Tony voters reject original musicals in favor of movie adaptations

Apparently, there’s no room for original musicals on Broadway.  At least that’s the message we can take from this year’s Tony nominations. (Read full report on nominations here.)

For the first time in Tony Awards history, all four nominees for Best Musical — “A Christmas Story,” “Bring It On,” “Kinky Boots” and “Matilda” — have been previously produced as films. (While “Matilda” is based on the beloved children’s novel by Roald Dahl that was adapted into a film in 1996.) 

The two other likeliest contenders were not original musicals either.

Motown” was essentially a jukebox musical about record label exec Berry Gordy. It scored only four nominations. 

And critical favorite “Hands on a Hardbody,” based on an acclaimed 1997 documentary, reaped just three bids after closing last month having played just 28 performances. It did dominate the Drama Desk Nomination with nine total nods.

Neither of this season’s two original musicals lasted long. “Chaplin,” which shuttered after just four months, scored only one nomination for leading man Rob McClure. And “Scandalous,” which told the story of 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, netted a nod for Carolee Carmello despite running just 29 performances. 

This trend of adapting successful films into musicals is not new. Ten of the past 20 Best Musical winners have been based on films: “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993); “Passion” (1994); “Sunset Boulevard” (1995), “The Lion King” (1998); record holder “The Producers” (2001); “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2002); “Hairspray” (2003); “Spamalot” (2005); “Billy Elliot” (2009); and “Once” (2012). 

But it has become more pronounced in recent years. Nine of the most recent 16 nominees for Best Musical have been based on films. And four more — “American Idiot,” “Fela,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” — were based on previously produced material.  

Only three nominees in this decade — “Memphis,” “The Book of Mormon” and “The Scottsboro Boys” — were completely original tuners. While the first two won their respective races in 2010 and 2011, the latter was completely shut out in 2011 despite 12 nominations in all. 

But does this trend signify a dearth of originality on the Great White Way? Or is this merely a reflection of an anemic season for musicals on Broadway? After all, is there really anyone who believes that “Bring It On” and “A Christmas Story” were great additions to the Broadway musical canon?

Clearly producers are looking to Hollywood to capitalize on name recognition and familiar projects to maximize the return on their investments. While big stars are good for the box office when it comes to plays, there are few musical comedy performers that can draw in folks willing to pay upwards of a hundred dollars per ticket. Unless of course your name is Hugh Jackman. Producers are betting on familiar projects that have a built-in fan base to recoup the increasingly astronomic costs of mounting a Broadway musical. 

It remains unclear whether movie adaptations are the future of Broadway.  But already confirmed for the coming season are musical adaptations of  “Aladdin,” “Big Fish,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Diner,” “Ever After” and “Rebecca.”

What’s next? “Rocky the Musical”?  Actually, yes. It’s also coming next spring!

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