The Soundtrack of Their Lives: Broadway Musicals Cater to Baby Boomers

By Robert Simonson
August 26, 2013

A generation of theatregoers relive the music of their era with Jersey Boys, Motown, Let It Be, A Night With Janis Joplin and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

Doug Morris, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment and a producer of the Broadway hit Motown The Musical, likes to visit the show — which tells the story of Berry Gordy, the founder of the iconic Detroit music label — during Wednesday matinees.

"I like to stand in the back and watch the audience," said Morris. "It's like a living, moving creature." The theatregoers often sing along with the familiar songs by The Supremes, The Temptations and other Motown acts. "There's a tremendous rhythm to the whole show. The music has been popular for a long time, and it's used so often. They're all familiar with it. I think it's probably the soundtrack of their lives."

Motown The Musical is just one of several Broadway shows on the boards right now whose core audience are baby boomers, that commercially sought-after group of Americans who were born between 1945 and 1964 and who constitute one of the biggest consumer demographics in America. The shows are often tied to a particular pop artist that Boomers grew up with. Among them are the long-running hit Jersey Boys, the Beatles tribute show Let It Be (which recently announced it would close Sept. 1) and the soon-to-arrive A Night With Janis Jopin and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

"Absolutely," said Rick Elice, the co-librettist of Jersey Boys, when asked if baby boomers are a big part of the musical's audience. "We never thought particularly about demographics when we were writing it and when Des McAnuff was staging it. We were just trying to tell a good story. I suppose we knew that the fans of the music would be the people most likely to see it."

That boomers would be part of the show's bread and butter became clear to Elice during the initial La Jolla Playhouse staging in 2004. "The people who came were squarely in the pocket of baby boomers, people who were 10-25 [years old] when these [Four Seasons] records came out. And now they were squarely in the pocket of people who go to the theatre, which is to say 45-55."

Mary Bridget Davies
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"It's been the majority of the audience," said Todd Gershwin, a producer of A Night With Janis Jopin, which has had several productions across the nation prior to its Broadway debut. "Literally thousands, enjoying the show and harkening back to the days of Janis."

This did not come as a surprise to Gershwin or his fellow producers. "We always thought the baby boomers would be our audience for our show," said Gershwin.

"It's exciting for us when we're standing in the back," of the theatre, said producer Dan Chilewich. "These people are singing the songs and standing up several times."

Not everyone who comes to the show is an pre-invested fan of Joplin, though. "We've talked to a lot of baby boomers who weren't so familiar with Janis but have used the show to learn more about her," Gershwin pointed out.

By attracting the boomers, the producers have also netted an additional, far younger ticketbuyer in the bargain.

"We've noticed that the baby boomers are coming back and bring their children," said Chilewich. "We're able to introduce this music to their children."

John Lloyd Young
Photo by Joan Marcus

Elice was surprised by the pull Jersey Boys had on male theatregoers, as conventional wisdom on Broadway is that women make most ticketbuying decisions. But, said Elice, "Four Seasons fans are male and female, whereas, say, the Beatles fans are mainly women. These were songs for guys, about how to be a certain kind of guy. What that meant for the show is that Jersey Boys always had a very high rate of male attendance. The average ticket buyer for Jersey Boys has not been the typical buyer for other shows, which is to say the 55-year-old female."

Elice and his colleagues sometimes see the same men at performance after performance.

"We notice the same guys walking up the aisle and they'd be with a different woman every time," said Elice. On one occasion, he has stopped these gentlemen and quizzed them on their repeated visits. "They'd say, 'This show's a guarantee, you know what I'm saying?' So it's a good date show."

Elice was quick to add, though, that it doesn't necessarily take a show filled with 1960s tunes to attract the boomer dollar.

"Baby boomers are probably the core of every show now," he said, "except maybe Wicked."