The era of entertainment has never been more versatile than now. With the accessibility of television and the internet, an array of community and professional theatre world-wide, and more people wanting bigger and better content, the following of and demand for theatre is at a highpoint. And with the biggest night of theatre fast approaching, we start to ask ourselves a very crucial question: is originality dead?
The answer is… undetermined! And before anyone starts screaming at their device screen about how that answer is simply not good enough, let me start by saying, “I get it”. With literally everything being remade nowadays (I don’t want to hear anything more about the non-musical version of Disney’s Mulan), it’s easy to assume that there are not many ideas left to create into a mega-masterpiece for literature, screen or stage. Sure, this could be true in the sense that no story is truly original, but, let’s face it, a story hasn’t been completely and utterly original for a long time. It’s common knowledge that in a story, something happens, and then it goes one of three ways; it ends in happiness, it ends in sadness, or it finishes unanswered. So, fine, I guess in saying that, nothing is completely original. Today, however, we are focusing on more than just the basic structure. But with only 6 of the 45 musicals and 18 of the 46 plays nominated for Best Musical/Play in the past 10 years being cited as original (as in, not inspired or based off pre-existing published work), we need to put forward a different question: why is originality not commercial?
This year, the Tony nominees for Best Musical (Spongebob Squarepants, Mean Girls, Frozen, and The Band’s Visit) all come from the screen. From the average consumer’s perspective, it is much more appealing to go and see a musical based off a movie or a television series that they recognize. It’s also a smart move for producers to invest in a show that already has a following based on its original format. It’s simply common sense and a pretty good reason as to why original musical concepts just are not as successful. Then there are stories based on real life world events and people of interest, with the most recent successes being Hamilton and Come From Away. Once again, audiences are aware of what it’s about (for the most part). I’ve found, through trying to understand why there isn’t more original musicals on Broadway, that audiences are a little scared of the unknown. This is, of course, excluding theatre fans who live for theatre and Broadway. The producers and investors know that we will come to these shows, minimal questions asked (except, maybe, ticket prices, but that’s for a later date). The people they have to “sell” the shows to are everyday people who aren’t theatre nerds. It’s easier to market a show based off pop culture or a well-known event or person than it is to market a completely new idea. So then why are shows like Dear Evan Hansen so successful? Is it the cast? Is it the story itself? Was it so good that word-of-mouth simply promoted the show?
There are plenty of variables as to why shows are commercially successful. Being a marketable product is essential to keep Broadway alive, so it’s understandable as to why there are minimal original storylines on Broadway. But that doesn’t mean that originality is dead on Broadway. Every season, we see new and innovative creations on stage, whether it be through music, choreography, set, costume, or lighting design. We are incredibly lucky to be living in a time where any subject manner can be composed into a musical setting, with ground-breaking results; subsequently living in a time where stories that deserve to be told are being transformed in, what I think (and I am very biased), the most beautiful and versatile form of entertainment in the world. So, the answer to this question is… you make up your own mind.