EVEN IF you haven’t made it to Broadway lately, you’ll likely recognize the names of this year’s Tony nominees for best musical: Bring It On, A Christmas Story, Kinky Boots, and Matilda. For the first time, each of the nominees is based on a movie or a text with an already famous film adaptation.
Regurgitating blockbuster material has become standard for Broadway—and it seems to pay off. In 2010, for instance, all the nominees for best musical were of the “jukebox” variety—squeezing one artist or era’s hits into a plot. Textbook example: the ABBA hit parade Mamma Mia! The last truly original—not book-, not movie-, not pop-song-inspired—musical to win was In the Heights in 2008. It saw moderate success and closed after almost three years. By contrast, The Lion King opened in 1997 and continues to gross over $1.7 million per week on average.
Most major awards are meant to honor good work and boost sales (think of the outrage among booksellers last year when there was no Pulitzer awarded for fiction). But are the Tonys succeeding at either goal?
When original works win, they get legs. They get extended lives on Broadway, and they become the shows that regional theaters and high schools revive, whose songs get incorporated into audition books and musical revues. They enter the American canon.
To be fair to the nominating committee, there weren’t many essentially original musicals to choose from this year. Even a more avant-garde work, the folk-rock Hands on a Hardbody, took its inspiration from a documentary—and closed after 28 performances. Though blockbusters are hardly immune: Bring It On ran for only five months.
But adaptation is in Broadway’s blood. The first 10 musicals to win Tonys were all based on source material, be it a play, a book, or a short story. The difference between then and now is that most of those shows grew to surpass their sources—just think of The Music Man.
Although Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark may never become the pop-cultural touchstone of the Tobey Maguire–movie sort, slapping a blockbuster title on a marquee lures in certain audience members that original works don’t; it’s these visitors to New York, not the seasoned theatergoers, who keep the box offices open. And that’s just fine, according to actors like Jeanne Lehman, a Tony voter who had a long run as Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast. “Personally, I don’t have a problem with movies turned musicals,” she says. “Whatever is keeping theater alive, that is what we need.”