Broadway hasn’t changed as much as you think.

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.

They are:

• 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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  • David Levy says:

    Of course, Ruined would first have to actually be produced on Broadway.

  • A Contrarian says:

    Haven’t yet read Teachout’s article, but it’s not surprising that commercial fare might be popular. A more useful analysis would consider how in the past plays such as “Streetcar,” “Virginia Woolf,” “Long Day’s Journey,” and musicals “Fiorello,” “Cabaret,” and others could be mounted in a competitive commercial marketplace.

  • A Contrarian says:

    OK. Just read article. I’d say an interesting comparison would be say, a list of shows playing in Spring of 1960, and the list playing in 2000, or 2010, or today. How about even a comparison with 1976 when three new musicals were “Pacific Overtures,” “Chicago,” and the non-profit transfer just settling in at the Shubert.

  • A Contrarian says:

    Just for fun, how about a comparison between 1976 and 1986. I’m guessing, but I suspect while there was worry in 1976, the prognosis was grim by 1986.
    There WAS a “Golden Age” but I differ with Mordden about the end. Rather than opening night of “42nd Street,” I’d say a year or so later with closing night of “Merrily We Roll Along.”

  • Rich says:

    The other benchmark for Broadway success is: did the play make money for its investors? Substituting this criteria, one encounters non ‘commercial fare’ Broadway plays such as Copenhagen, which ran only 326 performances yet recouped.

  • Debbie Saville says:

    I always find encouraging words in your blogs, these words in particular…

    “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….”

    The “art of theater” to me is believing in what you see… within your imagination, then creating the reality…a new show. The journey begins from within. If you dream, believe and create with intention, your intended audience will follow.

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    Interesting statistics, but ever since Teachout revealed that he just doesn’t “get” Tennessee Williams, he lost lots of cred with me.

    And this from a man who writes plays!

  • A Contrarian says:

    RE: “Copenhagen”

    Great example of the “snob hit.” “The History Boys” is another and probably did even better at the B.O. “Hamlet” with Ralph Fiennes and then Jude Law. May we have many more.

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