be if some of Broadway's longer-running tenants packed up shop and let someone else move in.


  1. Jersey Boys is finally closing in January.

  2. Jersey Boys is finally closing in January.