A series in which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.
The Great White Way. The Boards. Ol’ Stagey. Sondheim’s Grand Temple. Gershwin Alley. The Street Made of Songs and Dreams and Songs.
These are among the many nicknames for Broadway with which, as an average American in the middle of the 20th century, you would be familiar. Except for the ones I just made up of course, but you probably wouldn’t even know that, because who cares about the day-to-day of Broadway except for those intolerable kids in high school who were obsessed with Rent? But a few decades ago, you, average American, would have known and loved “Some Enchanted Evening,” “You’re the Top,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and also known that they came from South Pacific, Anything Goes, and Carousel.
The plays, but more so, the musicals of Broadway, up until the 1970s or so, were a major influence and pillar of American popular culture. Hell, you can’t have an EGOT without a T, which is for the Tony Award, which at one point was deemed as important as an Emmy, Grammy, or Oscar. (The plays, for their part, could still make a celebrity out of a playwright; Arthur Miller married the biggest movie star in the world. They released a bestselling cast album of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the mid-60s, which is both a great way to experience that play, and if you play it loud, the neighbors think your marriage is disintegrating.)
Nowadays, Broadway musicals are a niche, their fans a subculture. Only a few strictly New York centric publications even consider them mainstream entertainment. The rest of the country does not give a shit, as Broadway musicals are a tourist attraction—and most of them are based on old movies, written by familiar pop stars, or revivals of popular musicals anyway. For better or for worse, but really for worse, Broadway musicals have about as much of an effect on art and culture in the 21st century as an amusement park.
Sure, musicals do good business when they tour, and when there’s a disastrous musical like Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, that gets people interested, but no longer are musicals, or songs from musicals, things the average American is as familiar with as blockbuster movies or big TV shows.
Here is a smattering of some show tunes that made a dent on the charts in the last 30 years:
• The devastating “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the original 1982 production of Dreamgirls went to #1 on the R&B chart, #22 pop, and earned a Best New Artist nomination for the person who sang it in the show, Jennifer Holliday. (Jennifer Hudson, who won an Oscar for the 2006 movie adaptation, hook her version to #14 R&B and #60 pop.)
• “Memory,” the most famous and histrionic song from the famous and histrionic Cats, which detailed cats both jellicle and super-depressed about aging, went to #52, but that was probably because it was covered by Barbra Streisand during an inexplicable run on the pop chart for the singer, who, coincidentally, became famous doing musicals.
• “Seasons of Love,” from the 2005 film version of Rent, in which most of the original cast portrayed characters they were way too old to play, hit #33.
• A dance remix of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, the Broadway musical about the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, hit #5 on the dance chart in 2007, so have at that one, armchair stereotypers.
• “A Step Too Far” from Aida hit #15 on the adult contemporary chart in 1999. That show’s songs were written by Elton John.
• The cast of Godspell had a #14 hit with “Day By Day” in 1972.
• With “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, Steven Sondheim had one of his many masterpiece songs achieve commercial success, which is odd, since his songs are usually thoughtful and musically challenging—they are not pop songs. But this one hit #19 (performed by Judy Collins) in 1977 and was nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys
• “Superstar” from Godspell’s hated rival, Jesus Christ Superstar, hit #14 in 1970. It was credited to Murray Head, who in 1984 would have the last top 5 hit to come out of a Broadway musical: “One Night in Bangkok” from Chess, a musical about chess, written by the dudes from ABBA.
Unlike other broad social trends that simply die out when people move on to the next thing, there are some concrete factors that led to the downfall of Broadway’s mainstream popularity and influence. For one, there are fewer TV outlets to promote Broadway shows. Yes, there is more TV now, but ironically less that will promote Broadway. Most any episode of The Ed Sullivan Show would have the cast or a singer or two from Broadway come on to promote the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the first episode to talk about South Pacific. The cast of Oliver! (including Davy Jones of the Monkees) was on one of Beatles’ landmark episodes. Variety and talk shows into the ‘70s would routinely include a show tune performance. The Rosie O’Donnell Show, because the host loved musicals, had casts on all the time; that show is off the air, as dead as Ed Sullivan and the variety show format. Also gone is the TV anthology and the movie-of-the-week, both of which were avenues for TV adaptations of musicals like Peter Pan in 1960 and Cinderella in 1965 (at one point the most watched broadcast in TV history). Musicals were a TV event and TV staple, and rightfully so, because it was a goddamn Broadway show coming in on the magic box, to your small town, for free.
How a show gets to Broadway has changed, too. Now, it’s mainly a high-stakes commercial endeavor; art is secondary. The best and edgiest musical in a decade, The Book of Mormon, wouldn’t have made it were it not created by the guys who make the very popular TV show South Park. Mamma Mia! is based on the music of the super-popular ABBA, but also it did extremely well in London for a couple of years first. Billy Elliot is based on a movie and had songs written by Elton John. The Producers, while great, was based on a movie. That naturally led to the not-as-good, but also based on a Mel Brooks movie, Young Frankenstein. Staging a musical costs tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars. Neither investors or producers are going to take a chance on something that isn’t a known entity, that isn’t going to attract theater nerds and/or NYC tourists.
As such, Broadway musicals, for the most part, grow bland and sterile. Plus, composers, such as Elton John, or ABBA, have to be marketable brands now, too. Today’s Gershwin or Cole Porter equivalents are going to find more money, but also more opportunities, writing for pop and rock stars, themselves, or for movies. There’s simply no room on Broadway, the all singin’, all dancin’ theme park and gift shop based on that movie you kind of liked.