“Mean Girls.” “Spongebob.” “Frozen.” What do these titles have in common? Other than the fact that they are three of the most recognizable titles in pop culture, they are also all musicals that opened on Broadway during the 2017-2018 season.
The lack of original content this year makes it seem like Broadway is trying to produce shows that will do nothing else but gain the largest audiences and make the most money. Everything that made past Broadway shows great—artistry, carefully crafted lyrics, bold social commentary and inventive modes of storytelling—has been scrapped in exchange for shows that will sell out, but hold no substantial weight.
Shows like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” revolutionized musical theater by being among the first to incorporate music into a complex plot. Shows by Stephen Sondheim, such as “Into the Woods” and “Company,” are so cleverly lyricized and evoke genuine emotion from any listener.
Shows such as “Rent” and “Falsettos” tackle difficult social issues with an openness that was unique among most entertainment platforms of the time. The creative effort invested in these productions is something that many modern musicals seem to be missing.
Take “Mean Girls.” I went to see the show in June after obtaining an outrageously priced resale ticket. While it was entertaining, the lyrics were cheesy and the show offered no unique perspectives compared to the 2004 film on which it was based. The show attempted to make jokes about politics and comments on feminism, but nothing said went beyond the surface level of what a modern “feminist” might post on their Instagram page.
That’s not to say that shows shouldn’t aim for economic success: Broadway is a business, and needs consumers to survive. But other recent shows such as “Dear Evan Hansen” or “Hamilton” have done a better job balancing box office success with new unique concepts. Unlike the musicals of this season, they developed their own fan bases rather than piggybacking off of the popularity of stories that have already been successful.
It’s also unfair to claim that shows based on preexisting popular content are always bad. When the 1994 Disney hit “The Lion King” hit the Broadway stage in 2004, it wowed audiences and critics with its intricate costumes and stunning set design. Watching the musical created an experience that watching the movie could not provide. In comparison, I felt like I could have gotten the same experience watching “Mean Girls” the movie as I did watching the musical, and for a fraction of the price.
Hopefully, this recent phenomenon will end with the 2017-2018 Broadway season. With original musicals such as “The Prom” set to open for the 2018-2019 season, there is hope that the innovation and artistry that makes Broadway great will continue to define it for years to come.