Broadway shows don't have to be spectacles to be successful

Broadway shows don't have to be spectacles to be successful

The Broadway Theatre in Times Square, Manhattan. Photo courtesy of © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Is bigger really better?  In the world of Broadway, the tendency is to say yes.  Broadway stages are flooded with huge star studded casts and multi-million dollar productions, so it’s easy for the smaller shows to get swallowed up in all the madness; but they do exist.  While they may not have the biggest marquis, there are plenty of small, simple shows that still slip their way into Broadway theaters with a fraction of the cast size (and budget).  The question is, which shows are better?  Of course, there is no concrete answer to a question like this, but there are some trends. 

A first glance reveals that, in fact, the bigger shows are more successful.  The three highest grossing Broadway productions, “The Lion King,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked,” that have collectively grossed over $3.1 Billion (to date), are also some of Broadway’s biggest spectacles.  Each of these productions cost at least $4 Million more than the average musical and feature large companies decked out in elaborate costumes performing on monumental sets.

That being said, a show can absolutely have those things and still flop.  Two of Broadway’s biggest flops, “Dance of the Vampires” and the more recent “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark,” which collectively lost around $72 Million, were equally massive shows whose famous stars, large casts and high production values didn’t seem to help them succeed.  While the flash and pomp brought enough publicity to give the shows some life, they’re still widely regarded as Broadway’s biggest disasters.

So what about the smaller shows?  Well, as perhaps should be expected, there are less extremes on both sides.  Since these shows don’t come with an initial price-tag upwards of $10 Million, they’re less likely to make the headlines as either box office smashes or disastrous failures.  That being said, even if they don’t make lots of money, they still have the potential to earn lots of praise from critics and fans alike.  Some of the biggest critical successes in recent years, such as “Once,” “Violet” and 2015’s Tony Award winning musical “Fun Home,” which collectively won 13 Tony Awards and have run for 1,441 performances (and counting), have all found a way to charm audiences just as much (if not more) as their inflated counterparts whilst forgoing the spectacle for a more intimate setting.

Of course, there have most definitely been “small” shows that have flopped too, you’re just much less likely to hear about them.  Shows such as “Glory Days” and “The Story of My Life,” which collectively won zero Tony awards and ran exactly 6 performances on Broadway, received mixed to negative critical reviews and promptly closed almost as soon as they opened.  While these shows didn’t necessarily crash, they did promptly fizzle out of everyone’s interest, possibly because of their small, intimate nature.

So in the end, what these statistics teach us is that there is no one formula for a successful Broadway musical.  While big flashy shows take up more Broadway theaters and often more headlines, one doesn’t need a massive spectacle to make a successful show.  For, as the self-referential cult classic of a musical “[Title of Show]” reminds us, “Who says four chairs and a keyboard can’t make a musical? We’re enough with only that keyboard. We’re ok with only four chairs.”

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