Tonys: 'Bridges of Madison County' and the Traditional Broadway Musical's Imperiled Future

THR's awards analyst reviews the history of the Broadway musical and the challenges facing those who wish to mount musicals with original scores today.
Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in 'The Bridges of Madison County'

NEW YORK – Last Wednesday, I attended the unveiling of composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown's caricature at Sardi's, the 44th Street restaurant that has famously displayed sketches of Broadway luminaries on its walls since the 1920s. Most events of this nature are joyous occasions. This one was bittersweet.

Happily, Brown was joined by his young family and the entire cast of his latest musical, The Bridges of Madison County, including his muse Kelli O'Hara, who recently received Tony recognition for her work on the show (best actress in a musical -- her fifth nom), just as he did for his (best original score and best orchestrations). Sadly, though, Bridges, which Brown adapted from a 1992 novel that also inspired a 1995 film, was already set to close on Sunday, due to weak ticket sales, after only 100 performances since its February 20 opening. And there was no mistaking the disappointment in the room about that.

Brown and his collaborators should not take their show's abbreviated run personally because the deck was stacked against it from the start. Shows with original scores of any sort are becoming harder than ever to find these days, but shows like Bridges, with original scores in the tradition of those that were popular during Broadway's "Golden Age," are becoming downright endangered species. Indeed, Bridges was the only example of the latter recognized in any category at this year's Tony Awards. And now it is gone.

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How did the tastes of Broadway -- composers and audiences -- change so much, so quickly? And might they ever change back? To find the answers to questions of this nature, you have to go back to the beginning.

In the 1920s and 1930s, as a cluster of theaters began popping up around Times Square -- the former Longacre Square, renamed in 1904 after The New York Times moved into the neighborhood -- "Broadway" was born. At the time, American theatergoers, accustomed as they were to Vaudeville, cared less about story, characters and realism than they did about funny situations and jokes, elaborate costumes and, of course, pretty girls dancing and singing songs, so producers gave them just that. The popular theatrical genres of the time were musical comedies, operettas and, above all, revues, such as The Ziegfeld Follies, which, in annual installments, combined all of those elements into one show.

At the time, Broadway historian Ethan Mordden has written, a show was deemed a triumph if it enjoyed "a season's run, a solid tour of the major cities [and] a sale to Hollywood" -- but soon, as "the 'road' shrank from a gleeful network of anything and everything to a solemn touring of Broadway hits," the goal became creating a "lasting show." And the key to doing that, it turned out, was mounting a show that possessed not just style, but also substance.

There had been examples of "musical plays" -- shows that use original songs and dances to develop their characters and advance their plots -- prior to the teaming up of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II in the early 1940s. But, starting with Oklahoma! (1943), and continuing with Carousel (1945), Allegro (1947), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959), the two vets -- who over the prior two decades had worked with Lorenz Hart and Jerome Kern, respectively, before Hart's alcoholism made him unreliable to Rodgers (Hart died in 1943) and Kern's move to Hollywood prompted Hammerstein to seek a new partner (Kern died in 1945) -- took that concept to a new level. As Mordden put it, they "transformed the musical within the decade," and "the concept of a successful musical changed."

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Others quickly began to emulate not just the lyrical technique of Rodgers and Hammerstein's scores -- see On the Town (1944), a collaboration between Leonard Bernstein and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (due to be revived on Broadway in the fall); Irving Berlin, Herbert Fields and Dorothy Fields' Annie Get Your Gun (1946); Burton Lane, E.Y. Harburg, Fred Saidy's Finian's Rainbow (1947); Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice's Street Scene (1947); and Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner's Love Life (1948) -- but also their sound.

Rodgers and Hammerstein scores, which were brought to life by large orchestras, were big, bombastic, romantic and sweeping, and kicked off by overtures that generally sampled the songs to come in a show. Their influence is unmistakable in later works like Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956); Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey's The Music Man (1957); and West Side Story (1957), which was composed by Bernstein with story-advancing lyrics -- such as "I Want to Be in America" -- by a young Stephen Sondheim, Hammerstein's protege.

On February 9, 1964, though, everything changed. At 1697 Broadway between West 53rd and West 54th -- walking distance from the Broadway palaces showcasing musicals like those already mentioned -- in the theater now known as The Ed Sullivan Theatre, but, ironically, originally known as the Hammerstein Theatre (it was built by Oscar II's father in honor of his own father), a young British band called The Beatles made its first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, ushering in a full-fledged explosion of rock 'n roll in America.

Slowly but surely, shows built around rock and then pop drove from fashion the more innocent and orchestral music that had become the sound of Broadway. Among them: James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot Hair (1968); Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), by Brits Tim Rice (Elton John's songwriting partner) and Andrew Lloyd Webber; Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff's The Who's Tommy (1993); Jonathan Larson's Rent (1996); Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening (2006). John Kander, who composed the music for Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975) with Fred Ebb, told the New York Times, "I remember when [the Sondheim song from the 1973 show A Little Night Music] 'Send in the Clowns' became a big hit, and I think all of us deluded ourselves into thinking, 'Ah, things are changing back.' But that was the exception to the rule."

Somewhere along the line, it dawned on producers that original songs of any variety were harder to sell to the public than songs that were already hits. This spawned the next chapter of the Broadway musical's evolution or, in the view of purists, devolution: that of the movie musical adaptation (the market of which Disney Theatrical Productions has cornered for the last 20 years) and the jukebox musical (the rise of which coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with the advent of the iPod and iTunes). The former are self-explanatory; latter are essentially collections of hit singles, often strung together with biographical details about the artists responsible for them. Key examples include All Shook Up (Elvis Presley), Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys), Lennon (John Lennon), Movin' Out (Billy Joel), Mamma Mia! (Abba), Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons), Motown: The Musical (assorted Motown artists) and, most recently, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Carole King).

In the early days of Broadway, musicals could make songs popular; in the present day, the reverse is increasingly the case. "With the cost of mounting a musical on Broadway often topping $10 million," The New York Times has noted, "it's a huge risk to try to sell a new composer, or even a new score by an old hand." Movie musical adaptations and jukebox musicals allow producers to avoid those risks and place "safer" bets on the familiar, just as Hollywood film studios, which are now just small parts of giant corporate conglomerates, are increasingly betting on remakes, sequels and adaptations of already-popular properties.

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Moreover, rock-infused musicals, movie musical adaptations and jukebox musicals -- categories into which virtually all of this year's Broadway musicals except Bridges fall -- generally do not require an overture or, in some cases, a large orchestra at all, which is welcome news to many producers. If not for collective bargaining agreements that require musical productions to employ a minimum number of orchestra members, the Broadway orchestra itself might already be entirely a thing of the past -- and it may yet be.

How, then, can one expect today's theatergoers -- who have grown accustomed to musicals which feature music that is already familiar to them and more reflective of their own hard-bitten worldviews than the innocent and romantic scores of Broadway's Golden Age -- to embrace musicals with scores written in the grand old tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein? Perhaps one cannot, and perhaps that is why so few such musicals manage to make it to Broadway anymore outside of revivals (such as 2003's Wonderful Town), and why so few of those that do manage to stay there for very long.

On Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the last performance of Bridges, I connected by phone with O'Hara, a blonde beauty who possesses an operatic voice for the ages that has made her the go-to-girl for musicals that might once have been entrusted to, say, Mary Martin. She landed her first Tony nomination for The Light in the Piazza (2005), a musical with a traditional score by Adam Guettel -- Rodgers' grandson -- and her third for the most recent revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (2008). Both were productions of Lincoln Center Theatre, a not-for-profit establishment that hosts shows for long runs even if they aren't generating big numbers at the box-office. But Bridges -- which Brown wrote specifically for her and to play to her vocal strengths -- enjoyed no such luxury, and its inability to survive has clearly wounded its leading lady.

"I don't know what happened," O'Hara told me quietly. "It's the strangest thing I've ever dealt with in my life." She explained, "Even when the houses weren't selling, everybody in the houses leapt to their feet at the end of our show. I've done shows that have run for over a year and they didn't do that! Especially the last several weeks, when we knew we were closing, the houses have been packed, the people apoplectic, crying, mad that it's closing. And you walk off the stage and you think, 'Yeah! But we're closing.' You can't do anything but kind of laugh about it."

The situation has created a sort of existential crisis for O'Hara and others who have imagined long careers for themselves in a certain kind of musical that, it turns out, may no longer be viable. When I suggested that O'Hara might have been more at home during Broadway's Golden Age than the present, she chuckled, "If reincarnation exists, I'm certain that I lived then. There's something about me that is very old-fashioned. I don't mean that I'm out-of-fashion now, nor do I want to be, but I don't mind being old-fashioned. I love the classics. I love that uncynical kind of overwhelming openness when it comes to music, like when you just, kind of, release your heart through your mouth."

But now she has been forced to consider: "What is the future? Is the future just revues and jukebox because that's what sells? Will people keep writing, or will they just write for film and television? I'm alive -- I'm in this world -- to find new music to sing because that's what I love to do, so the thought of it disappearing makes me question so much, makes me so sad and frustrated."

She theorized, "It's the capacity in which people these days learn things, I think, or the time allotment people give themselves to take in new things, that is changing. We're so used to having things in our face now immediately. Everything now is immediate. I mean, I remember being pregnant and being like, 'This is the only time in my life I can't pay the expediting fee!' People used to sit down and listen to music with an open ear and a patient ear, no matter what kind of music it was. Now it's, 'Well, I need to know the music when I go in the theater so I can have an immediate understanding of everything.'" She hastens to add, "I love all the different types of musicals, and they all have a place on Broadway because we are an evolving art form, hopefully."

While expressing gratitude for the Tony nominations that Bridges did receive, including her own, O'Hara also confessed dismay about the fact that the Tony Nominating Committee could have nominated five shows for the best musical Tony, but opted instead to nominate just four: After Midnight, Aladdin, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. "The frustration that I feel is pretty huge," she said. "Why wouldn't it make sense, in a year with 16 new musicals, to nominate a fifth," she asked. "Shows need the nominations to stay alive. And we want Broadway, in every sense, to stay alive." She emphasized, "It's not just my show; there are other shows that are probably singing the same tune right now."

O'Hara told me that, above all else, her rollercoaster experience with Bridges has helped to clarify her priorities. "I have loved this more than I have ever loved anything in my life, professionally," she said. "I'd been trying to fit different roles, as opposed to just singing the way I want to sing, all my career. And Jason gave me this gift. He did what he said he would do. He wrote exactly what I wanted to sing. I've never felt freer in my life to sing the way my voice just comes out of me, without a lot of manipulation. And I'll be grateful for that forever."

Choking up, she continued, "I've made the decision, within the last 24 hours, that I will never do anything that I don't believe in again -- no matter to what end. If I do 20 more of these and they close within a day, I'll be more proud of that than being in any commercial success. I'm in a good place to say that, I realize, because I can do some things now [meaning she has the opportunity to pick from different projects], but I will only do the things that are artistic and mean something to me. And if that means that I don't make much of a living, then so be it. I didn't get in this to be [rich]. I got in this because I love it."

Appropriately enough, O'Hara will next star in a revival of The King and I, the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, at Lincoln Center Theatre, where, like The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific, it will almost surely enjoy a longer run than Bridges did.

In the meantime, on Monday evening, rather than relishing her first carefree night in months, O'Hara was once again singing the music of Bridges -- specifically, "To Build a Home," the show's rip-roaring opening number -- at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Annual Gala at Cipriani, which featured performances from all of the musicals nominated for Tonys this year.

Following her chill-inducing rendition, she received the loudest ovation of the evening. After she left the stage, co-host Harvey Fierstein, hardly the lecturing type, stepped up to the microphone and said to the room of theater types, almost admonishingly, "We've gotta make room for every kind of theater -- we have to make room for every kind of theater on Broadway."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg