Are We Living in a New Golden Age of Musical Theatre?

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Are We Living in a New Golden Age of Musical Theatre?
It's not just you—musical theatre is better than ever before.

Somehow, when we weren't looking, it became cool to be a musical theatre fan. No longer relegated to a “niche market,” musical theatre has captured the national spotlight in recent years. Movie musicals are now a staple of Hollywood's peak holiday release season—with Into the Woods debuting Christmas Day of 2014 and Les Misérables garnering unprecedented attention for live singing on Christmas 2012. The 85th Academy Awards included a 12-minute tribute to movie musicals, in honor of the 10th anniversary of Chicago, which ushered in a resurgence of the bygone art form. Live broadcast musicals for the small screen have become the next frontier. Television series have gotten into the musical game, too, with shows like Nashville and Empire writing original music for stories about the country and hip hop worlds, plus a traditional musical comedy series in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which earned a nod for its leading lady at this year's Golden Globes. The production of Disney-animated musicals is back in full swing—and boomeranging to the stage—while pop songwriters compose musical scores.

This is all without mention of the Hamilton juggernaut that earned Broadway an ever-present spot in the pop culture conversation—its creator and stars appearing everywhere from the the pages of Vogue and GQ to the browsers of New York Magazine's Vulture. Not to mention the evolution in storytelling happening on Broadway stages, from Fun Home's coming-of-age narrative to immersive Off-Broadway experiences like Here Lies Love. It proves that the art form itself, along with its popularity, has hit new heights. Musical theatre is a larger part of the mainstream entertainment zeitgeist than ever before. Does this wave of prominence for the musical mean that we are in a new Golden Age—a “Platinum Age”—of musical theatre?

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The most recent ground of innovation (and competition) is TV's live musical broadcasts. The live musical on television wasn’t born in the last few years, but it has certainly returned to glory in this decade. During the 1950s, NBC aired a series called Producers’ Showcase, consisting of many live musicals and plays, including Peter Pan with Mary Martin and a musical version of Our Town. Not since that era has the live television musical spent so much time on our screens.

Under the leadership of producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, NBC began broadcasting live musicals again in 2013, with The Sound of Music Live! In recent years, they’ve also given us Peter Pan Live! and The Wiz Live!, and now Fox is getting into the game, with broadcasts of Grease: Live and the upcoming The Rocky Horror Show.

Meron and Zadan produced musicals for television even before that, with taped versions of Annie, Cinderella, The Music Man and Gypsy specifically for the small screen, as well as the television show Smash. “The usual school of thought,” Meron says, “[used to be] that Broadway was rarified and people [had] to travel to get that experience. [That is] why everyone always thought there was a limited audience in terms of Broadway product.”

Meron went on to credit the vision of NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt for recognizing that aspect of Broadway has changed. “With the advent of musicals like Phantom, Les Misérables, Rent, Wicked, and others, [that] tour extensively, [the appreciation for musicals] started trickling down [more] into community theatre and school theatre.” He surmises that these tours cultivated an audience that then supported musical theatre on television—and that the two continue to feed each other.

Laura Benanti, Stephen Moyer and Christian Borle in <i>The Sound of Music Live!</i>
Laura Benanti, Stephen Moyer and Christian Borle in The Sound of Music Live! NBC

Laura Benanti, the Tony Award-winning actress who starred as Elsa Schräder in The Sound Of Music Live! agrees that the broadcasts create new theatregoers. “I know many fans of Carrie [Underwood, who starred as Maria] tuned in without knowing much about theatre, and became fans. Neil Meron and Craig Zadan have had a major influence in bringing theatre to the masses and right into people’s homes.”

In a completely unprecedented move, The Wiz Live! may be the first-ever piece to go the route from live television broadcast to Broadway. Plans are in place for a stage version of NBC’s production to premiere on Broadway in the 2017 season. Bombshell, one of the fictional musicals from Smash, is also set to be realized as a full stage production after its successful Actors Fund concert. The increasing pervasiveness of musical theatre on television generates more product for Broadway.

How did this meteoric rise of musicals on television happen? “We forced the musical down people’s throats,” Zadan acknowledges. “There were no TV musicals until we did Bette Midler Gypsy, and the success of that opened the door for us to do the rest. There were no feature film musicals being done until we did Chicago, and after [that], everyone wanted to do a movie musical.” Zadan and Meron credit producer Harvey Weinstein’s faith in the project, when most studios admit they would have said no.

“We came up with the idea of returning to the 1950s and doing a live musical [on television] with The Sound of Music, and look where that’s led. Each time [there] was this incredible battle to get people to believe in [the project], to believe that it would work and attract an audience. And each time, we accomplished that, and then others followed.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones in &quot;Chicago&quot;
Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago"

In addition to television, social media has also brought Broadway into the average American home in a way that wasn’t previously possible.

The degree to which social media impacts a Broadway show’s day-to-day existence astounds Hamilton’s orchestrator, arranger, musical director and conductor, Alex Lacamoire. “Social media wasn’t what it is now [even] when In The Heights was running [from 2008 to 2011]. Lin [Manuel-Miranda, In The Heights and Hamilton creator,] used to make his own videos and post on YouTube. He was the one filming and editing. Now, we have a guy on our team whose job is to be in charge of social media. That’s a thing that has to be factored in [and] managed. [It’s] part of how a show is known about.”

Broadway executives scoffed, just a few years back, at how seemingly futile it was to promote shows on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Unlike most forms of traditional marketing and advertising, those platforms had no indication that the recipients of messages would have access to New York or the ability to buy Broadway tickets. That incredulity has transformed to glee at the outlet's ability to instantly transmit information about Broadway to people all over the globe. The returns might not happen as fast as those in traditional advertising, but social media cultivates young audiences to become life-long theatre supporters.

Plus, there's one show that's given the internet something worth buzzing about. “Hamilton has reminded us of the magic of live [theatre], and the possibilities of it,” says Charlie Rose, host and executive producer of “Charlie Rose,” co-anchor of “CBS This Morning” and “60 Minutes” correspondent. His “60 Minutes” exposé on Hamilton brought the game-changer's creation story to America and further increased the show's visibility, while endorsing the significance of the piece. The story cemented Hamilton's status as a catalyst for, and product of, a cultural shift. “Theatre has always [been] an important part of the lives of New Yorkers, [but] it has more currency today. It has a universal resonance.”

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Hamilton has been a revolution for Broadway. With its $57 million in advance sales (as of November 9, 2015), its unprecedented rave reviews, its skilled integration of hip hop and rap with musical theatre and its stance on diversity, the show has entered the zeitgeist swiftly and powerfully. Even President Barack Obama has seen the musical—twice.

“Obama has taken ownership of Hamilton, in a way,” Lacamoire shares. “When he hears someone talk passionately about Hamilton, he [says]: ‘You know, that show had its first song performed here at the White House.’”

In November of 2015, Hamilton’s album hit number one on the Billboard rap charts—something never before achieved by a Broadway cast recording. The show’s sound bridges musical theatre and the kind of music one would hear on the radio today, while never losing sight of its characters or narrative. We’re suddenly back in an era similar to 1935, when the top 60 songs on the radio included tunes by musical theatre writers Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harry Warren and Al Dubin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, Victor Herbert and Rida Johnson Young, and George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin.

Lacamoire, who was also one of the album’s producers, confides that he wanted the record to really conjure the show for listeners, with a huge focus on vocals and lyrics—but that he also wanted it to have “true hip hop grit.” Much like his work on the album, he worked to achieve a balance between the two sound styles in the live production.

Alex Lacamoire
Alex Lacamoire

“It was important that the band play the majority of the music live. Hip hop by nature is digital music. It’s created by computers,” Lacamoire explains, sharing that only some moments in the show are partially pre-programmed or pre-recorded. “It was important to me to have an organic element [because] that’s where the heart lies. I’m so inspired by seeing live bands put together hip hop sounds—something that sounds pristine, as if it were in a studio, and yet you have a live [band] making it happen.”

Hamilton crossed over into mainstream music with a score by a homegrown musical theatre writer, but there are also more singer-songwriters than ever making the opposite leap: writing their first original musical for Broadway after years on the pop charts. With artists like Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Sting penning new musicals for Broadway, the form achieves a certain cachet, even among audience members who claim theatre music isn’t for them.

And then, of course, there's the crossover for the tiniest of fans. We're in the midst of a resurgence in popularity of Disney’s animated musical division—and its songs. When Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez began writing Frozens 2013 hit “Let It Go,” they had no idea it would become one of the most globally recorded Disney songs of all time.

“For us, 'Let It Go' was just solving a problem for a story,” Anderson-Lopez explained. “And then it became something far different than that. It almost doesn’t feel like it belongs to us anymore. It feels like it belongs to the singing little girls and all of the people who have taken it and made it part of their lives.”

Bobby Lopez, Idina Menzel and Kristen Anderson-Lopez
Bobby Lopez, Idina Menzel and Kristen Anderson-Lopez

The husband-wife writing team began in musical theatre, having participated in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. They credit fellow BMI musical theatre writers, who also became scribes of animated films, as major inspirations. “The Disney renaissance movies [by] Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were hugely influential,” Lopez notes.

“When Matt [Stone], Trey [Parker] and I were writing The Book of Mormon, and were [trying to emulate] the traditional musical, we were thinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein hand in hand with Ashman and Menken.” In 2013, Mormon became the first cast recording to hit the Billboard charts since Hair in 1969. “[Ashman and Menken] really re-booted the classic musical in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it was with the animated Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.”

When Disney released the animated film Beauty and the Beast in 1991, powerful New York Times critic Frank Rich hailed it as the best musical score of the year, better than actual Broadway scores that season. The statement was partially responsible for bringing Disney musicals to life on actual Broadway stages—as Beauty and the Beast came to Broadway in 1994. Since then, seven more from Disney Theatrical have bowed on the Great White Way.

Much like Bombshell and The Wiz, Frozen will soon boomerang from screen to stage helmed by its original creative team, including Anderson-Lopez and Lopez with the film's writer and director, Jennifer Lee, writing the book and Broadway's Alex Timbers in the director's chair. This marriage of mediums creates a global audience. Anyone anywhere can watch those properties on screen—building a fan base for stage versions before they even open.

Similarly, established stage musicals continue to leap to Hollywood in increasing volume. The last five years alone have brought us Rock of Ages, Les Misérables, Jersey Boys, The Last 5 Years, Annie, and Into The Woods. These interpretations not only net a larger audience, they also offer opportunities to expand creatively. Into the Woods offered details in production design not possible on the stage, while The Last 5 Years re-imagined the story with added context for the two lead players. Movies like Hail, Caesar! and the upcoming La La Land resurrect the song-and-dance form for a new age—and employ Broadway talent.

A film adaptation of Pippin tops the list of Meron and Zadan’s current projects. With movie musicals including Chicago and Hairspray under their collective belt, they occupy the driver's seat as the connection of stage, television and film grows deeper. “Our background is the theatre. We started out working for Joe Papp in the 1970s,” Meron shares. “In terms of translating theatre into a different medium, you have to actually be a translator. You have to [understand the property’s] language of origin and then really find the language where it can live in the next medium.”

Zadan offers the 2015 Oscar broadcast as an example of the impact of their theatrical background on their screen work. “We watched 'Glory' performed on television [at other awards shows several times] last year before we produced [The Oscars]. It always [seemed to be] a concert version, and it was nice, but not emotional or powerful,” says Zadan of the song from Selma that went on to win Best Original Song. The duo decided to direct "Glory" like it was “opening night on Broadway.” The theatricality pushed the sequence to a transcendental performance.

Zadan and Meron are not the only producers detecting theatricality in movies. Mark Kaufman, Executive Vice President of Warner Brothers Theatre Ventures has been at the front lines of generating new work for the stage based on film properties, including Misery, Elf, The Wedding Singer, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and many more. “The challenge of a film adaptation is creating something that is more than just a replica of story with songs shoehorned into the plot,” he says. ”There has to be a reason to tell the story on stage, and, if it’s a musical, there has to be an organic reason to sing. I’m interested in how the original story can be improved upon or further enhanced. A perfect movie is tougher to adapt for the stage.”

“At the end of the day,” Anderson-Lopez adds, “it’s really about working together with your collaborators. Everything we do for stage and everything we do for [screen] is about that dance between trusting what it is to work with someone else and also keeping your true vision.”

These visions seem to complement each other across mediums today, specifically, and more signs of this Platinum Age continued to appear in the past year.

“We graduated in the 1990s, which was a fascinating and sad time for musical theatre,” Anderson-Lopez says. “We lost an entire generation of geniuses [to the AIDS epidemic], and there was a sort of vacuum. [This] got filled with Jonathan Larson and Rent, [but then] we lost him. I think the Golden Age has to do with a bunch of people growing up who loved theatre, survived their 20s and 30s [and are] finally getting to do it.”

Howard Ashman
Howard Ashman

Howard Ashman, co-creator of The Little Mermaid and Beauty the Beast, was one of many theatre artists lost to AIDS at the start of a promising career. Broadway of the 1980s and 1990s was robbed of so much work that would have existed if not for this tragedy—the work not just of writers, but of actors, designers, stage managers, directors and more. The crisis decimated the professional arts community.

Lacamoire feels today’s musical theatre writers reflect the exact years they grew up in, which has created the potential for great success. “It took this long for someone to grow up listening to hip hop, so that it became so natural to them they could write a hip hop musical. Because Lin [was] born at the time he was, he [grew up] admiring the hip hop world, the rap world and Broadway,” says Lacamoire. “He’s not faking it. He was surrounded by the right flavors and was able to soak it all up and make it a part of him.”

According to Kaufman we are in “another renaissance” for musical theatre. “I am excited by the crossing of genres: films become stage musicals; stages musicals become films and live televised events,” he says. Kaufman supervised the 2002 Broadway production of Hairspray, originally a Warner Brothers film property, which was then translated into a film version of the stage musical in 2007—and will soon be a live television broadcast this fall.

“Look at all of the great original [musicals] that have won the Tony in the last 15 years,” Lopez says. “Obviously, Stephen Sondheim led us here [by] showing us that music doesn’t have to represent love and romance in every musical. There are lots of other reasons for music to exist. [Today’s musical theatre writers know they] can select moments that are surprising. I think that’s [part of the reason why] our generation has really embraced musical theatre.”

At the dawn of this Platinum Age, all are quick to point back to the legacy of artists before them. “I love seeing shows that are new and innovative and fresh, alongside the older beautiful shows that started it all,” Benanti says about this Broadway season.

Today’s young people clamor for musical theatre. From crossover between the arts to mold-shattering new works, there’s so much to anticipate. For this Platinum Age to continue and thrive, theatre-makers and supporters must continue to find the balance between traditional forms and new ones, take risks on projects without any precedent, and diversify the mediums in which musical theatre lives.

Industry leaders plant seeds now that will grow musical theatre in remarkable ways. “The air is humming,” Sondheim once wrote, “and something great is coming.”

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