5 Signs that Broadway is becoming more like Vegas.

I’ve been in New York for just shy of two decades now, and to say things have changed in the theater district is as obvious as saying Wicked is a big hit.

The transformation of Times Square into a Vegas Strip-like scene seems to have had an effect on what’s happening inside our theaters as well.

Here are 5 things I’ve noticed that indicate we’re getting Vegas-ized:

1.  WHO IS THE HEADLINER?

We’re becoming increasingly dependent on the names in our shows, just like the casinos have depended on Wayne Newton and friends for years.  In some cases (A Steady Rain, anyone?), Shakespeare has gotten a rewrite because now, “the star’s the thing.”

2.  A TRIBUTE TO TRIBUTES.

When Love Never Dies canceled its Fall NYC opening, the show that took its place wasn’t a limited run play revival.  Instead it was Rain, a Beatles tribute show that has been touring the nation.  If it succeeds, expect more of this type of entertainment to be coming down the long and winding road.

3.  BROKERS ARE NOT GOING BROKE.

In Vegas, the Brokers mean business.  If you don’t have them on your side, you’re gonna get Bugsy Siegeled in no time.  In NYC, they don’t wield that much power . . . yet.  But as they continue to out-spend us on advertising, and continue to organize, we may find ourselves not wanting to sit with our backs to the door, if you know what I mean.  My suggestion?  We all have a sit-down.

4.  PARDON ME, I DON’T SPEAK AMERICAN.

International audiences have been slowly increasing here in NYC, with the Broadway League reporting that 21% of our audience was from around the globe in 2008-2009.  21%!  That means more than 1 in 5 people that see a show many not speak English as their first language!  You’d have to be high on glue to not think that stat has an effect on what runs.  If it increases, expect more and more non-verbal entertainment or spectacular events to take over our boards, like, oh, I don’t know, Spider-Man?

5.  ADVANCE = DAY OF.

It used to be that our tourist audiences picked up a paper before they came into town and bought their tickets in advance.  When my Mom bought my fam Phantom tickets we waited EIGHT months. And we sat in the 2nd row from the back. (Side note: when I went to see it a second time, I bought tickets from a broker because I wanted a great seat.)  Our audiences are becoming more like Vegas audiences, and waiting until they get here to decide, causing most shows to have more availability, requiring more discounting, etc.  So much of our marketing dollars now have to be spent on converting the customer when they get here, instead of before.

Will Broadway become the U.S’s second Strip?  I doubt it.  Great plays and great musicals will always have a place here, whereas I can’t imagine that The Pitmen Painters or Next to Normal will ever play The Mirage.

But we do have more in common with Vegas than ever before.

And you can place a big bet that this trend concerns me.

If you are a musical theater writer, or want to be one, this blog’s for you.

The BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, one of the very few training programs for emerging musical theater writers, is looking for a new crop of students.

And did I mention that it’s free?

The famed program, which has churned out the likes of Ahrens & Flaherty (Ragtime and so much more), Jeff Marx & Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), Tom Kitt & Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), to name a few, just announced that it is accepting applications now for its 2010-2011 first year composer-lyricist class.

But you know what’s great about the progam?

It’s not the fact that it’s free, or that you get Tony Award-winning guest lecturers, or that it looks great on a resume.

The best part about BMI is that it’s like school.  You have homework. You have teachers.  And you have deadlines.

How many times have you sat at home and turned on the TV when you knew you should have been writing (or producing or exercising, for that matter)?  Now think back to when you were in school, college and/or graduate school.  Sure, there were still distractions, but somehow, you felt more compelled to finish your work, right?

Even the best self-motivators out there could use a little school in their life.

They’d be lucky to get a little BMI in their life.

For more info, including an application, click here.  (For librettists, check back later in the year – the librettist program looks for new peeps in the Spring)

And if you’re not near NYC and can’t make it to BMI, start your own version in your hometown.

Sure, Maury Yeston may not be available to you, but anyone and a deadline is better than no one and another game of Wii tennis.

If everyone is going one way, sometimes it’s smarter to go the other.

The July 4th holiday week on Broadway is always a nail-biter. While there is usually an infusion of show-seeing tourists at the last minute, advance sales for this week are always in the crapper (which is why you probably noticed a bunch of July 4th emails in your inbox promoting several shows for this one week only).

Since the majority of people in the US are interested in fireworks on the night of the 4th, most shows cancel evening performances that fall on that date, and schedule a replacement matinee on a Thursday or Friday or some other odd time.

This year, the 4th fell on a Sunday, which made for an easy decision for all of those shows that didn’t have a performance on Sunday night to begin with.  They just proceeded with their usual schedule.

All the other shows with Sunday evenings cancelled.

Except for one.

Next to Normal did their Sunday night show . . . and they ended up being the only Broadway show with a performance on Sunday evening.

While I have no idea how they grossed, I’d bet that they did better on Sunday night than they would have if they replaced that performance with an odd matinee, wouldn’t you agree?

I know when I plan a performance schedule, I look at exactly what the rest of the field is doing . . . and then sometimes, I do the opposite.  I don’t care what day it is, there are always people who want to see shows, just maybe not enough to fill every theater.  So whether it’s Flag Day or World Naked Bike Ride Day, if you can end up being one of the only shows available, well, then, you may end up raising the curtain without a single ticket available.

The Tony Awards beat me to this blog.

The theme of this year’s Tony Awards opening number was the current overwhelming number of songs on Broadway stages from the popular musical canon.

Well, dangit, that’s what I was going to say!

But it’s more than just this year’s crop.  While leaving American Idiot a few weeks ago, I walked through Times Square and looked at all the marquees.  Connections to popular music are all over the Great White Way in one way or another.

Let’s look at all the book musicals (in alpha order) currently playing on Broadway and connect the popular dots:

A Little Night Music

Stephen Sondheim is not considered a “popular” composer, but ALNM features his only major pop hit “Send In The Clowns,” of the over 800 songs he has written.  It won a Grammy for ‘Song of the Year’ in 1976.

American Idiot

Composed by punk-rock super-group, Green Day, the album of the same title also won a Grammy for ‘Best Rock Album.’

Billy Elliot

Composed by rock superstar (and sometimes Rush Limbaugh supporter), Elton John, who has more Grammys than a retirement home.

Chicago

What do I have to say about this composing team?  How about this:  two words repeated.  “New York, New York.”  That popular enough for you?

Come Fly Away

Speaking of NY, NY, Come Fly Away is all pop tunes sung by pop legend, Frankie S.

Everyday Rapture

This bio musical uses pop tunes to tell some of its story.

Fela!

Fela Kuti’s tunes may not have been featured on morning radio in this country, but in his homeland, his pioneering sounds were all the popular rage.

Hair

The astrological tune, “The Age of Aquarius,” held the #1 spot on the charts for 6 weeks and is listed as the 57th Greatest Song of All Time according to Billboard.

In The Heights

I got nothing on this one, except for the obvious influence of pop music of the time on the score.  So far, that’s 8 out of 9 with a direct connection to the pop world.

Jersey Boys

A bio-musical about one of the most popular guy-groups ever, who sold more than 175 million records.

La Cage aux Folles

Not only did “I Am What I Am” rank on the charts, but Herman had a hit with “Hello Dolly” in 1964 when the Louis Armstrong recording knocked The Beatles out of the #1 spot!

Mamma Mia!

The gold-record standard of the jukebox musical still has ’em dancing in the aisles and grossed almost $800 million last week, almost 9 years after its opening.

Mary Poppins

The Sherman Bros have should get an award for having so many awards. Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and more.  Their supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songs have been sung by the masses for years.

Memphis

David Bryan, the composer of Memphis is the keyboard player for a little known band called Bon Jovi.

Million Dollar Quartet

Some of the greatest classic rock tunes, and classic rock characters, are featured in this jukey musical.

Next to Normal

Outside of his musical theater work, Composer Tom Kitt is the founder of The Tom Kitt band, and his work on American Idiot led him to be hired by Green Day to provide arrangements for their latest album, 21st Century Breakdown.

Promises, Promises

Promises Composer Burt Bacharach has written 70 Top 40 hits in his lifetime, including “I Say A Little Prayer For You” and “A House Is Not A Home” which were both integrated into this revival.

Rock of Ages

Mamma Mia but with 80s tunes.

South Pacific

How many covers of songs can a composer/lyricist have?  R&H’s tunes were all over the place in their day, and are still used in pop culture today.

The Addams Family

Like In the Heights, there’s no real strong connection to the pop world here.  That makes 18 out of 20 with direct connections to the pop music world.

The Lion King

Another one by Sir Elton.

The Phantom of The Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber is like a modern day R&H when it comes to his theater songs becoming standards.  Streisand, Manilow, and Mathis are just a few of the folks that have covered and scored hits with “Memory” alone.

West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein was successful in the popular idiom in another way . . . the classic way.  He grabbed a couple of handfuls of Grammys in his day, including one for Lifetime Achievement.  He wrote for the movies, for shows, for choruses, and more.  His stuff was everywhere.

Wicked

What Andrew Lloyd Webber is to the UK is what Stephen Schwartz is to America.  He is our most popular successful composer, with Grammys and Academy Awards and more, oh my.  “Day by Day” was a Top 40 hit, and he has even written songs for Five For Fighting.

There you have it.  24 musicals on Broadway and 22 of them with direct connections to the world of popular music.  Some looser than others, I’ll admit. And some are chicken-egg questions (Did their pop success come from the theater work or vice-versa?).

But my point is not that you need to be a successful pop artist to be a successful Broadway composer.  In many of the cases above, the Broadway success came first.

What I am saying is that the overwhelming lack of degrees of separation between successful Broadway composers and the world of pop music suggest that there may be a characteristic that binds the two.

And that characteristic is melody.

So if you’re a composer looking to get a show up on Broadway, you might want to make sure your songs have some similar characteristics to what’s on the radio.  I can’t tell you how many demos I listen to (or stop listening to) where the composers seem to be after some sort of intelligentsia award, instead of just writing a song that people might enjoy hearing in their car, or while cleaning their room, or while they are finishing a blog at 2:08 AM (Lady Gag
a is on in the background on my Sirius radio).

I’m not saying that theater songs have to be Britney-like trite or super-simplistic (God knows Green Day isn’t trite, and Elton’s stuff is some of the richest musical and lyrical material you’ll ever listen to).

But they’ve all got melody and hooks and songs that people like to sing along to.

And that will put you at the top of charts and the Tony Awards.

Honda, The BBC . . . and Broadway?

I love it when Broadway gets mentioned in the same sentence as Big Business.

So imagine how I felt when I heard that one of our own got nominated for an honor usually reserved for publicly-held giants like Apple and Nike and so on….

Last week, Situation Interactive, the agency that has literally written the code for most of Broadway’s internet marketing campaigns, was nominated for a Webby Award for “Best Use of Social Media” for their follower-magnet Next To Normal twitter campaign.

If you’ve never heard of the Webbies before, well, they are exactly what they sound like.  The NY Times has called them “the internet’s highest honor.”  And now we’ve got a Broadway show up for one.

A wise press rep once told me that you get a gold star if you can get your show a story that doesn’t appear on the theater pages.  If that’s true, then Situation deserves a gold galaxy for getting Broadway off the theater pages and onto the business pages.

Now sure, it’s always nice be nominated, Sally Field, but it’s much better to win, right?

I think it’d be awesome if Broadway crushed its competition in this category.  And the good news is that the winner of the award is chosen American Idol-style . . . by fan vote.

So let’s show Honda and Yearbook.com, that Broadway ain’t stuck in the dark ages no more!  We can tweet with the best of them.

Vote here (click on the “Best Use of Social Media” category).

Now, after N2N wins this . . . it’s time for them to share their recent good fortune with some of the other shows, don’t you think?  First it recoups.  Then it wins a Pulitzer.  And now an advertising award?  What’s next?  A $1,000,000 grant for spectacular use of Ricolas?

Congrats, guys.  Your tide just raised all the boats.

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