Saturday, September 3, 2011

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: How Long Is Too Long On Broadway?

As the East Coast is still recovering from the damage that was caused by last weekend's Hurricane Irene, Broadway went back into business this week with a full blast.  The revival of Chicago, which has been a solid hit since its opening back in 1996, danced its way passed A Chorus Line to become the 4th Longest Running Broadway Musical AND the Longest Running American Broadway Musical.  That latter title is the one to note here.  You see, the three musicals that are ahead of the Bob Fosse-style "Razzle Dazzler" are shows that were birthed across the Atlantic Ocean in London: CatsLes Miserables (both of which are now closed) and The Phantom of the Opera (which is STILL running - since 1988 - with a count of 9,016 performances as of September 4, 2011).  Cats and Phantom are two of the biggest hits in composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's career and Les Miserables is one of producer Cameron Mackintosh's worldwide hits (interestingly enough, Mackintosh also co-produced Cats and Phantom, meaning he has a stake in the top 3 Longest Running Broadway shows!).  But how long is too long?

I remember when I was a kid and A Chorus Line's 6,137 performances seemed like an aberration, something unattainable that NO other show could EVER surpass.  Then, when I was in High School, Andrew Lloyd Webber's bizarrely fascinating musical about felines did the seemingly impossible.  In June of 1997, Cats famously passed A Chorus Line's record and remained on Broadway for another 4 years.  A year after Cats closed, Les Miserables passed A Chorus Line (and promptly closed a year later!).  And in the last 8 years, The Phantom of the Opera dropped the massive chandelier every night and in the process passed all three to become the Longest Running Broadway Musical.  Now with over 9,000 performances, Phantom has become the unattainable.  Even the show's legendary director, Harold Prince, is often surprised by the massive success that the show has enjoyed.

When Prince began as a producer (of The Pajama Game back in 1954), the Longest Running Broadway show was Oklahoma!, which had a total run of just over 2,000 performances.  Since then, seven other landmark Broadway musicals have enjoyed the title of Longest Running show in history: My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler On the Roof, Grease, A Chorus Line, Cats and, now, Phantom.  But Phantom's run pretty much equals the combined totals of Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Dolly! and Fiddler together!  So I ask again, how long is too long?

At this time, Phantom and Chicago are not the only current Broadway shows that have run for over a decade.  Disney's Tony-winning hit The Lion King and the massive ABBA musical Mamma Mia! both have at least a decade under their "belts" and the 2003 Oz-ian mega-hit Wicked is not too far behind.  This is an interesting question because with the economy the way it currently is and those economic realities having an affect on the state of several Broadway shows, it's refreshing to see shows that were once the hottest tickets in town remain open and still perform at 80-90% capacity!  But do these respective shows' successes encourage what several notable Broadway-philes have called: A Creative Vacuum?  More producers (meaning investors who want to be called producers!) are trying to grasp at the unattainable because with so many shows running so long, they believe the impossible is actually quite possible.  That's why we are seeing an enormous amount of musicals based on recognizable titles (i.e. films, books or even comic books!).  So I ask you readers, have these shows run too long?  Are they making it harder for the future generation of playwrights or composers who are having trouble getting the proper funding from these pretentious investors?  Or is commercial theatre (re: Broadway) in major trouble thanks to the constantly troubling economy?  It seems to always come down to money no matter what you do!  Below, are the posters of the 8 shows currently running on Broadway that have surpassed 1,000 performances (which means they have run at least 2 and a half years!).  Are these 8 shows representative of what Broadway is all about today?  And, if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing or just the way it is?

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