Musicals outnumber plays on Broadway because of tourist demand
By Karina Huber
Broadway used to be where new playwrights from around the world could launch their careers and make a good living.
But now, new voices have little chance of staging commercial plays there.
Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill staged his first drama on Broadway in 1920. Almost a century later, the theater named after him is home to one of Broadway’s hottest musicals – The Book of Mormon.
Nowadays, musicals far outnumber plays on the Great White Way – a reversal from decades’ past.
And, tourists are partially to blame.
Visitors now account for roughly 70 percent of Broadway’s audience and what they want to see is musicals, not plays.
Broadway historian Ken Bloom said musicals are more accessible to a wider audience. Non-English speakers can follow along and at close to 200 US dollars a ticket, many want a spectacle.
“They want to see a show that they know,” said Bloom. “So it’s hard to crack the tourist thing with plays because plays just don’t get the hype – they don’t get the press unless there’s a big star involved.”
Another problem is limited space. There are only 41 Broadway houses, several occupied by long-running musicals.
This year, Phantom of the Opera celebrates its 30th anniversary on Broadway. The Lion King has been staged in New York for 20 years.
“The long-running success of these shows does have a bit of a bottleneck effect in crowding out other shows that might be able to come in,” said Adam Feldman, theater editor at Time Out New York.
Plays like The Parisian Woman starring Uma Thurman can draw crowds, and there are a handful of non-profit theaters that stage new plays without having to worry about box office receipts.
But gone are the days when Broadway was a viable place for a new playwright to make a name – and a living.
“You think of people like Aaron Sorkin who wrote A Few Good Men. It was a big hit on Broadway and then he went to the movies – and a lot of playwrights have gone to movies and television where the real money is.”
Feldman said it isn’t all doom and gloom. “There still are a lot of really good plays. A lot of them are just in smaller spaces and you have to know where to find them. I think the loss is to playwrights to some extent but the larger loss to me is to audience members because they don’t have as long a time to see the best stuff.”
What they’re most likely to see on Broadway are revivals of great playwrights of the past like O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.
To see new works, they’ll have to do their homework.