What does Broadway look like after Sondheim? A lot like how it looked before.
The current Broadway revival of the late Stephen Sondheim’s most notorious flop, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along, has unquestionably reclaimed the show’s reputation, not only through the rave reviews of critics but by garnering the highest average ticket price of any show this season, with seats ranging up to $600.
With Merrily raking it in at the Hudson Theatre, last year’s acclaimed Sweeney Todd revival going strong at the Lunt-Fontanne, and the composer’s decidedly experimental show, Here We Are, garnering a mixed reception off-Broadway, it’s perhaps worth taking stock of what American musical theater has become in this era where Sondheim is both everywhere and nowhere. While Sondheim’s shows are currently playing all over New York, his influence over the modern musical itself has become somewhat harder to track.
“There’s a half-voiced fear among musical acolytes, understandable in a time in which theater itself is newly under siege,” former New York Times critic Ben Brantley recently wrote, “that on some level Stephen Sondheim represents the end of the line for a once-flourishing art form.” If that sounds dire, it’s because the stakes are high: It’s a common axiom that musicals are one of the few purely American art forms; they evolved within American pop culture to become a global export and one of our most popular, enduring forms of entertainment. But it’s also widely understood in the theater world that for all the composers like Sondheim who helped make the musical what it is, a show like Merrily — with unknown songs, a conceptual plot adapted from a little-known play, and a narrative told in reverse — could never make it to the Great White Way today. That’s because today’s successes tend to be jukebox musicals and shows based on very famous movies you already know.
This doesn’t mean, however, that musicals are doomed to wither on the vine as consumerism pushes us toward ever more derivative, watered-down franchise adaptations stacked with mediocre songs. It’s easy to assume this, and to cling to Sondheim as the last great theater composer. But perhaps there’s a different perspective on the current state of the musical: That it isn’t dying at all, that many potentially worrying aspects that seem unique to the modern landscape are as old as the medium itself, and that the artform is evolving into something new and equally interesting.
The new modern musical is arguably finding its way into a hybrid form that routinely plays with structure and genre expectations, pairs self-aware storytelling and innovative design with traditional crowd-pleasing elements, and deploys the mechanisms of social media and TikTok to bolster audience interactivity and unite shows with their core fanbases. No, it’s not Sondheim — but in a new era of storytelling, we don’t yet know what the next Sondheim will look or sound like.
Broadway shows have always relied on pop hits to drive their success
To understand exactly where we’re headed, it’s helpful to understand that the musical as we know it has been through all this before. First, think of the musical as a sum of its parts. There’s the story — the book or the libretto — and the songs that go along with the story. Regardless of whatever else you put onstage, how well these two elements mesh determines whether you’ve created something coherent.
That might sound like a foregone conclusion, but the history of the form begs to differ. The musical evolved from two totally opposite impulses: vaudeville, which paired popular songs of the day with entertaining skits and short sketches, and operettas, which had dense, sophisticated scores descended from operas. So, in one corner, shows whose songs were random and interchangeable — in the other, shows whose stories couldn’t be told without the music.
In the middle, you had Tin Pan Alley, where many of America’s most famous 20th-century songwriters churned out songs at a feverish pace. In this era, songwriters such as George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin thrived, churning out still-popular hits that helped form the backbone of what’s referred to as the American Songbook. Often, those songs found their way into frothy shows whose plots were negligible and served as little more than marketing for the music — which rarely had anything to do with the story. Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies, which reigned over the 1920s, was even more vague, delivering conceptually innovative spectacle but functioning primarily as a fashion show with music.
In 1928, however, this started to change, when Ziegfeld produced Jerome Kern’s Showboat, a challenging drama steeped in the influence of operetta and teeming with social issues. Not only was Showboat’s score nearly continuous throughout, but the songs were designed to relay information and insight into the characters. In 1943, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II further codified these ingredients when they took a holistic approach to their first collaboration. In Oklahoma!, the music, lyrics, and choreography were all utilized to deepen characterization and advance the plot. But, crucially, while Rodgers’s lush score was influenced by operetta, the songs were all bangers. The songs from Oklahoma! were so popular that for the first time in Broadway history, the production made a recording to preserve the original cast, thereby turning the Original Broadway Cast Recording) into an indelible part of the musical theater experience.
For most theater lovers, the original cast recording is an introduction to the show itself, long before they ever get a chance to see it. But while these recordings are a vital marketing tool, it can decontextualize songs from the performance. Thus, ironically, at the same time Rodgers and Hammerstein were nailing home the ingredients for a fully constructed musical, their cast album was instigating the process for its deconstruction.
What even is a Broadway musical anymore? It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer
Most recent Broadway productions fall into one of two camps. In the first camp, we have musical revues — jukebox musicals — which are loosely plotted vehicles for previously written well-known songs from pop songwriters or performers. Think Jersey Boys, Moulin Rouge, or the recent Britney Spears musical, Once Upon a One More Time.
In the second camp, we have musicals written in the Disney vein, adding songs or other elements to a previously beloved, well-known franchise. Think Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, Back to the Future, or the upcoming musical adaptation of The Notebook.
Excluding revivals, the vast majority of recent Broadway musicals fall into either category, with varying degrees of success. An ever-dwindling third category is what we might think of as the “traditional” American musical — the Hamiltons and Hadestowns, built not around a previously existing juggernaut franchise or pop hitmaker, but around an original idea or story adaptation, with a fully original score.
There are obvious limitations to these categorizations. You can argue, perfectly correctly, that shows built around previously existing franchises are also “traditional” musicals — they tend to have fully or mostly original scores with a two-act plot structure. At the same time, these distinctions have become ever more blurry in a musical landscape where shows have to appeal to the tastes of both tourists and hardcore musical lovers with sophisticated palettes and tremendous fan power. It’s increasingly common for jukebox musicals like Jagged Little Pill and the recent Neil Diamond revue A Beautiful Noise to not only interpolate their pop hits but to deconstruct, interrogate, and recontextualize them. Is that still a revue? Meanwhile, shows based on movies like The Lion King and Matilda are straightforward story adaptations, but feel fresh and transformative based on their musical and theatrical strengths.
Still, there’s a clear distinction between shows that exist to further the art form and those that exist to further expand an existing IP. With the franchise and jukebox musicals dominating Broadway, it feels important to separate the “originals” from the ever-growing crop of shows that seem to fulfill the latter purpose. It’s hard to ignore that many of these latter types of shows are not only derivative but also sloppy and creatively vapid — and that since Broadway reopened, these shows have been turning profits even at their most muddled and cringe, as other, more artistic and innovative shows close up shop early.
Applying the whole Rent sellout debate to a crop of shows that are bringing Times Square back to life nearly four years into a pandemic that debilitated the American theater, however, seems at minimum ill-timed and misguided. It also isn’t entirely accurate to say that only the derivative musicals get all the attention. Of the 10 highest-grossing shows of the last decade, only two, Beautiful — The Carole King Musical and Jersey Boys, were jukebox musicals, and only two, The Lion King and Aladdin, could be said to fit under the “franchise musical” heading. However one feels about the rest of the musicals on the list, no one can say they aren’t innovative. This was a decade that saw a steady effusion of original musicals, from Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen to Be More Chill, and Something Rotten, many of which found passionate fanbases. And even as Broadway limped along for most of last season, the three shows that recouped post-pandemic — so far including girl-powered history romp Six, the Michael Jackson musical MJ, and the revival of Funny Girl — arguably represented a range of ideas and creative concepts rather than a narrowing of the field.
Still, the idea that Broadway should be about more than just milking cash cows feels noble. It’s hard to let go of the 20th-century dream of an elevated musical form where every song feels inextricably linked to a unique character and story brought to us by consummate songwriters. It’s also hard not to resent the Mean Girls and the & Juliets for robbing the Strange Loops of their chance to find a mass audience.
The dictum that not even Sondheim could become Sondheim in the current environment of American theater is meant to underscore the fact that culturally, we’ve moved past the age of visionary composers driving what gets a Broadway production. The current glut of jukebox/franchise shows make it incredibly difficult for less-known and experimental shows to break through. While everybody still wants to be Sondheim, only a handful of today’s musical composers have the kind of fan following and name recognition that allows them to mount a Broadway show and recoup its investment on the strength of their score. It’s not easy, as Brantley observed for the Times, “to imagine any of them ascending to the unapproachable dominance of their profession that was Mr. Sondheim’s for roughly half a century.” A side factor is that many of them have moved away from the theatrical trenches after recruitment into the Disney fold — a less risky, more lucrative career path, but not one that leads to new shows.
But this idea — that there will never be another Sondheim to innovate and push the musical forward — also obscures the reality that most of Sondheim’s musicals barely made it to Broadway to begin with. (Merrily only ran for 16 tortured performances.) For most of his career, Sondheim dealt with critical dismissal and audiences who didn’t know what to do with his work. It took decades for many of his shows, with their famously “unsingable” scores, to become the cultural icons that established him not only as one of America’s most important composers, but a pop culture mainstay.
In other words, even Sondheim often persevered despite, not because of, the modes and means of Broadway success. For all we laud “the American musical” as a pure art form, the truth is that Broadway has always been a commercial enterprise, first and foremost, more closely tied to Top 40 pop music than to high art. The Gershwins, Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe, even Leonard Bernstein — most of the 20th century’s venerated musical composers were primarily hitmakers.
This is a hard pill for many theater lovers to swallow. Musical theater’s relationship to classical music and opera has historically been such an incendiary subject that every few decades someone drops an impassioned rant on the public about it. The ever-present tension between perceptions of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art means that theater composers and critics frequently wage war over which realm the musical belongs to. It also means that critics have been handwringing that the modern musical is dead for roughly 20 years — no, make that 40 years. The modern musical has allegedly been in its death throes since before many of us were born, and yet somehow these death throes have produced most of Broadway’s longest-running and lucrative shows, from The Phantom of the Opera to Wicked.
The more I consider the era we’re in, the less I’m bothered by the state of things. The current Broadway season already holds promise beyond the remnants of Sondheim: The upcoming jukebox musical Hell’s Kitchen, loosely based on the life of Alicia Keys, promises to unite the standard jukebox biopic with the thematic complexity of Jagged Little Pill. Elton John’s Tammy Faye looks like it will inject a needed amount of satirical froth into the mix. Revivals of Cabaret and The Wiz already feel like they are arriving at exactly the moment we need them most. Meanwhile, audiences continue to return to theaters — and those audiences contain fewer tourists and more locals and a more diverse, young crowd overall. In other words, nature is healing, and it wants to sing show tunes.