Originality is Dead, But it was Never Alive

Darren Wildeman

As yet another Tony season passes that was dominated by movie adaptations, there are many people screaming about the lack of originality on Broadway. Yet, they seem to think this is a recent development. Whenever I see this argument I always ask myself the question, is it really that recent? So, I did some research. I looked at over 1,300 shows going back to 1925 to analyze where these shows came from and what they were based off. This includes all major shows, and many, many more minor shows which you haven’t heard of (which for a lot of things are better that way) as well as many in between. I will show you the raw data, and then manipulate the year and one or two other things to show some patterns and explain what is going on in these graphs.

You can find the graph below, but first here is a quick definition of terms and some notes on the categories. Most of the categories are pretty self explanatory. The first thing the needs some definition is the Jukebox Musicals/Revues category. Back in the early 1900s before Showboat, a lot of musicals didn’t really have a plot- at least not how we define a plot today- and it wasn’t unusual for songs to be recycled. This could sometimes really blur the line between “Original Musical” and “Revue” so it’s possible that there are some musicals in the original category which could be a revue and vice versa, it is just hard to make the distinction sometimes that early in theatre history. The other thing is the “Something Else” category. These are musicals based on miscellaneous things. Comic books, video games, other art, etc.

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The first thing that immediately stands out is that Original Musicals definitely are not in the majority. Even going back all the way to 1925. When original musicals of questionable quality were being produced like mini donuts at a State Fair (more on this later). However, what if I told you it was possible to take an even bigger hole out of original musicals?

Some of you may have already noticed this, but to some people there is one category missing. Musicals based on a person’s life or real events. I went back and forth on this category because even though it is based on something, it isn’t like a movie or book either where there is a previous item to work with. However, at the same time it is still based on something.

I didn’t count these myself, however according to the Google machine there are approximately 116 Musicals based on true events. However, I am going to increase this number a little bit due to my study including a lot of minor musicals that I know for a fact aren’t on the initial list I see. However, I won’t increase it by as much either because some historical musicals are already non-original by being in another category (Jukebox, movie etc). Yes, this is a little bit arbitrary but I also feel like it’s a fair number to work with.

Now, this is what the chart looks like.

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As you can see, this takes an even bigger chunk out of original musicals. The conclusion of this article: Musicals have been based on things much longer than the last 5 years or so. However, we aren’t done here. We’re going to play with this pie chart even more.

As I stated previously, in the early 1900s, musicals were quite different. Some of them were closer to being a bunch of songs with a common theme than being an actual musical with a story. For this reason, it was also quite a bit easier to write an original musical because the writer didn’t necessarily need to have a strong plot. They could string a bunch of songs together and call it good. Showboat was really the first musical to tell a story with the music, and ironically enough it was based on something, a book to be exact. Showboat was produced in 1927, but even after this not many musicals caught on to the whole “telling a story through music thing.” Original Musicals continued to be mass produced. In fact, there’s no point in showing you a pie chart of just the ‘20s and ‘30s because they really are dominated by the originals. However, as I stated previously, it was also easier then to write an original musical. Not only because the plot was looser but also partially because there wasn’t as much source material around at the time. It wasn’t until the 40s where music driving the plot really started to happen more. And this was largely helped a long by another Musical theatre staple: Oklahoma! Which ironically enough was also based on something - a play to be exact.

Our first stop in further analysis will be 1940. The rules for the pie chart are the same, except every show from before 1940 has been eliminated.

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Admittedly, the pie chart doesn’t look too different yet. However, if you compare the numbers, you will se the group that took the biggest hit is in fact Original Musicals. In fact, they lost exactly 90 shows. The next biggest loss was “Musicals Based on a Piece of Theatre” which only lost 21 shows. All the other categories remained almost untouched.

We’re going to go away from the Original Musicals category for a second to examine and compare two other categories. The number of Musicals based on a book, vs. a piece of theatre. If we look at the number of musicals based on a book vs. another piece of theatre from before 1970, they’re dead even with exactly 93 adaptations a piece. However, after 1970, this shifted dramatically. There would be 222 more book adaptations, as opposed to just 88 more based on a movie. This could partially be because there are generally more books to choose from than previous theatre works. However, other than this, I’m at a loss. That seems like a pretty flimsy explanation for that big of a difference. If you have any thoughts on this please leave them in the comments. I’d be curious to hear feedback on why there is such a discrepancy.  

The patterns I’ve pointed out so far kind of maintained. However, we’re going to jump ahead now and kill one stone with two birds (or something), I’m going to show you the same pie chart I did before, except this time we’re going to start it from 1990. 

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This graph has some very noticeable differences. The first obvious one is unsurprisingly how much smaller a piece of the pie the original musicals are. However, you will probably notice that two categories grew substantially. Musicals based on a movie, and Jukebox musicals.

I think the explanation for both of these is relatively simple. There’s more movies and music readily available now than there ever has been. In the 90s and early 2000s especially and even to some extent now, going to the movies was a big thing. It makes sense that composers and writers would write about what is big in pop culture. Services like Netflix, Hulu, Crave, as well as download and streaming sites like iTunes, Google Music, Spotify, and now YouTube Music, can be added to that fray.

Music and radio has been around much longer than movies so the rise Jukebox musicals aren’t as easy to explain as movie adaptations, but I think there is another explanation.

Look at the bands who have had jukebox musicals made about them: Donna Summer, Janis Joplin, Motown, Carole King, Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Four Seasons, Jimmy Buffet, among others. A very large percentage of jukebox musicals are from older bands, artists or genres. It’s entirely possible that it’s very much a nostalgia thing. These jukebox musicals could be giving older audience members a chance to relive some of their favourite artists from when they were younger. And even better, these songs of that they loved when they were younger are now telling a story. It’s interesting that as of right now there’s no serious or professional jukebox musicals for Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons, or any other band or artist that’s been big in the last few years. It makes sense though. Jukebox musicals target the older audience for nostalgia, but, the older audience is also who has money. Even financially speaking for investors and producers, a jukebox musical about a current artist, especially if that artist is still touring, would be a huge risk.

Another thing worth noting is that unless the musical is by an extremely well recognized composer or writer, it is extremely hard to pitch an original musical. Even for well known composers it can be hard. An original musical is a massive financial risk for investors and producers. If the musical is based on something it is much easier to pitch, and much easier for possible investors to see the potential, target demographic, etc. They can base these things on how the original work did in those categories. In a lot of ways, with an original musical, the people working on it are going in blind. And financially going in blind is a huge risk. Theatre is already a volatile market with no sure thing, an original musical is even worse.

What these graphs tell us though is that musicals have ALWAYS been based on something. And even more so since the musical started to move the plot. People complain about the recent influx of movie musicals but seem to want to ignore that in the mid 1900s, book and previous theatre adaptations were dominating the theatre scene. It’s just that now movies are one of the most popular ways the public consumes entertainment, so that’s what musicals are made of. I imagine it will continue to go like this. In 20 years we might musicals based on popular YouTube videos, or something going on in social media. Or some weird virtual reality musical. What musicals are based off will continue to evolve with what people are entertained by. Musicals being based off of something isn’t a new phenomenon and anyone claiming it is has a really short memory. Theatre has never really been a major medium for producing original content, and I don’t think it ever will be.

Instead of worrying about how much of the content is original, how about we just worry about how much of it is quality? I personally don’t really care if I’m seeing something original or a remake. I just want to watch something good.