Last week, my colleague David Benedict questioned the use of the words ‘the Musical’ as a necessary addition to any musical title treatment, using the recent arrival of Big the Musical in the West End as an example.
His insightful column garnered many comments, not least from the producer of Big the Musical, Michael Rose.
Rose’s impassioned response provided a robust defence of the need to add ‘the Musical’ to Big’s title. He highlighted the fact that by branding the show, it afforded a clarity to the public that this was not a film but rather a musical adaptation of the 1988 movie.
Whatever your opinion of the production itself, Rose’s comments reflected some of the associated risks and challenges that are involved in producing.
By all accounts, in his reply it appears Rose had taken a significant calculated gamble in bringing his production to the West End. He observes that the production is too big in its present form to tour, which arguably makes the risk of the production playing a fixed West End season even greater. It consistently needs to hit its weekly target, affording little margin to recover from any week where the box office may significantly drop.
I think Rose is brave to be opening a new musical in the West End, particularly in this time of economic uncertainty – and especially as Big the Musical, which originated on Broadway, is not a show that’s well-remembered.
The 1996 premiere received five Tony nominations but not the all-important one for best musical. In the end, it played only 193 performances. The show’s most recognisable song, Dancing All the Time, has subsequently been covered by various artists, most notably in a brilliant version by the late Michelle Nicastro on her album On My Own, but it largely remains a score that few know despite the pedigree of its composers David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr.
In many respects, Big the Musical’s arrival on Broadway happened at the wrong time. It landed in the same year as Rent and two years after Disney opened Beauty and the Beast. It was a show stuck between two changing eras of musical theatre and predates the succession of Disney movie-to-musical adaptations that would ultimately dominate commercial stages around the world, and open the floodgates for many other populist movie-to-musical titles to follow.
Disney’s arrival on Broadway proved an industry game-changer on many levels. Its flashy, big-budget movie-to-musical adaptation of Beauty and the Beast changed the perception of the ‘commercial family musical’ forever. The major entertainment conglomerate coming to Broadway meant new challenges for independent producers trying to compete with more limited funds.
From the start, Disney made a statement that it was here to stay, firmly cementing its position by investing heavily in cleaning up Times Square. The company had understood that if it was successfully to become musical theatre’s long-term Broadway tenant, it needed families coming to its shows feeling welcome and safe.
Disney has always been a master of creating the experience. Its determination to dominate Broadway’s family market would leave other competing musicals, such as Big, to struggle trying to get the necessary traction to succeed.
What Disney had done for family-musical repeat ticket buyers in the 1990s is what Andrew Lloyd Webber did for the British blockbuster during the previous decade.
While I share Benedict’s view that the need to reference ‘Musical’ in a title can be an annoyingly deliberate statement – as is the exclamation mark found at the end of a one-word musical title with its connotation of ‘jazz hands!’ – it’s also necessary for the branding of certain productions that have to connect with a target audience quickly.
It’s not a new concept; long before the 1990s rise of movie-to-musical productions, shows such as Les Misérables and Guys and Dolls were using the word ‘musical’ in their branding
Has today’s public simply become less theatrically aware of what’s going on? As arts coverage shrinks across mainstream media, a show that’s focused on attracting out-of-town crowds, and may often also represent new or less frequent ticket buyers, presents a valid case for this style of title clarity.
It’s also not a new concept; long before the 1990s rise of movie-to-musical productions, shows such as Les Misérables and Guys and Dolls were using the word ‘musical’ in their branding. Arguably, it was even there to the tell audiences these were not book-to-play adaptations.
Those of us who follow the theatre industry closely cannot assume that the public is as informed on what hits the stage. Last week, I wrote about the trailer release for the forthcoming Cats movie, where many of the social media comments in response to it came from bewildered viewers who had clearly never even heard of the musical in spite of it being around for more than 38 years.
Movie-to-musical adaptations have further compounded the argument for title branding: if Big – or for that matter Billy Elliot or Beetlejuice – is advertised on the side of a bus without ‘the Musical’ after it, does the public instantly get that it’s a stage production, and not a remake of the film?
A 23-year-old musical premiering in the West End that had limited Broadway success is a bold producing decision. In many respects, Big the Musical might have been one of those curios that one day popped up adapted into a small re-orchestrated Off-West End production. The fact it’s instead playing one of the West End’s biggest theatres with 15 in the orchestra pit is an impressively fearless undertaking.
One might fairly ask, out of the many musicals worthy of a West End transfer or revival, why Big the Musical? Rose’s response on The Stage website shows the obvious passion and belief he holds for this particular work. These are what must always be the driving factors in the life of a producer who wants to share a production with an audience.
His comments also show a tiny snapshot into the perils of producing a West End musical. These challenges can be contextualised to any scale of production where each time, whatever the work being produced, it must connect with the target ticket-buying audience to succeed. Then it can hopefully extend to reach many more beyond that.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan