The Keys to Success: What Makes a Musical Popular?

Darren Wildeman

I’m an outsider to Musical Theatre. Don’t get me wrong I’m definitely a fan. I’m just a more recent convert only becoming a fan in the last three years or so.  Within that three years though I have learned a lot. Two questions I myself have asked a lot is “why and how do certain musicals explode while others are left by the wayside?” Being newer to musical theatre there were some things I had to come to understand first. Things that a lot of people already in the industry or who are fans know but I had to catch up on. I will be touching on some of these things later in this post, however, one possibly even the most important thing I’ve learned is that despite all the formulas, despite the rules, and despite there being some ways that improve a composer’s chances of writing a good musical nobody still really knows what will make a show explode. Some shows follow all the rules and flop, some shows are even very well written and STILL manage to flop (side eyes Bandstand). Then you get some shows that take the rule book, send it through a paper shredder, load up 500 pounds of TNT into said paper shredder, blow it up, dance on the remaining particles, and have the show be a complete success commercially and critically. Which shows fall into these respective categories? Let’s examine some of the booms and busts of recent Broadway history and see if we can narrow it down. As stated earlier, there are definitely some ways composers can help their case, but as you probably know nothing is a sure thing.
 

 Here you see a couple of big Broadway hits. Wicked, Jersey Boys, Phantom, and Chicago. Photo by aluxum/iStock / Getty Images

Here you see a couple of big Broadway hits. Wicked, Jersey Boys, Phantom, and Chicago. Photo by aluxum/iStock / Getty Images


Marketability
The first thing we’re going to look at is marketability. What is something that a lot of smash hits have done? They’ve pandered to a specific audience. That’s not to say that only those people can like these shows, however in general they do have more of an appeal to a certain group of people. For our first example of this we’re going to go back to what some people consider to be one of the first smash hits of recent musical theatre history. Some even go as far as to say it helped to save theatre when theatre was struggling. Of course I’m talking about RENT. RENT could qualify as the type of show where it isn’t particularly well written. Many attribute this to the unfortunate passing of Jonathon Larson and that he didn’t get to finish it. Many would also argue that his passing is what led to its success. However, if for a minute we ignore the writing quality, and we put his death to the side, we will see something else. RENT is a musical that a lot of people will say gave a voice to LGBTQ+ people. It gave hope and it made them cry. No, it wasn’t the first musical to display LGBTQ+ characters on stage but for the reason that it celebrated them it captured a main audience. It captured the LGBTQ+ community and its supporters. We’re talking marketability and RENT captured an audience perfectly. It had a fan base to build upon and a group of people who will watch and pay for their show.
 

RENT isn’t the only example of having an audience base. Wicked also did this really well. While they aren’t Disney one could argue that Wicked has very much went the Disney route with its story, design and music. There are obviously some differences between Wicked and Disney, but they employed a very similar strategy. They’re looking to be a family friendly musical that targets kids within the 8-15ish range. Even more specifically the girls in that age range. If they get more fans beyond that more power to them. However, just being a friendly family musical on its own gives it staying power. It’s a show parents could take the kids to for a night out. Let’s face it. How much kid entertainment is there that doesn’t also drive the parents up the wall? Wicked is one of the few things that can entertain both. This is what has given it incredible staying power.

As for the marketability of some flops. Bandstand was a well written show and a lot of people loved it. However, who is it going to reach out to? People who like big band style of music? Possibly, but that music is so out of style it doesn’t exactly have a massive crowd. People who support the military? These people did love this show; but that’s also a vague group to build a fan base around. As well as the fact that a lot of veterans and their families don’t necessarily have the money to go see a show. What about Great Comet? It probably shouldn’t be considered a flop, however it definitely could have done better. Controversy not withstanding- because let’s face it this show was hurting well before any controversy- this show closed fairly early. Again where is the fan base for a show like this? Fans of complicated Russian novels? That’s oddly specific. Fans of that style of music? That style is so unique it would be hard to find people who actively listen to it outside of this show. A lot of these shows don’t necessarily have a specific target audience. Or any audience they could capture is way too small.  Of course targeting one specific group isn’t necessary but it does give composers a fan base to build off.

Music Style
Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, She Loves Me, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, and Wicked. Aside from being box office smashes and/or critically acclaimed pillars of theatre what do these things have in common? They all do one of two things really well musically, if not both. They either build themes that are repeated throughout the show, or they have big powerful songs that just grab the audience. The latter is easier and more direct to talk about. An example of this is Phantom of the Opera. Think of Me, the title song, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, etc. these songs are all rely on a big orchestra and really catch the audience’s attention through beautiful melodies and powerful vocals. Same goes for a song like Defying Gravity. A big powerful song about independence that requires big vocals and big instrumentation. A lot of really popular shows have songs like these.  However, there is one other thing all these shows do well. They weave themes together throughout the show.
Think about how in Les Mis how often you hear the same orchestration or melody come up at different moments, this is quite often a throwback to a similar previous point in the show and is used as either juxtaposition, or comparison and often raises an important plot point. For example Who Am I and One Day More. In both these situations Val Jean is questioning something. They both raise an important plot point. However, in One Day More it isn’t just an important plot point for Val Jean, it’s an important point for ALL the characters in the show. Another very obvious example of this is in Dear Evan Hansen. There is a throwback to Waving Through a Window in Words Fail. He’s reminding himself why he always used to stop himself, why he sees himself the way he does, and why he thinks he’s a failure. Almost all the shows I mentioned in that list do something like this. Into the Woods has multiple reprises that all prove a point or harken back to a previous point of the show. The finale of She Loves Me is a nod to “Vanilla Ice Cream” to help illustrate that George is “dear friend.” There are many other examples of this in the shows I listed but for the sake of the length of this entry I unfortunately need to stop there.

Is all this to say that bad shows or shows that flop don’t do some of this? Not necessarily. Weaving in themes or having very powerful songs is something that pretty much any show these days does. What- you may ask then- is something that bad shows tend to do? Well there are a couple things you can pick up on. For this example we’re going to turn to Amelie. On the first listen the music to Amelie is beautiful. It truly does have a really nice cast album. However, that’s the problem. It only has a nice cast album. You see the music for Amelie doesn’t do much or go anywhere. Sure it still has themes but they aren’t tightly holding the show together like they do in some of the other shows. The music to Amelie is just sort of there. It does good moments. “Halfway There” is a really witty song. Unfortunately though these moments aren’t that common. A lot of the music is just there because the show is a musical. The music is really nice but when you watch it with the story, it doesn’t really do much for it. A lot of successful musicals have the music push the story, not just stop it for a pretty song. Which brings us to another culprit of this. Ghost.

Ghost is another show that also had potential but was really held back by the lyrics especially. With You is one of my favourite theatre songs, and it is full of wonderful tunes. Unfortunately very similarly to Amelie the show stops for a lot of these songs to happen. They don’t push the show, they don’t really move it forward in any way, and they’re just kind of there. For so many musicals this is the kiss of death. Sure some musicals have gotten away with it, but it’s less common. If a musical does get away with doing this, it’s usually because either the show is very strong somewhere else, or they don’t do it to an extreme extent and still manage to keep the plot moving. One of my favourite examples of this is Jekyll and Hyde.

This is a show that is well loved by many people in the community. However it is equally just as criticized for having songs that don’t move the plot. However, a couple of reasons it might be forgiven is because 1. It has a big powerful ballad which a lot of successful musicals have in This is The Moment. And 2. There are moments where there are songs do push the plot really well. The Confrontation in Jekyll and Hyde is brilliantly written. Also His Work and Nothing More is another song that is well written and sounds amazing. So while it isn’t perfect J&H is an example of a show that while it has issues, can still be forgiven by many people in the community.

Originality

How original is your musical? This can mean a variety of things. From music style to story to choreography and many things in between. Look at Hamilton. When he wrote it Lin did a lot of the things I mentioned earlier about themes, reprises, etc. However, he managed to do something quite rare. His story was unique, told in a unique way, with music not often hear on the stage. This post would be 5 pages longer if I dissected Hamilton alone so I’m not going to do that here. However, Lin did so many things differently and tore up a good chunk of the rule book while still doing certain things well that have always been done. He was revolutionary while still tying his whole musical together really well. What have other successful shows done for originality?

Shows like Next to Normal, Fun Home, and Dear Evan Hansen both did something not often seen on Broadway or in society. With mental illness and suicide being so stigmatized it is refreshing to see these topics brought up on stage. When they are they need to be done well or else it appears to be an insensitive train wreck. However, when it is done well people love it. This also ties into the marketability topic. There is a specific crowd that shows like these attract and they have a built in fan base. All three of those shows are in a similar vein but are still so unique in their own way. Fun Home is the story of a lesbian protagonist, Next to Normal deals with bipolar disorder and psychosis, and Dear Evan Hansen deals with anxiety, depression, and day to day life at a highschool. All these things tapped into a market that was relatively untapped.

This paper hasn’t even started on Sondheim yet. Sondheim’s scores sound so different, but like a lot of the other shows he tied them together so well and kept pushing the story along.  His style is something that so many people were unfamiliar with yet it improved the modern musical so much. He is an example of someone that did away with parts of the rulebook completely.  However, what about shows that don’t appear to be as original and are still successful? For this we turn to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Andrew Lloyd Webber I’d argue hasn’t done anything terribly unique on Broadway. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it just means he does have a lot of similar things that have already been done. However, the things he does do he does really well. He writes big songs with powerful instrumentations, and he makes his shows a spectacle. He might be one of the best at this. Just because he doesn’t do anything terribly inventive isn’t a knock on him, he sticks with what he knows, and what he does know he does really well.

Plain Old Luck                                                        

A lot of people don’t like to talk about this and some might flat out disagree with it. However, I do believe there is a certain amount of luck and fortune that goes into having a successful musical. You can follow all the rules, and still have a flop. You can also push the boundaries like Sondheim did and become one of the most famous composers ever. Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying that Sondheim just got lucky. He’s obviously a very talented composer as well. All I’m doing is illustrating that either within or outside the rules a person never knows what is going to become big. There are ways a composer can give themselves the best chance to be successful but in the end they just don’t know. Audiences are finicky and there will always be some headscratchers in both the boom and bust category of musicals. You can try and point to some specific reasons, and you may even be right. However, at the end of the day unpredictability is a part of the beast that is Musical Theatre. It’s impossible to say what audiences will flock to or avoid touching with a 50 ft pole.

 

Darren is an admin at ATB. He loves musicals, reading, and sports among a few other things. He is very active in ATB and loves working as an admin.