A great article appeared in The Journal last week written by its critic (and one of last year’s TEDx Broadway speakers), Terry Teachout.
As we all know, it’s easy for us (including me), to long for the good ol’ days, when Broadway shows were easier to get on, more shows recouped, and most importantly, when the “art of theater” really mattered. You know, that time in our theatrical history when what our Broadway audience wanted first and foremost was challenging, boundary pushing work. Oh, and when tickets were cheap.
You remember that time, right? Right?
Well, I hate to say it, but as Terry points out in his insightful article (read it here), it really never, ever was that way.
In the article, Terry listed the top 10 longest running Broadway plays, all of which, btw, opened prior to 1978.
• Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, “Life With Father” (1939, 3,224 performances).
• Jack Kirkland, “Tobacco Road” (1933, 3,182 performances).
• Anne Nichols, “Abie’s Irish Rose” (1922, 2,327 performances).
• Albert Innaurato, “Gemini” (1977, 1,819 performances).
• Ira Levin, “Deathtrap” (1978, 1,793 performances).
• Mary Chase, “Harvey” (1944, 1,775 performances).
• Garson Kanin, “Born Yesterday” (1946, 1,642 performances).
• Jean Kerr, “Mary, Mary” (1961, 1,572 performances).
• John van Druten, “The Voice of the Turtle” (1943, 1,57 performances).
• Neil Simon, “Barefoot in the Park” (1963, 1,530 performances).
Terry classified the above as eight light comedies, one whodunit thriller (Deathtrap) and one sex drama (Tobacco Road). In other words, what lasted the longest on Broadway, was more commercial fare. To use Darwinian terminology, these are the types of shows that were the fittest and therefore survived.
A bit disappointing, isn’t it? It feels like that list should include the likes of Angels in America or Ruined.
But it doesn’t. And it never has. (What’s actually even more concerning to me is that we haven’t had a play crack that list in 35 years.)
Many of us remember a Utopian Broadway that didn’t exist. Like it or not, the core audience has always and will always crave a certain type of entertainment from their Broadway fare. And frankly, it’s always been this way . . . and I’m talking for thousands of years. Lysistrata was a sex farce. Macbeth, a thriller.
Does that mean that in order to be super-successful and ultra long running you need to pander? No to the Nth degree.
Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is how to produce/write/create shows that give the audience what they want but in a package that they’ve never seen before . . . something that they don’t even realize they not only want . . . but they are dying for.
That’s when you’ll not only change the shape of that list . . . but you’ll also change hearts and minds, and that’s what the theater is really all about.
Read the Teachout article here.
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