Has Success of ‘Hamilton’ Changed Broadway Forever?
The smash hit ‘Hamilton’ has crossed boundaries and blurred lines between traditional entertainment and pop culture. It’s also caused long lines at the box office.
Nationally, the impact of ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway is examined in last month’s Opera News in a though-provoking article by Charles Isherwood, a theatre critic for The New York Times. While no one can predict how one musical may alter Broadway, Isherwood considers ‘Hamilton’ by composer by Lin-Manuel Miranda as a hopeful sign and reflection of “some intriguing, and inspirational, developments that have taken place in musical theater in the past decade.”
Roots in Rock. The waning of Broadway’s success and influence after its ‘golden age’ – the 1930s to 1960s – correlates to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll music. Before rock, a significant element of popular music traced its lineage to Broadway musicals and had been composed to support a larger narrative story. With rock music, by contrast, the notes generally overshadowed the lyrics, which “often become a scattered, sometimes nonsensical shout from the soul…”
Broadway did find some success in the rock era. The musical ‘Hair’ opened in 1968, achieving critical acclaim as a rock drama; ‘A Chorus Line’ became a singular sensation after its opening in 1975 and ran for a record-setting 6,137 performances. (It’s still third all-time, following two British imports: ‘Phantom’ and ‘Cats’.) These hits were the exception. The 1980s, Isherwood says, saw Broadway “relentlessly reviving the old classics, as worthy new material became harder and harder to find. At the same time, the theater district had slithered into seediness, further depressing interest…” (‘Slithered into seediness’ is our newest favorite alliteration!)
In 1995, there were only two new musicals Tony nominators could vote on; a year later ‘Rent’ opened, signaling a shift to younger, post-Sondheim composers, many “writing ambitious musicals with dark themes” and failing to attract large audiences.
Disney Dynamo. The 1990s, however, saw the rise of hit animated movie musicals by Disney, including ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘The Lion King’ (1994). Both were transformed into successful Broadway productions; the latter debuted in our backyard (Minneapolis) in 1997 to immediate acclaim. This ‘mane attraction’ is still touring widely; it’s been running in London’s Lyceum Theatre for 17 years.
The influx of dollars and family-oriented fare helped boost ticket sales, spurring a brick-and-mortar renaissance on Broadway; it also led to the development and experimentation of more innovative material. Isherwood cites ‘Spring Awakening’ – which claimed the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006 – as a turning point. The following year, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘In The Heights’ claimed the same award. “The back-to-back success…was an indication that Broadway, after years of playing it safe, was once again embracing fresh approaches to the musical form, leading to more experimentation…”
Encouraging Development. Isherwood concludes by sounding a hopeful note about the future of musicals, which he describes as “this protean American art form, one of the few that we can claim as our own…” He doesn’t expect a flurry of other rap musicals copying “Hamilton” but believes the “vitality, eclecticism and inclusiveness” of recent Broadway musical successes is an encouraging development.
Statistics support his assertion. The Broadway League reported that musical attendance topped 11 million for the first time in the 2015-16 season; musicals also grabbed an even larger share of patrons and revenue, 83% and 85% respectively; both registered at 81% the prior season.
The headline to this Opera News article cleverly sums up the box office success of ‘Hamilton’ with a nod to his historical role establishing the United States Treasury and current position on the face of our $10 bills: Printing Money.