Life After Broadway: Musicals That Find Success Away from the Great White Way

News   Life After Broadway: Musicals That Find Success Away from the Great White Way
 
Not every show succeeds on Broadway. It is the unfortunate reality of theatre that many plays and musicals will never make their money back, let alone run for years and turn tidy profits for their producers, but there are many musicals that, for whatever reason, close quickly in New York, but find a robust life in regional theatres, summer stock, community theatres and high schools.

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There are many reasons why a show can close quickly on Broadway: a critical lambasting, a poor advertising campaign, subject matter that doesn't interest audiences and bad word of mouth can all kill a show. Happpily, not every show that fails to ignite the box office on Broadway dies a quick death and fades away; many go on to experience long lives in productions throughout the world.

Seussical, the musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, brought together several popular characters from the many books of Dr. Seuss, including "Horton the Elephant" and "The Cat in the Hat." Well-positioned to be a giant hit with families, it was a bit of a surprise that Seussical had a hard time finding an audience. The Ahrens and Flaherty score includes some of their most joyous, infectiously melodic work with songs like "It's Possible," "Alone in the Universe" and "Solla Sollew" as standouts, so the music was not the problem. With mixed critical response and low attendance, Seussical limped along for 198 performances, bolstered only slightly by some stunt-casting replacements including Rosie O'Donnell and Cathy Rigby both taking a turn as The Cat in the Hat. This could have been the end of the road for Seussical, but the musical has become somewhat of a phenomenon, ranking regularly on the top-ten list of most-produced musicals by schools. It is hard to deny that its family-friendly nature and its easily recognizable characters created by a beloved children's author have an allure that will attract child performers and command ticket sales.

The original Broadway cast of <i>The Addams Family</i>
The original Broadway cast of The Addams Family Photo by Joan Marcus

A musical based on the famous Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoon "The Addams Family" was a thrilling idea that the Broadway community eagerly awaited. Andrew Lippa would compose the music and lyrics and Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice would provide the book. Casting boasted the talents of such star power as Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane, as well as top-notch character actors like Jackie Hoffman and Kevin Chamberlain. Audiences felt that they were poised for the next big hit. The Addams Family opened in 2010 with a premise that was reminiscent of You Can't Take It With You: Wednesday Addams is bringing home her "normal" fiancée and his family to meet her wacky, creepy clan for the first time and chaos ensues. Financially, The Addams Family wasn't a disaster, and the show ran for a healthy 722 performances. Critics were less kind, and the musical only snagged two Tony Award nominations (Best Score and Best Featured Actor). It seemed it would go down in the history books as an "also-ran" instead of a hit, but a glance at the summer stock schedules of theatres around the country will surprise some when they see just how often The Addams Family is being produced. Perhaps it is the combination of a delightful band of deliciously ghastly characters, the wickedly fun design possibilities, the agreeable score and the well-known property that inspired it that makes The Addams Family so appealing to producers, directors and audiences.

Big Fish, also with a score by Andrew Lippa, wasn't as lucky. Another story with a premise that begged to be turn into a musical, Big Fish was based on the Daniel Wallace novel "Big Fish: A Myth of Epic Proportions" and the 2003 film adaptation of that novel directed by Tim Burton. John August, who had written the screenplay for the film, would also serve as the book writer for the Broadway musical. 98 performances would comprise the short run of Big Fish on Broadway, though many critics admired the work of director Susan Stroman and that of the reliably talented cast including Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert. The musical's fantastical premise and shifting between decades may have been confined by the limitations of theatre, making it hard to follow. Some found the story old-fashioned. For a variety of reasons, Big Fish did not catch on with audiences and it received no Tony nominations, which can often mean its immediate demise. What didn't work on Broadway has found its way in high schools and community theatres. Big Fish has an inspiration premise, an important message about family, and its embrace of fantasy make it akin to "The Wizard of Oz," a perfect property for theatres that want to tell a magical story that is uplifting for an audience.

The jukebox musical Ring of Fire, a celebration of the music of Johnny Cash, opened on Broadway in 2006 to a mixed critical reception. The musical had tried out successfully in cities around the country before making its way to Broadway, so it appeared it had the makings of a hit in the vein of Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys. Tony winner Jarrod Emick and Grammy-winning country music star Lari White were both in the production, bringing an additional cache to its possible success. Ring of Fire shuttered after 57 performances and seemed destined to be just a footnote in Broadway history. This was hardly the case. The popularity of Cash's music around the country (especially in regions where country music is the favorite), as well as the small, manageable size of the cast and the production itself, have all given Ring of Fire a new life in regional theatres and summer stock companies. Some actors have made it their purpose to learn the music from Ring of Fire, also fine-tuning their skills on multiple musical instruments of the country and folk genre, because they have found that they will be easily cast in productions. Additionally, there are groups of performers who, at a moment's notice, can bring the musical to any theatre, performance-ready.

A scene from <i>All Shook Up</i>
A scene from All Shook Up

All Shook Up is another jukebox musical that has had a successful afterlife once its Broadway production folded (213 performances). Featuring a score composed of the music made famous by Elvis Presley and a story loosely adapted by Joe DiPietro from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, it seemed like all of the ingredients were in place for a musical comedy hit. Christopher Ashley directed a cast that included Cheyenne Jackson, Jenn Gambatese, Nikki M. James, and John Jellison, and critics were kind without exactly raving. Why wasn't the show a runaway hit? Could it be that audiences couldn't quite figure out what All Shook Up was supposed to be about from its marketing campaign? Were they turned off by the thought of hearing iconic songs sandwiched into a Broadway musical, sung by people who didn't sound like Elvis? All Shook Up, as it turns out, has been delighting audiences around the country as it has become a popular title in youth, college, community and professional theatres. The story is old-fashioned musical comedy fun with a twist.

Glenn Halcomb, Marketing Manager at Theatrical Right Worldwide, the licensing company that holds the rights to four of the five above titles, weighed in on this topic. "This is something we are constantly thinking about in our industry: life after Broadway. At Theatrical Rights Worldwide, we work with the authors we represent to specifically tailor their show for the regional and amateur markets. For some titles, it means re-working the existing show. For others, it means writing a new book based on the movie and combining it with Broadway music as well as new songs. From years of servicing the licensing community both domestically and internationally in all levels of production, we are experts at being in tune with the sensibilities of the marketplace. We can quickly determine if the property as written will experience popularity and success or if modifications will yield the level of licensing interest and appreciation. Modifications are handled by our internal creative staff at TRW and upon approval by the authors, are made available for licensing."

The numbers that Theatrical Rights Worldwide provide for 2015 indicate that all four of their shows mentioned above have found success after challenged runs on Broadway. Ring of Fire will receive 75 amateur and professional productions, Big Fish is booked for 125, All Shook Up for 300, and The Addams Family will see a whopping 1,000 productions this year. Clearly there is a life beyond Broadway and any title, with the right rethinking or rewriting, can rise again and become a hit in other marketplaces outside of New York City.

Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."

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