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Is Musical Theatre Dead?


Is Musical Theatre Dead?

by Kenneth Lyen

David Benedict and Stephen Sondheim wrote in the Independent Newspaper, London, on 8 August 2004, that musical theater is heading toward extinction.

This may sound rather alarmist, especially since musicals like The Producers, Lion King, Mama Mia, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera are still attracting robust box office returns.

Are these authors just being scaremongers? Stephen Sondheim has a right to be overanxious, as his recent show, Bounce, never made it to Broadway, and the revival of his 1991 show, Assassins, closed despite winning five Tony's. However, it must be said that Stephen Sondheim has had a long track record of writing critically acclaimed commercial flops.

"The ratio of flops to success is terrifyingly steep. So much so, that the musical as a living, breathing art form is dying. Correction: it's virtually dead," they write.

The Hartford Courant has this to say about the forthcoming Broadway's new season 2004/5: "Unlike in previous years, there's no potential blockbuster in the wings, no Hairspray, Wicked or The Producers that has the town buzzing with anticipation and hope." No new musicals of significance is definitely a nail in Broadway's coffin.

In the Independent article, Stephen Sondheim comments about the average age of the audience. At the age of 74 when he attends a matinee, he says, "I'm the youngest person in the audience - it feels like spring! But that's no good for the future... The grey-haired audience is dying off and not being replaced."

This also applies to the musical theater of London and Singapore. I look around me and I see a largely middle-aged crowd. In part this is because of the escalating ticket prices. The younger generation cannot afford these exorbitant prices, and in any case they prefer activities other than musicals.

So I'm afraid that musical theater could follow the path taken by opera. It might become an increasingly exclusive art form, and only survive with massive government infusion of funds.

Incidentally, the Musical Theater section of record shops (eg. HMV, Tower Records), used to occupy quite a large space. Nowadays, it has shrunk to only a small area, sometimes submerged under the section desginated for film scores. When I buy CDs of recent musicals like those by LaChiusa (First Lady Suite, Wild Party, Marie Christine), I find the music quite hard to digest.

The other sense in which musical theater is dying is the prohibitive cost of staging. This means that it is increasingly difficult to recoup one's capital investment. Even in Singapore, only seven years ago, I could stage a small semi-professional show for Singapore $60,000 (US $35,000). Now, the cost has escalated to over $200,000 (US $120,000). This sum is minuscule compared to the millions of dollars required to stage a musical on Broadway or the West End. The fact that the US and UK have to spend such large sums, means that only blockbuster musicals have a chance to succeed. New experimental shows have virtually no chance to make it.

With so few new musicals surviving, and the only "new" shows appearing in Broadway and the West End are revivals, or the pseudo-musicals of pop groups (Abba's Mama Mia, Queen's We Will Rock You, Billy Joel's Movin' Out), David Benedict and Stephen Sondheim may well be right to raise the alarm about the end of musical theater as we know it. But I'm a cockeyed optimistic.

There is a glimmer of hope with new musicals appearing on the scene. There is Urinetown by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, and Avenue Q by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and I've already mentioned Wicked by Stephen Schwartz.

If exciting new musicals that continue to touch the audience's hearts can be written, if staging costs (and therefore ticket prices) can be kept to a minimum, and perhaps if one can stop alienating the audience with unhummable music, then I think musical theater will not only survive, but live on forever.

9 August 2004