Show tunes aren’t necessarily on most people’s playlists. But then, says Keith Caulfield, the cast album of the Broadway hit Hamilton came out.
"The album debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 albums chart — that was the highest debut for a cast album since 1961," said Caulfield, who keeps track of those sorts of numbers at Billboard magazine. "So, that already tells you something. And since then, it has sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States."
And it hit No. 1 on the rap charts.
Now, just for comparison, Beyoncé could probably sell 300,000 copies in one week, but Hamilton’s numbers are still huge. And producers are hoping that new musicals with a pop sound will draw more Broadway audiences.
Broadway hits on the radio
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author and star of Hamilton, says a few generations ago, people listened to covers of Broadway tunes on the radio. "Musical theater in the '40s and '50s was the popular music, it was jazz," he pointed out. "You would go hear a Cole Porter song on the radio and then you would go spend 10 bucks to buy a ticket, hear that song on Broadway that night."
Caulfield adds that it wasn’t just covers; people listened to cast albums, too. "It was a normal occurrence to see musical shows on the charts. They, you know, ranked alongside Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, back in the day." My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Hello Dolly! actually topped the Billboard charts in the 1950s and '60s.
New life for old tradition
Duncan Sheik became a pop star with the hit song Barely Breathing in 1996. He’s written the score for a stage adaptation of the novel American Psycho. Sheik says the book and the movie have their rabid fans, who are not your usual Broadway crowd. He thinks pop music is a good thing for Broadway.
"What it does is it just broadens the audience hugely and it brings younger people into the theater, which is vitally important, and it’s how the medium will stay alive and thrive," he said.
Singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles agrees. She notes that her loyal fan base is packing the theater every night to hear her score for Waitress, based on an indie film, set in a Southern diner.
"That has been really satisfying for me, to get feedback online or through, you know, my fan community, of people who have never been to the theater before," she said. "And they’re coming, yes, some of them, just as fans of mine, but also curious about this new project. It’s sort of outside the box for me. And they are being introduced to a whole new medium."
Having pop stars write for Broadway is not a bad idea, says Billboard’s Caulfield. But he cautions that for every hit, there are several flops.
"And so, just because we’re in this moment right now where Hamilton is doing gangbusters on Broadway does not necessarily mean that any other show that kind of has a pop feel is going to be a huge success, as well," he said.
Still, there are even more pop stars with Broadway shows waiting in the wings, like Sheryl Crow, who’s written a new musical based on the film Diner.