Is Musical Theatre Zigging or Zagging?

The desire to be unique is a common human characteristic. Research in the field of social psychology suggests that people often seek to set themselves apart from others. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that we feel a greater sense of satisfaction and well-being when we perceive ourselves as distinct from others. Yet a wealth of evidence exists to suggest that, in reality, the opposite is true: originality is all but dead. Is this really true? And does it apply to the realm of musical theatre?

Numbers talk. In the last 30 years (so we’re not limited to lockdown-wrought trends here) 82 per cent of new musicals on Broadway have been adaptations. Over this time period, the average run of an adaptation is 644 performances, while the average run of an original production is just over half of that.  And 30 per cent of these original productions closed within a month of premiering – some of them within the first week. Furthermore, 83 per cent of all Best Musical Tony Award winners have been adaptations.  Successful originals are in the minority, with rarities like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen bucking trends. The tried and tested does seem to be in perpetual demand.

But do these figures mask another story, or is it true that there is a woeful lack of ingenuity in musical theatre? Perhaps it is worth looking at how this theory plays out in other arenas of creative endeavour.

Back in the 1990s, two Russian artists – Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid – hired a market research team to carry out extensive research across numerous American cities, with the aim of identifying a culture’s preferences when selecting artwork. The findings revealed remarkably unform tastes. Respondents overwhelmingly described the exact same picture as their ideal. This project was called ‘People’s Choice’ and was replicated across 11 countries. Despite probing the individual tastes of extremely diverse cultures, it transpired that everyone wanted the same thing: a landscape with a few figures, some animals in the foreground, and featuring the colour blue. One of the artists noted: ‘Looking for freedom, we found slavery’.

But convention and cliché don’t stop with the art world. Coffee shop culture also mimics this penchant for conformity, despite the ‘independents’ priding themselves on not being part of a chain.  From hipsters’ favourite Shoreditch Grind in London to The Coffee Collective in Copenhagen to Bear Pond Espresso in Tokyo, Instagram-friendly reclaimed wood and pendant lights  pop up like international stalkers. And upon leaving our supposedly ‘one-off’ coffee shop we hop into our anonymous vehicles: in 1996 40 per cent of cars sold were monochromatic – by 2016 this figure had doubled to 80 per cent. The trend of conformity is also borne out in our media habits. The top-grossing movies each year are increasingly sequels, prequels, reboots, or spin-offs. In 2021, only one of the top 10 money-making movies was an original: Ryan Reynolds’ perhaps ironically- titled Free Guy. Our books, even, have generic titles, with a proliferation of similar titles (The Girl With/on/in…)and doppelgänger covers. And nowhere is the rejection of distinctiveness more obvious than in the beauty industry. The growing availability of injectable treatments, easily-accessed digital enhancement, and the popularity of online make-up tutorials have led to the ubiquitous ‘Instagram face’. The late Vivienne Westwood made her views on this clear: ‘We are so conformist. Nobody is thinking’. And Distinction Rebellion, an article published in November 2021, has even claimed that the term ‘branding’ is now pretty much interchangeable with ‘blanding’.

All of the above, of course, is a result of consumer demand. Money-making ventures are driven by market forces. Originality equates to risk-taking. And there is also the constant factor of the comfort of the familiar, which seems to run parallel with the global growth of uncertainty. It’s not surprising, then, that popular, well-known productions turn up time and again in various forms.

But is this purely a result of factors such as bankability, or is musical theatre plagued by a lack of originality? In response to this question, it’s worth remembering that stories have always been plundered. A famous example is Shakespeare, who shamelessly borrowed from Plutarch and Ovid. Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliott, is keen to defend adaptations, saying that each of his stage versions is a ‘vehicle for saying what [he] want[s] to say about the world’. He states that he has ‘loads of ideas’, which suggests that sometimes a reworking of an existing story can be original in its own way and can capture the mood of the moment.

Then there is also the question of respecting the canon by ensuring that classic stories constantly return to the stage. Not to do this, according to David Hare (Associate Director of the National Theatre), would be a ‘dereliction of duty’. Classics remain popular for a reason: they’re classic – hence deserve to be showcased. Whether adapting a classic speaks of lazy mediocrity or is a means of using a timeless tale to say something new is a matter of opinion.

Theatre is such an enduring medium – despite successive crises – it seems unlikely that decisions are made on the basis of profit and popularity alone. According to Hall, theatre ‘will see off all other ways of telling stories’. So while the familiar with a twist will always remain popular, let’s hope musical theatre never becomes so banal that it develops its own Instagram face.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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