Originality

Forever Changed

Sabrina Wallace

I’ve been staring at my computer screen for days, trying to figure out what to write about. First blog jitters, I guess. I finally decided that honesty was the best course of action so here we go!

 On a rainy autumn evening in Buenos Aires, a group of friends and I had some time to kill when we run into a locally developed production of Dracula, the Musical. It was the nineties and Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, was all the rage, so why not see a musical about the prince of the night! After struggling to get seats close together, we sat down as the lights dimmed. The curtains opened at the sound of slow music that told us the show was about to begin. For the next two and half hours, I couldn’t move. The music, the dancing, the singing, the scenery, everything pulled me in. I travelled to Transylvania with Jonathan, fell under Dracula’s spell with Lucy, sympathized with Dracula and his lonely life, and cried when Mina plunged the dagger into her lover’s heart even as she realized that he was not the soulless monster that could not be redeemed by love. I walked into that theatre unaware of emotions that were brewing inside me. That fateful evening, a passion for live theatre awoke in me and changed my heart and soul forever.

 Twenty something years later, the flame is still burning. I have seen my share of shows over the years. Some shows managed to entertain the heck out of me with wonderful scripts, talented performers, and catchy songs. Some, like King Kong, made me feel like a child in an amusement park with the grandiose set design, a fantastic beast and an amazing display of color, music, choreography and talent. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was … well, Harry Potter. I was happily surprised with the show, the casting and the set design. It is always fun to see “what happened next” to those beloved characters we followed along for so many years, but to be honest, a movie would have done the trick (and everyone could have enjoyed it, too). SpongeBob Squarepants was funny, with an intricate set design, sharp choreography and a happy good time, but the most memorable aspects of that musical were Gavin Lee’s Tony Award Nominated performance and Ethan Slater’s flexibility on stage. Matilda tried to tug on my emotional strings when she sang “When I Grow Up” but apart from the fabulous choreography, I remained unchanged. Mean Girls is one of my favorite new musicals. I love the score, the energetic choreography and the unbeatable vocals (those ladies can sing!). However, this movie turned into a Broadway musical is not one of those shows that made me think or feel any different before, during, or after the show. It is not difficult to make the audience laugh, may be a little harder to make them cry, but only a few truly good shows manage to evoke transformation like the one I experienced one rainy autumn evening in Buenos Aires.

 I went to see Les Misérables with my daughters a few summers ago. Both girls had been involved in musical theatre as performers in our local community theatre but had not attended a Broadway show. I prepared them beforehand by telling them bits and pieces of the novel that inspired the musical so that they could follow the story along and enjoy the richness of the show. From the moment the curtains went up through the final bows, the girls were not in New York City but in France. They become part of the story, seeking redemption with Jean Valjean, finding family and love with Cosette and Marius, and fighting the revolution with the entire cast. By the time Gavroche died, the tears couldn’t be stopped any longer. We left the theatre in a state of awe, it was such an emotional experience that the girls didn’t even want to go backstage to meet the actors. They needed to process what had happened to them and breathe.

This season is filled with revivals, movies turned into musicals, old pop bands brought to the stage, and a few new stories that open a window into the human condition. Stories that fill us with emotions, that make us think, that make us want to change the world. I was lucky to undergo a few transformations this season. American Son, an intelligent book, masterfully presented by four talented actors, took me on a rollercoaster of feelings starting with hope and ending with a hole in my heart. A real story that could be yours as well as mine, a story that provoked thoughtful conversation, brought a contemporary topic to light, and invited audiences to ponder on the reality of racism and inequality in today’s society. Choir Boy surprised me as I believe that I was witness to one of the best written, best directed, and most beautifully acted plays I’ve seen in years. A painful exposé of intolerance mingled with specks of racism and complex relationships. A powerful script that made me want to give each one of the actors a momma bear hug at the end of the show. Not every show I enjoyed was a play, although most of the plays I’ve seen so far this season left me begging for more. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (West End) is a fast-pace, emotional piece of musical theatre that follows a true story of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Singing “He’s My Boy”, Margaret pours her heart to the audience conveying the joy and pain of being the mother of a teenager that lives somewhat outside the norm of society. Once on this Island, a revival that deserves a mention, “tells the story” in a magical array of music, song, and dance, all set in an unconventional circular stage that invites you in. I was sad to see this show close, but I hope it continues to tell the story on tour or through regional theaters. The Prom is an original show that surprises people the most. It’s a musical comedy that makes you want to dance from the moment you walk into the theatre. Based on a true story, The Prom delivers a powerful message of love and acceptance as a means to overcome ignorance and intolerance. I laughed with the ridiculous celebrities, went back to high school with the young cast, wanted to scream at the PTA moms, held my heart in my hand with Emma at the close of the first act (no spoilers), and cried me a river with “Unruly Heart”. It is one of those shows that makes you mad before it brings you back from the brink of rage and in the end shows you a ray of hope for the future of humankind. We need more of those stories in this day and age!

 Art is meant to transform, to inspire, to connect us to our feelings and those of our fellow humans. Art helps us understand each other by seeing the world from their point of view by opening up a window into other people’s lives, feelings, fears. To take in in, we must be open. We must be vulnerable. We must be honest. I want to be transformed every time I sit in the audience so when I walk through the door of a theatre, I leave behind any preconceptions I may have, I open myself to the opportunity to be changed. I listen with my entire being. I watch with my eyes wide open. I let the process happen to me.

 Life is a collection of moments, experiences, connections. I want my experiences to be worth sharing. I hope you will allow me to do so again. Until then, I encourage you to find a show that meddles with your feelings and leaves you forever changed.   


 Everybody’s talking about Jamie - now playing at the Apollo Theatre in London

The Prom - now playing at the Longacre Theatre in NYC

American Son - now playing at the Booth Theatre in NYC (limited engagement)

Choir Boy - now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in NYC (limited engagement)

Mean Girls - now playing at August Wilson Theatre in NYC

King Kong - now playing at the Broadway Theatre in NYC

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child - now playing at the Lyric Theatre in NYC and at the Palace Theatre in London

 

           

 

 

 

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.

Is Originality Dead?

Freya Meredith

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?

Photo by phive2015/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by phive2015/iStock / Getty Images

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.