Broadway's Changing Face: Is It Destined to Look More Like Michael Jackson Than Ethel Merman?
The Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Diana Ross appear on Broadway this year in thinly veiled concerts showcasing the popular music of a bygone era. We asked industry insider Jack Viertel why.
Jack Viertel spends a lot of time thinking about Broadway — specifically what makes a show successful. Is it the music? What about the subject matter? Can a star make or break a show? "All of those things that are components of what makes a Broadway musical successful," explains the senior vice president at Jujamcyn (the third-largest landlord on Broadway and host to such Tony Award-winning shows as Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, and Kinky Boots). "Not one of them makes a show, I think."
This year producers are betting their chips on a new breed of show: the thinly veiled concert. I'm talking about the Beatles tribute show Let It Be (which is set to close earlier than anticipated at Jujamcyn's St. James Theatre), A Night With Janis Joplin, and After Midnight, which was originally conceived by Viertel as Cotton Club Parade, a tribute to Harlem's Cotton Club and the legendary performers (Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald) who appeared there. These shows offer a night of popular and nostalgic music, framed only by the thinnest veneer of a story. Are these shows the future of the Broadway musical?
We asked Viertel (who is also the artistic director of New York City Center Encores!):
What gave you the idea for Cotton Club Parade, which is now After Midnight on Broadway?
Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center had been talking for quite a long time about how to collaborate. It occurred to me that there had been these four shows up at the Cotton Club for a period of ten to twelve years. Duke Ellington is the reason for Wynton Marsalis' obsession with jazz and he had directed the house band at the Cotton Club for a number of years. I suggested it to Marsalis and he thought it was an interesting idea. It just seemed like, with that many years of first-rate songwriters writing for the Cotton Club there was a good chance that there would be plenty of first-rate material, which there was.
You also came up with the concept for Smokey Joe's Café, which had a similar format.
That format of taking found music and trying to make a show that has a through-line without having a story was something I first saw in Ain't Misbehavin [the 1978 musical revue that celebrated the music of the Harlem Renaissance]. Smokey Joe's Café was frankly an attempt to do Ain't Misbehavin with Lieber and Stoller songs. By the time it got done it had drifted quite far from that original concept. After Midnight has exactly that same [original] concept.
Whether it is Let It Be or A Night With Janis Joplin, we're seeing a lot more concerts that primarily feature a musician's catalogue and offer a thin biography of the original artists between songs. Why do you think these shows are becoming more popular?
I don't really know. I can't tell whether it's a trend that will burn out or whether it is here to stay. In general, it seems to me — and this is sort of pretentious, but I'll say it anyway — the rock-'n'-roll concert-going experience, beginning in the sixties, began to become ever-more theatrical. There were light shows and elaborate costume changes. Meanwhile, musical theater had lost its way because rock 'n' roll had become the national music and traditional show music wasn't anymore. Somewhere in that blend, the way in which concerts were theatricalized began to bleed into Broadway, which is becoming more concert-like. I don't know if it's a good or a bad thing. It just seems to have happened.
Even more traditional book musicals like Jersey Boys, Motown, and the recently opened Soul Doctor focus on the lives of the artists rather than coming up with a whole new story around the music, like we see with earlier jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! and All Shook Up. Why do you think the artist-centric approach has become more prevalent while Mamma Mia!-style musicals are no longer in fashion?
Mamma Mia! is unique in that it actually succeeded in telling a story that didn't have anything to do with ABBA, using ABBA's music. One of the problems these shows that use found scores have is that the songs weren't written to do any dramatic work, or at least not the dramatic work of telling the made-up story that they've been shoehorned into. Trying to get them to do that work is really difficult. If you can find a way of featuring the music and making the story about the artists who made the music, the music can mostly be presented as it was in concert or in a recording studio.
Is Broadway turning toward concert shows because it costs less to run a show with a five-man band than a full orchestra and a cast of dancers?
It's definitely the reason why we're seeing more shows that are smaller in one way or another, whether it's Let It Be or Avenue Q or The Bridges of Madison County. They're all designed for a slimmer budget than My Fair Lady. The cost of doing these shows has gotten so astronomically high that Broadway is trying to find new models [that] include both budget trimming on one side and dynamic placement on the other, so they can get to a higher gross.
Do you think these shows that string together well-known hit songs, whether they are from one artist like the forthcoming Beautiful — The Carole King Musical or a mixture like Rock of Ages are actually part of an older tradition of musical revues, going back to Rodgers and Hart and the Ziegfeld Follies?
I never made that connection. It's possible, but of course these new shows offer old music — music the audience is already familiar with. In the Rodgers and Hart days, they were really writing these shows to generate sales for their songs. The audience was comfortable with that as long as there was some zany nonsensical piece of storytelling to go along with it. Those early Broadway shows were just a hit-song factory. The factory has long since departed from Broadway. These shows are attempts to recapture people's interest in songs they already love. That's a significant difference.
Will the hit-song factory come back to Broadway again?
I doubt it.
(Long pause) Putting up Broadway shows has become enormously complicated and time consuming. The average gestation for a new show is five to seven years…some of them ten years! If you're a young songwriter looking for the best outlet for your work, spending ten years developing a Broadway musical is not going to be as appealing as several other options you might have. The people who end up writing new Broadway shows are people who want to write new Broadway shows more than anything, including succeeding in the music world. If they just wanted to succeed in the music business, they'd find an easier way.
And you limit your audience.
The ticket prices are prohibitive. The gestation periods are long. The likelihood of success is slim — one out of seven shows or so. If I was a young songwriter figuring out how to succeed and I wasn't stage-struck, I would keep Broadway low on my list of options.
With all the bleak things you've mentioned, why do you still do what you do?
Because I'm one of those people. My parents and my grandmother took me to Peter Pan when I was five and I've never wanted to do anything else. And I now don't know how to do anything else.