What we can learn from the Most Produced High School Musicals.

Last week, the Educational Theatre Association published their list of the most produced plays and musicals of the ’16-17 school year.

Why should we care?

Because there are 37,000 public and private high schools in this country, which means a lot of high school musicals, which means a huge potential revenue source for writers and investors alike. Yep, high school theaters pay royalties to perform shows and that money gets split between the investors of the original production (for a limited # of years) and the writers.

And by looking at this list, we can determine the similarities between the most produced plays and musicals . . . which, if getting mass-produced in the future is a goal, we can make choices accordingly.  It’s a bit of reverse engineering.

Let’s look at the Top 10 Produced Musicals:

1. The Addams Family
2. Beauty and the Beast
3. Shrek 
4. Seussical 
5. Cinderella
6. The Little Mermaid
7. The Wizard of Oz 
8. Into the Woods
9. Little Shop of Horrors 
10. Grease 

So what do you see?

I see:

  • Fantasies:  Except for Grease, they are all in magical worlds of some sort.
  • Adaptations:  Except for Grease, all are based on pre-existing source material.
  • Large Casts:  All of them can involve the entire Senior Class of the school if they so choose.

What else do you see?  What does this mean for some of the shows currently running on Broadway?  (I predict some serious licensing activity for Anastasia, don’t you?)  What does this mean for your show?

And should you use this info to help you decide what show you should start working on next?

You know what else I see?  Half of them didn’t recoup in their original run on Broadway . . . which means commercial success doesn’t mean anything to high school kids.

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  • Carvanpool says:

    The list also demonstrates how high schools are forced to put on non-challenging, bland, Disney-type productions. Aiming for this market may be lucrative, though Disney is hard to push aside, but there is nothing there that will advance the art form.

    And you wonder why it’s hard to create shows that will expand the theater going audience.

  • Kristi RC says:

    Oh Ken, you’re looking at this from the the producer’s perspective. 😉 Let me put on my HS teacher hat for a moment.

    They are popular because they: allow for flexible gender casting – many more girls in HS theatre than boys, there are multiple featured/starring parts, they have singable music with simple harmonies, many have “junior” versions, all have additional sing-along recordings for rehearsal/performances, existing performances are easy to find for the kids to use as study aids, community members are not likely to complain, kids will get excited about the material and want to participate. It’s about the kids learning and having an experience, not the money at the HS level to the teacher selecting the material.

    Why is Disney so popular? They provide financial assistance in the form of reduced/free royalties for some schools. That can be a deal maker for the teacher who’s doing a show with zero budget.

    Want to expand to the HS audience as a writer?? Charge a % of the actual gate rather than the standard royalties. Take away the risk for the schools. Send the script electronically and let the school print as many as it needs – most are doing that anyway, so make it legal. Provide a single-camera license for a video recording of it to be legally made and sold – too, many are doing that illegally, also. Have unique set/costume items available, along with projections, sound effects and whatever other odd items are needed to do the show. Make it easy for the director to do your show.

    A plus – give them something with good academic content. When HAMILTON is finally available, it will rule the market.

    • Anna S says:

      Kristi – you are RIGHT ON! On another note – our school does not have an advanced band program to speak of, so a show that can be done with only piano accompaniment is a plus.

  • To prior comments: Agreed.

    I’ll add that a high school teacher (or any teacher) must always justify money spent. Will there be a musical next year? Then this year had better be a smash success—or at least not turn anyone off. Make the safe choice.

    Consider also that those tasked with putting on a school musical may not know the first thing about musicals. The band director who is asked to put on a show might care a lot about Stravinsky or Bartok or Sousa, but might not know much about theater. (Some schools have a music program but no drama department.) Such a teacher is likely to pick something he or she has heard of before. Thus: adaptations. Make the safe choice.

    And money spent on Wizard of Oz or Shrek is not going to generate much pushback. Few teachers want to be in the local paper’s headlines announcing that they have chosen to put on a scandalous show like, oh, let’s say, Altar Boyz for instance. Safe choice.

    Choosing “wisely” will make that teacher’s life so much easier, and the principals and superintendents will appreciate that. Yes, money is being spent on royalties, sets, costumes, etc. As a teacher, you don’t want to be challenged with: “You spent our money on THIS?!” Make the safe choice.

    You suggest that high schools are “forced” to put on such shows. I think it’s more a desire to “play it safe.”

    However you look at it, it means the same thing for this community: more of a challenge for unestablished authors, plays, and for anything that might even slightly challenge a community’s norms. Ken’s point, then, of trying to align with what is accepted out there is worth considering.

    For better or worse, play it safe. Or better yet: know your audience.

  • I’m a parent of a theater student. My daughter is 17 and she plays in musicals. She’s applying for a degree at Ljubljana Graduate School of the Humanities this year, so practical skills will be an advantage. But the most successful roles often require to play in intimate scenes (+ nudity). Is it a popular tendency to hire a private intimacy coordinator?

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