The Advent of the Broadway Mega Musical
How long-running blockbuster musicals on Broadway, also known as "mega-musicals," changed the landscape of Broadway
In the days when the Broadway musical was a larger part of the popular culture, Broadway shows opened and closed on the Great White Way with great regularity.
If a Broadway show closed after a year, that was considered just fine, because it didn't take that long for the production to earn back its investment and become profitable. Back then, large-cast plays were normal, and a composer like Richard Rodgers could actually have three of his musicals open in just one year. Such things are practically unheard of today because producing a Broadway show has become so expensive. A talented young composer would be extremely fortunate to see just one of his shows produced on Broadway within the space of three years, let alone three in one year (and if his first Broadway show flopped, he would have a hard time getting another show on Broadway again at all). With the actors' and musicians' unions having become stronger over the years and expecting better pay, producers seldom want to do Broadway shows with large casts or big orchestras because of the expense. Audiences have changed as well - conditioned by movies, they have come to expect lavish and realistic-looking sets that cost way more than those Broadway musicals of the Golden Age. Nowadays, it can take years for a Broadway show to earn back its investment. In short, the stakes on Broadway have become much, much higher than they ever were before.
Rather than spreading the money around, producing lots of shows and hoping most of them enjoy a modest profitable run, Broadway producers now sink more money into fewer properties and hope that one of them will be the Broadway Mega Musical of the future. What is a Broadway Mega Musical? The Broadway Mega Musical is a phenomenon that essentially began in the early 1980s with the Broadway musical Cats. The Broadway Mega Musical mirrored the Hollywood phenomenon of the Blockbuster - a large production, usually with an element of flash or special effects, that sold an extraordinary number of tickets and basically blew all the competition out of the water. Long-running shows had existed on Broadway prior to then, of course, but even classic Broadway musicals like Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof ran "only" five, six, and eight years, respectively. In their time, those were impressive runs, but seem paltry today. After all, Cats ran on Broadway for 18 years.
Here is an overview of the 10 most notable Broadway Mega Musicals.
Based on a T.S. Eliot book of poems, the Andrew Lloyd Webber concept musical Cats starred British stage thesps like Elaine Paige and Brian Blessed when it opened in London and was an enormous hit when it arrived on Broadway in New York. But after several years of playing to hoards of NYC tourists, Cats lost its cache and gained a reputation as nothing more than a silly musical with no plot and a bunch of dancers dressed as felines. It was to be the first in a string of big musicals that originated in Europe and then came to New York City to conquer Broadway.
|2. LES MISERABLES
Les Miz proved that mainstream Broadway audiences were willing to accept dreary subject matter (a prisoner, an orphan, and a failed revolution are at the heart of the tale) and a convoluted story, as long as it had timeless themes, anthemic musical numbers, and an impressive turntable set. Improbably, the show's logo of the little orphan girl Cosette became an internationally recognized symbol.
|3. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
The king of all Broadway mega-musicals, the Tony-winning Phantom joined two titans of theater, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Harold Prince. The show spawned hit songs "Music of the Night" and "All I Ask of You," and theater audiences have been buzzing about "the chandelier" non-stop for over 20 years. The Phantom of the Opera currently holds the title of longest running Broadway musical.
|4. MISS SAIGON
Created by the French writing team behind the musical Les Miserables, Miss Saigon came to Broadway with built-in credibility. It followed the Phantom formula to success, with big set pieces (the helicopter!), a love triangle, and a handful of memorable tunes. A modernized version of Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon did very well on Broadway (the run lasted nearly 10 years), but it was not quite as successful as Cats, Les Miz, and Phantom, and so marked a decline in the dominance of the Euro-musical (or "Eurotrash" musical, to use the impolite term) on Broadway.
Rent marked a major development in the evolution of the Broadway mega-musical by showing that it didn't need to be "mega" at all. With a set so minimal that it practically didn't exist, this musically eclectic Broadway show about denizens of New York City's East Village won the Pulitzer Prize and played on Broadway for over 12 years.
This revival of the jazzy Kander & Ebb musical is another long-running American show that, like Rent, has succeeded on Broadway despite having virtually no set. In fact, the lack of physical expense is probably crucial to the show's long run, since its running costs are likely lower than one of the Euro-musicals like Phantom that must maintain pricey production values.
|7. THE LION KING
Disney's stage adaptation of its film The Lion King illustrated that American mega-musicals can look fantastic too. But rather than relying on realistic stage effects like helicopters and chandeliers, The Lion King's stage magic comes from the artistry of its puppets and highly theatrical scenic design.
|8. MAMMA MIA
This worldwide phenomenon featuring the songs of ABBA was already a hit before it reached New York and has enjoyed a healthy run on Broadway. Particularly beloved by Broadway's significant middle-aged female audience, Mamma Mia is the rare Broadway musical that can honestly proclaim that it leaves its audience dancing in the aisles.
The large-scale Broadway musical Wicked, which took up residence in the mammoth Gershwin Theatre in 2003, proved that Americans can compete with the lavish European-style mega-musicals on all fronts. Although it hasn't been on Broadway long enough to match other record-breaking Broadway shows as far as length of run is concerned, Wicked has enjoyed enormous popularity (even people who don't like theater like Wicked) and has already spawned productions in major cities outside of New York.
|10. JERSEY BOYS
Succeeding in much the same way as Mamma Mia -- appealing to an older generation's love of the music of their past -- the Frank Valli and The Four Seasons musical Jersey Boys is Broadway's most recent mega-hit musical and has also planted successful productions in several cities besides NYC.