On July 15, it was announced that What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s Tony-nominated play about women’s rights, generational trauma, and the American legal system, recouped its $2.5 million capitalization. That means the play has made back the money that investors put in to bring it to Broadway, and it will turn a profit in the last weeks of its limited run, scheduled to end on Aug. 24 (as well as in the ensuing national tour). The precedent it sets, if I may use a legal term, is huge.
And while Constitution is a box-office triumph, a staggering number of other shows have closed or will be closing: The Prom, Pretty Woman, King Kong, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Waitress, The Cher Show, Be More Chill, King Lear, Hillary and Clinton, The Ferryman, and Beautiful. Out of that list, only three recouped and turned a profit for producers (though that may eventually happen during national tours). According to Forbes, these closures mean that Broadway is set to lose $111 million dollars in potential revenue after racking up two blockbuster seasons for the box office (helped, admittedly, by the runaway success of Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). This time last year, only four shows were closing.
As any producer will tell you, when you invest on Broadway, the odds are not in your favor; there are more duds than hits, with only 25 percent of shows turning a profit. So what kind of shows do well on Broadway? These days, who knows?
Look at Constitution. While it was nominated for two Tony Awards, it did not win any of them. It has no stars, a tiny cast, and no special effects, and everyone both onstage and backstage are Broadway newbies. And yet it has attracted a staggering amount of celebrities to its audience: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonya Sotomayor, Gloria Steinem, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson; the night I saw it, I sat behind Steve Martin and across the aisle from Anna Wintour. And it’s written by a woman, features a mostly female cast, and has women as its lead producers, in an industry in which women are still severely underrepresented on every level of production. (For reference: The last time a female author won a Best Play Tony was Yasmina Reza, for God of Carnage, in 2009).
Broadway, as a commercial industry where every new show is seen as an investment opportunity (and risk) for producers, typically operates on a number of assumptions. One: You need a Broadway résumé to work on Broadway, because the only people who can handle multimillion-dollar budgets are those who have done it before. Two: Works by women or people of color just don’t sell well, which is why artists from those demographics are rarely represented on Broadway. Three: Name recognition juices the box office, whether it’s a well-known movie like Pretty Woman or a celebrity like Adam Driver.
And yet some of the shows thriving on Broadway are challenging all of those assumptions in turn. Last week the bestselling shows on Broadway (i.e., the ones who exceeded their gross potential) were To Kill a Mockingbird, Hadestown, Moulin Rouge!, Ain’t Too Proud, Hamilton, and Wicked.
From that list, one is written and directed by a woman (Hadestown), two are written by people of color (Ain’t Too Proud, Hamilton), and three are either jukebox musicals or based on a well-known property (Moulin Rouge!, Ain’t Too Proud, Mockingbird). Rachel Chavkin, Dominique Morisseau, and Lin-Manuel Miranda prove that women and people of color can more than handle a big budget. And while 3 out of 6 being jukebox or movie adaptations seems on trend for Broadway, the other 3 are original works that have built a following on their idiosyncratic appeal. And while name recognition can obviously help some shows, it seems that indiscriminately adapting every mildly popular movie into a musical is not the answer, with Pretty Woman and King Kong closing and Tootsie and Beetlejuice underperforming.
In June, when Rachel Chavkin won the best director of a musical Tony for her work on Hadestown, she delivered a challenge to the industry: “I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season. There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go.” She punctuated her point by saying, “This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.” A folk musical based on Greek mythology, with a diverse cast, created by women (including its producers), Hadestown was hardly a surefire Broadway hit. And though it has not recouped yet, its strong ticket sales point clearly in that direction.
In the press room backstage during the Tonys, Chavkin elaborated on her comments, saying, “I think we’ve seen an incredible renaissance of voices—writers, and directors and designers and choreographers downtown and Off-Broadway and regionally around the country. So that’s what I meant when I said everybody is ready to go. It’s not a call for altruism, it’s just a call for hiring the people, and not assuming that directing on Broadway or x-ing on Broadway is a prerequisite for x-ing on Broadway.”
Instead of bringing artists together, matchmaker-style, to adapt a movie (a process that naturally shuts out marginalized voices), producers would do better to travel to Brooklyn or regional theatres and see what artists are making. Constitution began in an 89-seat theatre in the East Village, and arose out of Schreck’s need to process her own traumatic family history. Hadestown began as a community music-theatre project in Vermont, based on Anaïs Mitchell’s love of the Orpheus myth. Both are hits because they’re damn good shows which would not work as well in any other medium; they’re authentically themselves.
It’s a sign that passionate artists with something urgent to say to the world can still find a home in the commercial realm. And producers should be out trying to find those voices, instead of slapping movie titles on a Broadway marquee.
Of course, not every new work can be a hit. The Prom and Be More Chill were valiant attempts to bring original LGBTQ+ and teen stories to Broadway, but couldn’t sustain passionate audience followings. With today’s unpredictable market, it seems an original story with no celebrity can be as risky as…a musical based on a movie. There is no guarantee of artistic quality or box-office success.
Recently, after hearing (from the Times’s Michael Paulson) that there are currently no musicals with original music scheduled for the 2019-20 season, Lin-Manual Miranda suggested a few works with original stories and music that might join Hamilton on the Great White Way: A Strange Loop, Octet, and KPOP. All have been wildly successful during their Off-Broadway runs, and all feature diverse, original, authentic voices. And they pose as much risk for Broadway producers as, say, Mrs. Doubtfire the Musical.
These days it should be safe to say: Women aren’t risks. People of color aren’t risks. Original works aren’t risks. And conversely, jukebox musicals and musicals based on movies aren’t surefires. Celebrities aren’t surefires. White men aren’t surefires. These days, maybe the safest choice is actually the riskiest. And yesterday’s risks can be tomorrow’s rewards.
*This post has been updated throughout.