New Voices at the end of the 20th Century
Since 1990, Broadway has found financial and artistic security in launching revivals of dozens of past classics. Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Carousel, Damn Yankees, The King and I, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Chicago, Cabaret, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me, Kate, 42nd Street, Oklahoma, Into the Woods, Nine, The Pajama Game, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, Gypsy, Hair, West Side Story, La Cage aux Folles, and A Little Night Music is only a list of the revivals who won Tony awards from 1991 to 2010. During that two-decade period almost every musical show of significance found a new life in a new set of clothes on Broadway.
With such an emphasis put on revivals, the opportunity for new composers to get their work onstage has been difficult. A few new voices have come to successfully challenge the existing royalty.
As early as 1982 the new generation was being heard; Maury Yeston brought Nine to the stage, following it with a collaboration on Grand Hotel (1989) and his most successful show, Titanic in 1997. 1960s country & western singer and songwriter Roger Miller shaped the Mark Twain story of Huck Finn and Jim, the runaway slave into the Broadway show Big River, which had just over 1,000 performances beginning in 1985. Lucy Simon (sister of ‘70s pop-rock singer Carly Simon) created The Secret Garden, which opened in 1991 to a respectable run of 706 performances.
Composer Alan Menken staged the tongue-incheek homage to “B” horror movies, Little Shop of Horrors, a surprising success that had a first run of 2,209 performances starting in 1982. Menken’s Broadway success opened other doors for him and his lyricist Howard Ashman, including working for Disney studios on animated movie musicals. The first Disney project was The Littlest Mermaid (1989) which was so well received with families (The Disney Company’s main target audience), Disney began to use Menken and Ashman to churn out more animated musicals: Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992). After Ashman’s death in 1992, Menken began collaborating with Tim Rice (Webber’s former lyricist) for another series of Disney musicals: Pocahontas (1995), Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Hercules(1997).
In 1994 the Disney Company decided on a bold move: taking an animated musical and creating a live stage version. Their first project, Beauty and the Beast (1994), brought to the stage all the characters and songs known and loved by families for three years. With some new music by Menken, Beast became an astounding success. Broadway and Disney, two of the cornerstones of the American entertainment industry, had found common ground and incredible success. Beast ran for over 5,400 performances, proving that the target audience for the modern American musical was not over the age of forty. Disney followed the success of Beauty and the Beast with a stage version of their 1994 animated musical: The Lion King. With music provided by Sir Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, Lion King eventually became more successful than Beauty and the Beast, running for over 4,500 performances with an estimated 50 million seeing productions around the world. One of Disney’s latest projects is a stage version of their movie musical Mary Poppins, which opened in 2006. The animated blockbuster Frozen opened on Broadway in the spring of 2018 and has spun a number of touring companies as well as a Frozen, Jr. version created for younger casts of performers.
While revivals and live versions of animated shows held a large share of the Broadway listings, new artists came through with novel musicals. Jonathan Larson adapted the classic opera La Boheme as the starting point for his rock musical Rent in 1996. Though it was both his debut and his final work (Larson died a few weeks before the premiere) the show made an impact on Broadway and its audiences. A powerful, character-driven musical didn’t fit the pattern of previous rock musicals, which were protests or declarations of independence from authorities. Rent used humor, sadness, celebration and honest statements of friendship, hope, fear, love, despair, and ultimately, death. What began as a seven-week off-Broadway run was transferred to Broadway for a series of 5,012 performances.
Musical theatre has always been an American art form, only in the past 40 years have British composers (particularly Andrew Lloyd Webber) contributed to the literature with some significant shows. It is a surprise then, to note that two of the most important musicals of the late ’80s and early ‘90s was written by a French composer. Claude-Michel Schonberg’s 1987 show, Les Miserables, was the story of the French Revolution at the beginning of the 19th century, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo. In an epic fashion, with heroes and villains, tragedy, loss, love, and ultimately revolution, audiences had no problem connecting with the story of triumphant spirits in the face of oppression. After opening in London, the New York production sold $11 million in advance tickets before the first of 6,680 curtains.
Schonberg followed Les Miserables four years later with his story of love at the end of the Viet Nam war – Miss Saigon. As Jonathan Larson did five years later with Rent, Schonberg started with a story borrowed from classic opera, in this case, Madame Butterfly. After adjusting and altering the story line, introducing new characters, changing the location (Saigon at the end of the Viet Nam war),and crafting new music, lyrics and dialogue, Schonberg and his lyricist Alain Boublil created Miss Saigon in 1989. While the success was not as great as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon opened on Broadway and ran for over 4,000 performances. Like Les Miserables, touring companies and regional and global productions have taken Miss Saigon to millions of audience members.