Broadway dominated American pop music for much of the 20th century -- until the advent of rock and roll. Then, with the notable exception of the 1968 production, Hair, most musicals on Broadway in the 1950s and 60s ignored rock's growing popularity and became a much smaller force on the American music scene.
Broadway's response to this change in popular tastes was explored as part of a recent public television documentary, titled Broadway: The American Musical. Millions of fans stayed firmly in their seats for three consecutive evenings, looking back at a century of singers, dancers and clowns.
Michael Kantor, director of the documentary, says the nature of rock music -- which is more beat driven and dance oriented - did not jibe with the lyrical and narrative nature of a Broadway show. He points to one moment that signaled the end of Broadway's influence over the airwaves. "Rosemary Clooney's recording of "Hey There" from The Pajama Game -- which was a number one hit -- was released two days before Elvis Presley's "That's All Right," notes Mr. Kantor. "So exactly at that moment in the summer of 1954, Broadway and popular music went their separate ways."
The Broadway musical never stopped being innovative, however. Stephen Sondheim, for example, went on to tackle diverse subjects -- ranging from a murderous barber in Sweeney Todd to tales of the Brothers Grimm in Into the Woods to the self-described Assassins. But the critically acclaimed Sondheim still lacks the mass appeal to bring large numbers of people to the theater, according to documentary filmmaker Michael Kantor. Instead, the biggest crowd-pleasers today are most often big-production "mega-musicals" such as The Producers and Hairspray, or musicals based on Disney animated films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Mr. Kantor says, because of their big budgets and uncertain success, these productions are usually financed by big corporations. "I think one of the reasons that so many corporations are interested in Broadway," he says, "is the old saying that 'you can't make a living there, but you can make a killing.' While most shows don't recoup their investment, the ones that do pay off in huge numbers…because, while the risk is certainly great, the rewards, particularly with The Lion King, are tremendous."
Except for the rare blockbuster hit like The Lion King or The Producers, Broadway's primary source of revenue today lies in revivals of past musical hits that are translated and exported around the world. Lawrence Maslon, one of the major writers of Broadway: The American Musical, says these translations have been so successful that even some theater professionals have been surprised.
"Fiddler on the Roof, which everyone on Broadway thought in 1964 was 'too Jewish' and too marginalized to run more than three quarters of a season, became a huge hit," says Mr. Maslon. "And it was done in Japan with Japanese actors dressed up as Russian Jews. And a young Japanese student came over to [Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for the musical] and said, 'This show is a hit in America? It's so Japanese!' So there are certain core narrative values that the American musical encapsulates that are absolutely universal."
Lawrence Maslon and Michael Kantor have written a book to accompany the new documentary. There is also a five-CD set featuring highlights from Broadway: The American Musical. The film was one of the most highly rated documentaries aired in the United States this fall. And it was also popular in Japan, where it was featured on one of the nation's premier cable channels.