By Sophia Goodwin-Rice
Even if you aren’t a huge fan of theater, you have to admit that there’s something magical about the curtain rising for the first time. It only takes a piece of fabric to divide the real world from the one that’s about to be acted out onstage, and the few seconds of anticipation before that world is revealed are tense and filled with excitement. For decades, top-billing Broadway shows have whisked viewers away to the streets of New York City, the barricades of Paris, the land of Oz or the great plains of Oklahoma. As an American audience, we love to see new material acted out on stage, memorize the soundtracks and eventually bring them to our own community theaters. But what happens when the material starts to lose its originality?
Currently, the Broadway 2017-18 season is underway, with new shows premiering over the next several months. Some of them are originals, such as “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” and “The Prom,” and some are revivals, such as “My Fair Lady” and “Carousel.” However, the lineup is also filled with new works such as “Frozen” and “Mean Girls,” acclaimed stories loved by mainstream audiences in all parts of the world. They may be new to the stage, but they aren’t exactly new material.
The dilemma with shows such as Frozen is that it’s exactly what the audiences want. There’s no doubt that the stage adaptation of a sky-high grossing Disney film will result in sold-out shows and viewers of all ages clamoring to get seats. It’s likely that Mean Girls, as a 2000s classic, will receive high amounts of attention, and the same goes for “13 Going on 30” and “17 Again,” both of which are currently in the works and based off of movies from the same era. But is that the point of Broadway, to assure high ticket sales and satisfy the live-action recreations of America’s favorite stories? Or is it to bring new and fascinating material to audiences, telling stories from unheard voices and creating new generational classics?
In a way, this pressure may be part of the reason that not as much new material is being put to the stage. Hamilton: An American Musical completely swept audiences away when it premiered in 2015, and continues to do so three years later. While it’s catchy and well-written with a comedic twist, Hamilton’s success can also be attributed to the statement that it made. It follows the story of one of America’s founding fathers, nearly the entire cast is comprised of people of color, who have been known to stand up for social justice, such as when actor Brandon Victor Dixon publicly addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence during curtain call in late 2016. There’s no doubt that Hamilton has been revolutionary in the musical theater world, perhaps setting a precedent for other shows that follow. If it isn’t as innovative and avant garde as Hamilton, is it even worth it?
As someone who is definitely not deeply entrenched in the process of Broadway-show writing and producing, I’m really not sure if this is the reason we’re getting so many remakes (which, for the record, also face the danger that they will not be nearly as good onstage and they were on film), but it’s a good assumption. At the same time, though, this shouldn’t be what’s stopping the creative world from advancing. Lin-Manuel Miranda was student at Wesleyan University when he began composing musicals and definitely wasn’t trying to create a world-renowned bestseller. Finding, creating and fine-tuning original pieces is something that happens on a personal level, conceived through passion and intrigue rather than just an attempt to appeal to the masses. As Miranda has shown us, sometimes all it takes is a humble college kid with a passion for writing to influence an entire generation. So let’s get on it – let’s write the next great American musical.