You’re Dead to Us…Broadway Musicals As an Important Cultural Force


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.

  • BobCashill

    While musicals aficionados would not necessarily disagree with you–they don’t call Broadway “the fabulous invalid” for nothing, and they’ve been calling it that for years–a few points.

    “EGOT, which is for the Tony Award, which at one point was deemed as important as an Emmy, Grammy, or Oscar.” To the extent that any of these are “important,” it still has tremendous cachet in the small world I have a toehold in; with folks who still care about the art and craft of stage acting, and among casting agents, who in Hollywood persist in casting non-musical talent in the few musicals still produced. That said the song-and-dance talent out there and on display here is extraordinary. And there are many composers, on and Off Broadway, who aren’t affiliated with the pop world. Whatever their sales are, they get produced, and the process is just as arduous for Parker and Stone as it is for Kitt and Yorkey.

    Wherever you find it, the musical itself has dissipated as a mode of musical expression and influence, not just on Broadway. But: WICKED has become a rite of passage for mothers and daughters, the same audience the just-opened stage version of CINDERELLA is aiming for. The few movies into musicals that transcend their origins and really live onstage, like THE LION KING, are truly extraordinary. The failure of SMASH doesn’t dent the occasional big successes that still pop up, on TV (GLEE, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL) or online (DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG). And all perpetuate the “magic of the theatre”–long may kids be stage-struck. Even if the delivery system isn’t Broadway itself, you give more of a shit about Broadway-influenced culture than you realize.

  • JonCummings

    Thanks, Bob. I had something like this to say, but I wanted you to say it first. It IS short-sighted to deny the relevance of “Glee” to the kids, and it probably has created a generation more interested in the musical theater than the one preceding it. (It’s hard to dismiss the fact that “Glee” has sent songs like “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Defying Gravity” and even “Happy Days Are Here Again”/”Get Happy” onto the pop charts.) It’s joined in that effort not just by “High School Musical,” but by a parade of Disney/Nick movies and TV shows that are using stages and music even when the actors don’t merely break into song. Meanwhile, “Smash,” though its ratings are rather pathetic, has one of the most affluent audiences on TV and probably will survive the season, at least. It might even wind up making a good musical; the songs for its show-within-the-show have been rather good.

    Of course, all of this doesn’t refute Brian’s point about the Broadway musical as an art form. What DOES refute it, to at least some extent, is work over the last decade such as “Spring Awakening,” “Next to Normal,” “Urinetown,” “The Scottsboro Boys,” “In the Heights,” the ubiquitous “Wicked,” even “The Drowsy Chaperone” – some of which have explored new territory, others of which have launched very big careers that have transcended Broadway.

    The movies-into-musicals trend is generally a distressing one, but is it any more distressing than the blockbuster-franchise trend in the movie biz? Nobody says Hollywood is dying just because there’s a massive creative drought and a push toward the safest possible product among the major studios; similarly, it’s not correct to write off the musical because the ratio of quality to chaff is relatively low, or because there are fewer televised outlets pumping up attendance. Box office is just fine anyway, on Broadway (which just had its best year ever, both in terms of $$$ and attandance figures) as well as across the country, at least when “Book of Mormon” or “Wicked” blows through town — just last week online sales for “Mormon” overwhelmed the Kennedy Center’s website til it had to shut down.

  • Brett Alan

    This doesn’t really invalidate any of the arguments, but there are certainly some Broadway-based hits that are missed here. For one example, Streisand’s version of “Memory” isn’t the most successful; Barry Manilow’s hit #39. For another, Jesus Christ Superstar also spawned “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, with two versions in the top 30 (Helen Reddy’s hit #13 and made her a star; Yvonne Elliman’s original hit #28). More recently, Susan Boyle famously did “I Dreamed A Dream”.

    But these are still exceptions, not the rule, and that reflects one more problem for Broadway: since the 70s or so, it has increasingly become the norm that rock and pop stars do all original material. One of the main ways that shows became familiar to the mass audience at Broadway’s peak was that all the top pop stars of the day would record songs from current musicals as singles. My mother often points out that when she was young, when you went to a Broadway musical you knew all the songs already. Pop singers today generally won’t consider recording songs from even the successful Broadway musicals.

  • BobCashill

    A list appropriate to this piece: A song remix from the forthcoming musical KINKY BOOTS, written by Cyndi Lauper, is on the Billboard club chart.