Broadway Goes Pop: 'Jagged Little Pill' Leads Boom in Top 40-Based Musicals

Matthew Murphy
Celia Rose Gooding (center) in Broadway’s 'Jagged Little Pill.'

The production, which centers on a fictional story set around the songs on Alanis Morissette's 1995 smash album, is among a new crop of hit-tunes theater from producers looking to mine artist catalogs: "You can make a lot of money doing this."

On July 26, Moulin Rouge! opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway, becoming the best-selling show of the new season, with gross sales topping $2 million a week and nearly $55 million for the year. Despite the impressive start, the elaborate $28 million stage adaptation of the Baz Luhrmann movie will need to sustain its current pace for a year or more before recouping, illustrating just how challenging the economics of the Broadway musical have become. Total box office for the 2019-20 season is lagging 6 percent behind that of 2018-19, while some ticket prices have dropped amid fierce competition.

Still, optimism abounds, especially when it comes to Broadway plays that mine the catalogs of chart-topping musicians, be it the jukebox musical (Moulin Rouge!), the biographical adaptation (Tina: The Tina Turner Musical) or, the newest and perhaps the most promising subgenre of all, the musical that builds a fictional story around a set of familiar songs, like this fall's Jagged Little Pill, which reinterpreted Alanis Morissette's smash 1995 album for the #MeToo era.

"Mamma Mia! opened a lot of eyes as a show that used popular music to become a financial juggernaut. It's the one that proved you can make a lot of money doing this," says Jagged Little Pill producer Vivek Tiwary, who was also a producer of the trailblazing Green Day album adaptation American Idiot. "Now you're seeing popular music permeating every facet of the entertainment industry."

Just as the pop music doc genre is experiencing boom times, buoyed by massive $25 million-plus deals for Billie Eilish and Rihanna films, so too is the Top 40-based Broadway musical, with a slew of high-profile ones heading to the Great White Way, including Girl From the North Country, which reinterprets Bob Dylan's songbook, and MJ, a jukebox musical certain to spark controversy given that it centers on Michael Jackson, whose image was substantially dented by 2019's HBO documentary Leaving Neverland.

But caution reigns among investors, with Broadway still reeling from the epic debacle Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which closed Jan. 4, 2014, after three troubled years onstage and $60 million of investors' money lost. Budgets for Broadway musicals pale in comparison to those of studio films. (Moulin Rouge!'s $28 million capitalization is about half the 2001 Fox film's budget, not including the latter's eight-figure marketing spend that covered a pricey Cannes debut and awards season campaign.) But there's less opportunity for upside. Films offer various revenue streams beyond the theatrical gate, including streaming, pay TV and DVDs. In the past, corporate sponsors proliferated, casually dropping $20 million to market their product alongside the show (think Bombay Sapphire sponsoring the Broadway show Bombay Dreams). But those deals have largely dried up in recent years, say insiders, as advertisers have turned to social media opportunities. Touring also offers a revenue stream, but it typically starts kicking in years after a Broadway debut (Moulin Rouge! is among the exceptions — it debuts in New Orleans in November). Investors also can hope that a Las Vegas hotel might purchase a show down the road, providing an additional windfall.

Moulin Rouge! producer Bill Damaschke, who spent most of his career at DreamWorks Animation, likens the new economics of the Broadway musical to that of making an animated movie due to the patience required. "Animation is very expensive to make. Theater is the same thing," he says. "It's so much development." As such, most producers say the budget sweet spot is in the $13 million to $16 million range (Damaschke's The Prom, which is migrating to Netflix as a Ryan Murphy-directed movie, cost $13 million). Ideally, investors should expect to break even within the first year, with a show running for five or six years (that translates into four or five years of profit). And that prospect has investors returning and beloved artists considering their Broadway options. Notes Tiwary, "People are calling me, asking whether there is a Broadway musical in their catalog or albums."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.