But to some theater veterans, the success of “Potter” — a 5½ hour extravaganza set in the world of a Hollywood mega-franchise — is cause for concern. Is this, they wonder, what it takes to make it here now? Shows based on known properties are mounting an offensive on the New York stage. And some in this old guard worry a sacred American institution — and a time-honored way of doing business — is becoming endangered.
Broadway may have reached a record last year (with total sales of $1.64 billion, nearly 20 percent more than 2016’s record-breaker). But with so many dollars coming from franchise adaptations, they worry if Broadway could be heading to a modern Hollywood place where only the big and branded survive.
“We’ve become an industry in transition. Or maybe you can call it a crisis,” said Jack O’Brien, a three-time Tony-winning director who went studio with Warner Bros.’ “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” musical last year. “The whole industry is an out-of-control Leviathan, getting bigger and bigger.”
For decades Broadway operated as much as a family business as massive enterprise. Independent producers backed new material, frequently in venues far from midtown Manhattan. These producers honed the shows, then brought them to Broadway. Over the years that yielded a thick Playbill of blazing originality — “Oklahoma” and “West Side Story,” “Rent” and “Dreamgirls,” “Hamilton” and “Avenue Q.”
Broadway still sometimes functions that way — witness grass-roots smashes “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away” last year, which started with few bright-light ambitions. But by 2018 nearly all of the major Hollywood studios, their libraries restless with old hits and eyes bulging with “Hamilton” dollars, have set up divisions to join early-adopter Disney in the onslaught.
In fact, when Tony Award nominations were announced earlier this month, marking the close of the 2017-2018 season, for the first time in the modern era the best musical category was composed entirely of screen adaptations. One, “The Band’s Visit,” came from an obscure foreign film. But the others — Disney’s “Frozen,” Lorne Michaels’s “Mean Girls,” and Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” were deep-pocketed retellings of Hollywood hits, meant to woo with familiarity as much as wow with novelty.
“The fear I have is more corporations will try to manufacture musicals in boardrooms and forget that the great Broadway productions began with independent artists who had individual points of view,” said Ken Davenport, a prolific independent producer who will next bring non-branded musical “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” to Broadway.
Shows also increasingly lean on another kind of brand — existing music. The “jukebox musical,” filled not with new songs but old tunes, is on an upswing. That has reinforced concerns of a “Vegasification” in which Broadway’s 40 theaters become venues mainly for glittery rehashings of familiar hits.
After musicals from Donna Summer (“Summer”) and Jimmy Buffett (“Escape to Margaritaville”) left critics neither feeling the love nor changing their attitudes toward popular music showcases this season, a full-on barrage awaits next season. Those eager to see stories draped on the music of Cher (“The Cher Show”), The Go-Gos (“Head Over Heels”), The Temptations (“Ain’t Too Proud”) and Alanis Morissette (“Jagged Little Pill”) need only visit Broadway.
If they want fresh songs, they’ll need to turn to . . . old stories. “Pretty Woman” and “Moulin Rouge!” are among the only new musicals showcasing actual new music. (“Springsteen on Broadway,” one of this season’s breakouts, is based on old songs but gets a pass from insiders because it’s an artist-driven piece in which the artist appears.)
In some ways Broadway is tailor-made for this era. Social media has taken what historically has been a business driven by word-of-mouth among New York tourists and spread its message far and wide; many “Hamilton” fans had heard about the show and listened obsessively to its soundtrack before ever stepping foot in the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Plus live events can’t be pirated or recorded in advance, so they’re immune to the ills afflicting others parts of the entertainment business.
But today’s media world also relies a lot more on brands, which has led to more backing for those shows.
Those supporting branded productions say it’s too easy to lump them together.
London-based “Potter” producer Sonia Friedman said the creators didn’t aim to adapt “Goblet of Fire” or “Sorcerer’s Stone.” “We took the harder road because it was important to us and important to J.K. Rowling,” she said.
Critics have embraced “Potter” and its elaborate illusions of invisibility and flying; the production is a lock to win the Tony Award for Best Play. Even the involvement of indie producer Friedman signals “Potter” didn’t take the easy branded route — it also remains an outlier because the author held clout and stage rights. Warner Bros. invested but was kept creatively at arm’s length.
The studio, which has struggled on Broadway with adaptations including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Misery,” did not comment for this story.
Bob Cohen, who runs 20th Century’s Fox stage unit, says branded shows can actually face a greater hurdle as critics and theaters owns come in skeptical. “It’s great to have wind at your back and pre-awareness but at the end of the day ‘Hamilton’ succeeded because of excellence, and that’s how we want to succeed,” he said.
Fox has been working its catalogue, developing adaptations of “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Working Girl,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” and even throwback Oscar classic “All About Eve,” though none have hit Broadway. Cohen said the studio has valued quality over timeliness. At least two Fox shows could hit Broadway next year, he said, with one following every 12to 18 months.
And while some might balk at warmly remembered classics like “Mrs. Doubtfire” popping up with singing and dancing, they might also be tempted by some of the unique elements. It may not be purely original to hear Cyndi Lauper’s songs for a Melanie Griffith ’80s staple, as she is currently writing, but it will certainly be different. (“Working Girls Just Want To Have Fun?”)
Some veterans also say Broadway remains a meritocracy at heart.
“I think the [branded] concerns are overblown,” said veteran publicity strategist Rick Miramontez, who has worked on many of Broadway’s original titles. “The next ‘Fun Home’ will materialize when the next ‘Fun Home’ materializes,” he said, referring to the quirky graphic-novel adaptation that won best musical in 2015.
Others say it’s not as simple: The prospect of so much money makes it harder for small shows to compete on production value, and thus for audience’s attention. (“Potter” cost nearly $70 million, including theater renovations.)
The same holds for investors. “The cost is so prohibitive that it courts brand,” said O’Brien, the director. “If you have money and you want to put it into a musical, and you’re deciding between something you never heard of and one of your favorite movies, it’s only natural you’re going to think the movie is the safer place.”
Because studios have more money to begin with, they can afford to take losses on a show without closing it, monopolizing in-demand theaters. A high cost for a musical — $15 million — is a rounding error for studios.
That might, some in the old guard say, be why hot off-Broadway originals such as the teen-themed “Ride the Cyclone” and “School Girls” failed to make it to Broadway, even after “Dear Evan Hansen,” about a teen who makes up a lie.
“I certainly had a lot of moments in the seven years trying to bring this show to Broadway when I thought, ‘Is this worth it?’ ” said Orin Wolf, the independent producer behind “The Band’s Visit.” “I can understand how some producers might just give up.”
Whether the move to franchises is a shift or a blip remains to be seen. Though a show like “Band’s” or “Hansen” can still be held up as proof there is room for all, the old guard says the full effect may yet to be felt because studios are still ramping up. Brands certainly can help with younger audiences, as teens and 20-somethings flock to “Frozen,” “Anastasia” and “School of Rock,” all based on studio properties they grew up with. That group is key to Broadway’s long-term health, even if it’s unclear what form it will live to tell.
“The audience for new musicals is younger than I can ever remember it being,” said David Cote, a theater critic and industry observer. “That’s a good thing. But will their tastes grow? Will someone in 15 years write an interesting musical or will they write another ‘Frozen’?
“Broadway has never been more youthful or forward-looking,” he added. “I just don’t necessarily know what it’s looking at.”