“Because we can, can, can…” master of ceremonies Zidler sings to his audience in the hit musical Moulin Rouge. It could be a mantra for the current bold Broadway musical season.
A block away, Alanis Morissette’s musical Jagged Little Pill, a compendium of her songs built around an empowering book by Diablo Cody, gives a voice for today’s generation. It joins former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s towering stage musical concert American Utopia, which is resident on Broadway, and where audience members can register to vote in the foyer.
Then there is Hadestown, a musical adapted from Anaïs Mitchell’s album, which won this yearʼs best musical Tony award. Though its history is more unusual. It started as what Mitchell called a “DIY theatre project” performed in 2006 and 2007 in Vermont and Massachusetts before she turned it into a concept album released in 2010.
This week on Broadway, previews start for Ivo van Hove’s radical new interpretation of West Side Story. It joins Daniel Fish’s extraordinary revival of Oklahoma! – Broadway is packing a punch.
Does this season mark a significant moment of change for the Broadway musical? One that reflects the state of the country itself? The state of politics and the looming US elections next year may certainly be feeding into a Broadway that feels both incensed and impassioned.
Sure, shows like Moulin Rouge will serve as a pleasant distraction from daily impeachment angst, although its own moral of “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return” should not be lost upon any of us at this time.
However, there is one aspect of this current Broadway musicals “can, can, can” attitude that troubles me. Many of these new works are not coming from musical composers but recording artistsʼ back catalogues.
Though unlike past hits such as Jersey Boys or the recent London transfer of Tina the Musical, which joins the Temptationsʼ Ain’t Too Proud on Broadway, many of these new works are not biographical musical shows. They instead use a performance form and structure that is becoming increasingly common on Broadway of fitting an original story around a recording artist’s back catalogue.
For a long time, the West End embraced the concept of the compilation musical in a variety of forms – much more than its Broadway counterparts ever did. Musicals such as Buddy, A Slice of Saturday Night, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Elvis the Musical or Good Rockin’ Tonite all played decent West End runs.
On Broadway, Jersey Boys was a game-changer, although Marshall Brickman and Rick Eliceʼs book for that musical could arguably work just as well as a play without any songs in it.
The 2001 arrival of Mamma Mia! on Broadway was also significant in changing the compilation musical form on Broadway. It was followed by other attempts that tried to replicate that popular-artist-back-catalogue-and-original-story format such as Good Vibrations, All Shook Up and Escape to Margaritaville but proved much less successful.
This season, Broadway has moved away from trying to appeal to the bridge-and-tunnel audience in its choices for back catalogue compendiums, opting instead to embrace an edgier sound from alternative, contemporary and urban pop composers.
A recording artist having their songs adapted into an original story or biographic musical is, for the first time, overshadowing the familiar movie-to-musical adaptation that’s come to dominate the mainstream musical industry over the past two decades. Though of course, Moulin Rouge treads that well-worn path but also uses a score made up of hits from different recording artists.
The growth of the movie-to-musical adaptation has been accused of restricting new musical composers from breaking through with works; instead, they were being recruited to adapt movies for the stage. Although the rise of compilation musicals offers a greater problem by removing the opportunity for new musical composers’ work to be heard.
That said, I am still excited to see this new edginess on Broadway, offering commercial opportunities and focusing on urgent issues and change. Not that long ago, producers would have questioned whether Byrne or Morissette were bankable Broadway musical names. Their arrival on the Great White Way should be embraced as they attract a new and diverse audience. However, real care is needed to ensure a good balance and that the new original musical does not become overshadowed.
If Morissette and Byrne’s shows recoup, the question of their Broadway bankability is answered. Although for today’s commercial Broadway producers, the possibility of winning awards often appears as desirable as filling the coffers.
I am still waiting to see if there will be a new original and complex musical work landing this season in the same way that Come From Away, Spring Awakening, Fun Home, Next to Normal, Dear Evan Hansen, Rent or Hamilton all did and then rightly won attention and awards.
The Broadway musical may certainly have found its edge this fall thanks to these punchy back-catalogue musicals, and together with it embracing an energising ‘can do’ attitude, but this shouldn’t mean that the original musical composer is left out in the cold.