Some startling new statistics on Broadway Musical Adaptations vs. Original Shows.

One of my more popular blogs over the years was this ol’ chestnut from back in 2008 (!) about adaptations on Broadway, and specifically the number of movies being turned into musicals.

I was prepping for a conversation with an agent recently about the challenges of totally original new musicals versus musicals based on something (a book, a movie, a catalog of music, etc., that gives you a marketing head start because of the pre-existing brand), so I decided to dig a little bit deeper through the annals of adaptation history on Broadway.  It’s easy to say things are riskier or have a harder time gettin’ off the ground.  It’s another thing to have data to back it up.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • In the past 30 years, 82% of the new musicals on Broadway were adaptations.  Only 18% were totally original.
  • The average run of an adaptation in the last 30 years is 644 performances.
  • The average run of an original musical is only 331 performances, about half  of the adaptation average.
  • Of the original musicals produced in the last 30 years, 30% were open for less than a month.
  • 7 of those musicals closed in one week or less.
  • 83% of all of the Best Musical Tony Award winners in the past 30 years were adaptations.

Pretty scary stuff, isn’t it?

There’s no question that producing a totally original new musical on Broadway is a much riskier endeavor than a show based on some sort of pre-existing brand.  Not only does it help with marketing, but I believe that source materials help the authors create a show with a stronger foundation.  And since the majority of our shows have multiple authors (composer, lyricist, book writer, etc.), it’s so helpful to have some sort of story and characters to start from.  Adaptations have blueprints.  You can remodel along the way, but they give you a strong starting point.

Does that mean you should only invest in or produce shows that are adaptations?

No.

Heck, I’m producing one now.

If you had hard and fast rules like “only adaptations” you’d have missed little shows like, oh, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.

So what do you do with statistics like this?

With every project I produce or invest in, I calculate the level of risk involved on a scale of 1 to 5, and then I make sure the economic model works within that risk.  Higher risk projects need more reasonable budgets and partners that will take less up front for more later on, if you’re fortunate enough to get there.

So don’t let greater risk scare you.  Let it force you to come up with a model that works.

 

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Comments
  • It is all about familiarity. The number one reason our patrons come to the theatre is the title of the show. All of our recent successes have been adaptation that people are familiar with, Legally Blonde, Spamalot, Mary Poppins and The Great Gatsby. While shows Like Next To Normal or Once on This Island failed to generate revenue.
    We rarely do anything now that is original or if we do we know we are going to generate little or no revenue and do it for the sake of the art.

    It is all about the Title!

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    Wow, great post, backed-up by the Numbers!

    There goes my original musical about Malcolm X and Donald Sterling!

  • Martin says:

    Looking at the decade from 1949-1959, just after the introduction of the ‘book musical’ (Show Boat was kind of a 1920’s one off), I find 41 adaptations and 31 original musicals. So 43% original, 57% adaptations. 28 musicals ran more than 300 performances – 13 original, 15 adaptations. During these years 8 adaptations and 3 originals won the best musical Tony. Thats 73% adaptations.
    So – things have changed a bit – but adaptations have led the way sicne the book musical began, for what should be obvious reasons.

  • Edward says:

    The Tony award statistic “83% of all of the Best Musical Tony Award winners were adaptations.” Only shows that awards were almost strictly proportional to the split of shows on broadway. I got the impression that the articles was using this statistic to imply that adaptations have a higher success rate at the Tony’s than originals, but that is not the case (18% originals, originals picked up 17% of the Best Musical Awards – next to no difference).

  • Polo says:

    Every time I see a new musical announced that’s based on a movie, I read many, many comments bemoaning the lack of original musicals with original stories. But since this notion is not embraced by Broadway Producers, there needs to be a new kind of place that nurtures original musicals. Off-Broadway? No. What about if you don’t live in N.Y? And I believe composers and librettists would rather do original works, though it’s harder, because there is no complications with the ‘estates of the authors’ and paying money for the rights, and more profits would go into the pockers of everyone

    I’m still surprised that adaptions are done as much as. An original work, though hard to get right, is ever so much less complicated, as far as the legal stuff goes.

    • Jared says:

      It may be less complicated when it comes to legal rights, but almost ever other aspect of a wholly original musical is harder. Without a blueprint, there is a lot more trial and error when it comes to figuring out character beats and story structure. Not to mention marketing difficulties (one of the main reasons “The Book of Mormon” did so well initially was because of the “South Park” connection).

  • Charlie Fink says:

    Holy crap. I need to rethink my approach.

  • Janis says:

    At last we have proof. The business of original Broadway musicals really is more art than profit.
    Somehow that is incredibly exciting.
    Broadway producers and writers of original musicals can now give up illusions of profitability and focus on the art.
    And for those of us who write original musicals, for smaller, but more reliably profitable commissions around the country, we no longer have to feel like wimps for not attempting Broadway.
    When someone says our show is good enough for Broadway, we can point to the few original musicals that actually make it on Broadway and support it with numbers.
    Ken, we always knew you did it for the art and that’s the best reason of all.
    Thanks for the facts.

  • Wilhemina Paulin says:

    In my experience as a self produced book writer and lyricist, I found identifying my target market and pushing for advanced group sales was the key to my musical’s success. I sold out four houses three months before opening night. Of course the title of the musical was also a major key to the successful advance sales because it attracted and solidified my target market. After that, the reviews gave my musical the additional lift. I’m just a small timer but I know this marketing strategy is going to be the model that works best with promoting my current musical. Also, the marketability of cross-over music from a musical can generate additional profits. I don’t believe Ken or any Broadway or Off Broadway producer is doing it just for “the art.” For anyone who believes that, OH PLEASE, GET REAL! 🙂

  • George Rady says:

    I’m not really sure what qualifies as “original” I thought “Ave Q” was a parady of “Sesame Street” and “Book of Morman” was a satire of the Morman Relgion (and, if you read between the lyrics, all religions…)

    But I – in terms of trying to leverage a critical mass of an audience’s familarity with a story (book or movie or TV series…) – I think that We might consider that Opera Composer almost ALWAYS took a KNOWN Story, whether, Myth, Biblical or current play and stuck with that as their backbone…

    Why?

    Because a Opera Audience (and to a slightly lesser extent a Musical Audience) comes for… drum roll… the Music!

    They don’t want to be confused with a new story or a clever twist on the existing story…

    They want to hear a MUSICAL interpretation of a story they already know… but heightened by the universal language of music (and, in the case of Opera, non-verbal…)

    Anything that draws one’s attention away from the known story so they can listen to the music become distracting… and w/o a known story, you have nothing to hang your hat on so you can admire the fashion…

    I don’t think this is anything but a convention that composers learned to stick to after confusing an audience with something they just cooked up! Sure there are exceptions Mozart’s “Magic Flute” immediately comes to mind… but it’s more like the “Book of Mormon” of it’s day… a mysterious religious cult that people were curious about…

    But it’s the Music/Song that – ultimately – sell a work… and keep on selling it.

    g

  • George Rady says:

    Conversely, if a Play does not have a New – compelling story – or a fresh take on a known story – it can make for a loooong evening (or an early one if you just check out at the Intermission) which is probably the main reason you can put “Marriage of Figaro” every year in your Opera Rep but you would probably want to wait several years before you do two “Death of Salesmen”

    Just saw “Tales of Red Vienna” – it sounded like it might be good (even though the critics had much the same probleems I did) a couple of great actors, solid production values, reputable Theatre Company… what could go wrong? Well, paper thin script that was predictable from the third scene (once you realize that the playwright is preaching socialist/feminist morals… which are about as boring to me as the Roman Catholic Mystery Pagent Plays…) No twists. No surprises.

    No STORY!

    (And no music – other than jukebox Strauss)

    Long, Expensive Evening that will make me think long and hard about seeing anything “new” at MTC again… to many better options!

    g

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