Saturday, August 11, 2018

Theatre Thoughts - The Musical Secret Sauce (What Makes a Musical Popular?)

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By: Emma B.


Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a series about musicals both the popular and the little known shows.

 

In the last couple of years, musical theatre has gained something of a powerful following. The recent popularity increase started with Hamilton has been speeding ever since. It feels to me as if everybody knows and talks about musicals. Even though their fan groups aren’t the largest; people like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt are becoming just as famous as many movie stars.
So when did this rise in popularity begin? Nobody can really tell you the exact point when musical theatre began to take off. Some say Hamilton, some say The Book of Mormon while others simply turn to shows based on Disney stories. I believe there is a pattern with musical theatre and its popularity.
            So what is the secret formula? Is it a writing trick? Is it all about the songs? Is there even a pattern at all? Well to understand that question we have to go back to a simpler time. A time when musical theatre was virtually unknown. A time when musical theatre was almost forgotten.

The Rise and Fall of Musicals...Until 2011
Until about 1981, Broadway musicals were relatively minor in regards to the vast world of entertainment.
            They had a presence, especially in big-budget movies of the 50s and 60’s, but they weren’t considered the biggest genre out there. The closest things to smash hit musicals before the 1970’s were My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. Even so, these shows only became smash-hits after their respective movies premiered. You can see this effect with a musical like, The Sound of Music especially. It debuted in 1959 but everyone only really knows the 1965 film adaptation starring Julie Andrews. Musical theatre was liked well-enough but was definitely more of a niche genre than it is today.
This all began to change in 1975 with the release of Chicago in its original Broadway run. It made tons of money and ran for two years with a total of 936 performances. It was also nominated for best musical at the Tony Awards that year. Despite its success however, it still wasn’t enough to bring musical theatre in the minds of the larger public consciousness. Then in 1981 something snapped and with the release of two musicals and pop-culture suddenly knew about the genre. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats followed several years later by its more famous cousin, Phantom of the Opera. These two musicals were the final push needed to put both Andrew Lloyd Webber and musical theatre on the map.
 Both of these musicals became pop culture icons. For a while, the only shows that could really compete with them were musicals based on Disney properties and Les Miserables also known as Les Mis. This meant people were talking about Broadway more than they had for quite some time. Although after that point (despite the success of these 80’s musicals), the pattern began to stagnate.
            It seemed after the success of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s work, every five to 10 years a new musical would release and steal the spotlight but the popularity was short. Soon, everyone would move on. Nowadays the opposite pattern seems to be true. The audiences tastes in musicals being as varied as tastes in musicals. Back then though, the musical theatre world was far more desolate. Especially to those only watching from the mainstream. Once in a grand while big hits would come out but back but big Broadway hits were few and far between. It was even worse for Off-Broadway shows which really didn’t start getting major attention until the early 2000’s.
            Then, almost eight years after the release of Wicked, the first big musical theatre hit of the early 2000’s, something unexpected happened. A little show called The Book of Mormon debuted. It was a massive hit. You couldn’t escape it and people still talk about it to this day. You might be tempted to think that The Book of Mormon’s story would play out similarly to The Phantom of the Opera. It would be well-known overall but only known by the masses for a little while. However, The Book of Mormon started a change in the pattern. It would only take four years for the next big musical of the decade to be released. It started with a small following that grew to dizzying heights overnight. It’s a show people still pay thousands of dollars to see and that musical’s name is Hamilton.

After 2015
Hamilton was released at a time when musical theatre was at a crossroads. It finally shattered the glass ceiling cracked by The Book of Mormon and The Phantom of the Opera. It premiered in late 2015 when rap and pop were some of the most popular genres in the country and with nearly the entire musical being rap or pop, it caught on in a different way and with different people. Along with this musical styles, Hamilton had three other advantages compared to other musicals throughout history.
            The first were the fans. The fans of The Book of Mormon or Wicked were excited to see a new musical to fill up their catalog. Plus, the musical had many talking points in both history and analysis. So the discussions could be endless. This in turn encouraged more people to jump on the bandwagon which started the cycle over again.
The second advantage was the internet. Not only did Hamilton have very good marketing but the album was quick and relatively easy to understand. You could understand the story purely through the dialogue and, the album was available with a click on iTunes or Bandcamp. This meant people were more likely to listen to Hamilton on their phones while they were traveling or doing work for school. And the internet also came with an unintentional advantage, fan discussion.
            Hamilton is a great musical but one can only talk about something for so long. I think, by 2016, the same pieces of analysis started to get regurgitated over and over. This led to new fans brought in by Hamilton (usually of a teenage to college demographic) looking for new musicals that suited their interests. This is why many of the big musicals to catch on were shows like Heathers, Be More Chill and Dear Evan Hansen. These shows focused on teenagers and their problems which were the exact audiences who had embraced Hamilton.  
            The final advantage Hamilton had was nostalgia. Hamilton had the fortune of coming out right before audiences were feeling nostalgic about Broadway. What I mean is that many people who grew up with musicals like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera were looking for something nostalgic to fill that part of their lives. Hamilton’s popularity made it easy for nostalgic fans to get curious and give it a listen. Nostalgia also played a part in the creation and interest in musicals like Heathers, SpongeBob SquarePants, Mean Girls and Anastasia. All of these are nostalgic properties that could bring in a bigger and different demographics to musical theatre.
            All of these factors only built up the snowball so much that when it crashed into Dear Evan Hansen, there was no going back. But then that begs the obvious question, will the musical go back to being a niche genre?

Where Do We Go from Here (?)
I think, right now, the musical genre is bigger than ever. The Tony Award broadcast, last year, had more views than it’s ever had in its history. More obscure musicals like Bonnie & Clyde, The Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, and many more are growing more beloved by the day. This all begs the question, what happens next? Obviously musicals are not going to fall into the abyss but if you look at Google Trends there has been a noticeable curve downwards. Even though there was a spike during the Tony Awards in June, after that it continued downward. Not by much but still enough to be noticeable. Musicals are still known but most have moved on from Hamilton, as popular as it remains. So is musical theatre done for? Did Hamilton just get lucky?
I’d say no.
The difference between those other decades and the present is that often it took 10 to 20 years for a new musical to come along and grab everyone’s attention. This means that when a show fell out of extreme popularity after two years, there was nothing left to fill the gap after it faded.  However, the musical theatre world is vastly different now. Due to the massive success of musicals like Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and so on, the cost for a ticket to a musical has gone through the roof. Plus, with the internet and often the discussions it causes being permanent, the records of musical theatre and its influence on our current culture will never go away.
I think, musicals are easier to make today with the growth in technology. The biggest roadblock of the past was technical work and how to bring a musical to life. But with technology advancing as rapidly as it is today, that simply isn’t a limitation anymore which means people can roll out musicals faster and more cost effectively. Musicals used to be a niche thing for a niche audience. However, it’s a different world now. It is a world of overnight marketing, technological progress and a huge fan base waiting for more!
            With all that in mind, I think it’s easy to say that musical theatre won’t be slowing down anytime soon.


If you would like to read more about in our Theatre Thoughts series, click the links below.


Part 2: Theatre Thoughts - An Analysis: Grease: Pretty Music Disguised as aGood Musical


Part 3: 
Theatre Thoughts - The GreatComet Of 1812 + Dear Evan Hansen & The Portrayal Of Mental Health InMusical Theatre

Part 4: Theatre Thoughts - An Analysis: The Phantomof the Opera: The Perfect Cheese-Wheel

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