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Is This the Fall of Original Musical Theatre?

Labyrinth, Almost Famous, MJ… As many new shows take to Broadway and the West End, the pattern is abundantly clear: Film to Stage adaptions and Jukebox musicals have theatre in a chokehold. Which, to an avid theatregoer like myself, begs the question, what has become of the original musical?

It seems to me that popular culture is on a comedown from a musical theatre heyday. To my understanding, an original musical is one that has never been performed in any sense before, whether that’s the plot or the music. In a post-Hamilton landscape, it seems that nothing can top the sheer power that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensation wielded- ask anyone you know and they have heard of Hamilton. Due to its success, I feel as though Hamilton is now the benchmark against which all new original material must be measured, and believe me, eleven Tonys and a hefty level of cultural significance is quite the standard to reach. So, the consensus seems to be… why bother?

Jukebox musicals have theatre in a chokehold

One could argue that favouring adaptions of films and creating a jukebox of songs from established artists is a cry to bring back pre-covid audience levels and all the while encouraging the everyman to take a trip to the theatre, supporting our beloved Arts workers who suffered so greatly during the pandemic. Successes such as Beetlejuice and Hadestown, a film and a Greek myth respectively, beckoned in a variety of audiences on Broadway, so much so that the former has since been revived in another theatre after being booted out by the Hugh Jackman lead revival of The Music Man. And take Moulin Rouge: since its West End arrival, tickets have become gold dust, but I ask: for what? The spectacle? Moulin Rouge is a stage adaption of a jukebox movie at best, albeit a very successful one that I will be going to see at some point, just not when I must take out a loan for a ticket.

Upon my last trip to the West End, I noticed just how many new and original shows had been closed in place of a jukebox musical, leading me to question just how many west end shows had a truly original story or score, and the answer. Nine. Which in the grand scheme of things really isn’t a lot.

Are we starving these new audiences of the true essence of musical theatre?

So, I suppose my question is: are we starving these new audiences of the true essence of musical theatre? I write lovingly of past pioneers of the musical such as Stephen Sondheim who created their masterpieces from a sheer whiff of inspiration: diaries, stories, or conversations they heard in the street, masterpieces that have not only stood the test of time but powered through it. The concept musical, a show that existed purely to convey a message or theme rather than any narrative plot, a model Sondheim certainly favoured seems to have disappeared, with only the fantastically reimagined Company left to fend for itself. Or is this just the way that the world now looks at the musical and it’s about time people like myself moved on and accepted the change? Frankly, I miss the huge tap numbers and traditional jazz choreography more than anything, but I also have a maternal level of protection over my dearly beloved Heathers, so I guess we can have both. After all: theatre is whatever we say it is.


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