Broadway musicals are changing fast. The Band’s Visit, which opened recently at the Ethel Barrymore after a highly successful Off-Broadway run, is just the latest iteration of this change.
A generation ago, musicals were Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacles—helicopters landing on stage or Phantom of the Opera.
Today, Broadway producers recognize that they cannot continue to do the same things and expect people to pay good money to see regurgitated versions of shows they’ve already seen.
Hamilton, of course, has changed the landscape, taking a story that everyone knows—the founding of the United States—and creating a new, eclectic genre of music that has caught on with audiences of every age.
Like Hamilton, the highly acclaimed Broadway musical Come From Away tells a story based in reality, related to the events of 9/11.
Thousands of people on flights that day were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. The creators of Come From Away developed a musical that tells of the heroism of Gander residents, taking care of those 8,000 unexpected visitors.
The storyline helped theatergoers reframe their attitudes toward 9/11, seeing it not only as a tragedy, but also as a way to connect positively with the ways in which people reacted and helped each other after the tragedy.
You’ve certainly got plays like Hello, Dolly!, a super-sold out love-fest between audience and the cast featuring the great Bette Midler, which makes audiences feel good in a traditional way.
At the same time, the new world of creativity on Broadway is all about allowing people to feel good about the world and other people in it, instead of simply listening to great music, whether it’s by Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Temptations, Carole King, the Four Seasons, or anyone else.
Hamilton opened the eyes of Broadway producers, showing them that if they came out with a product that was innovative, creative, different, and cutting edge, they would have the opportunity to influence audiences and, not unimportantly, make a lot of money.
Perhaps the clearest example of this new kind of Broadway musical is The Band’s Visit, moving to The Ethel Barrymore Theatre after a stunningly successful off-Broadway run.
There’s nothing Jersey Boys about the plot of The Band’s Visit, which tells the story of an Egyptian band traveling to Israel in order to perform at the ARABcultural center in Petach Tikva.
Because of the language differences when they order their tickets, they end up in a totally different place, Beit Hatikva, and when they arrive there, no one knows who they are and they don’t know where they are. The music, catchy and varied, embraces Egyptian and Israeli sounds and generally capture the spirit of the Middle East.
The shows leaves audiences with a sense of hope—and not coincidentally, both towns mentioned in the plot, the one where the Egyptians meant to end up and where they did end up, include the word Tikva, the Hebrew word for hope.
The Band’s Visit is an early favorite for Best Musical, based on comments made by critics prior to last year’s the Tony Awards, in which one commentator told another, “The best musical this season wasn’t on Broadway. It was The Band’s Visit, which is off-Broadway.”
There will almost certainly always be a place on Broadway for the traditional musical, as revivals of Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, and other great shows attest.
But at the same time, a new generation of audiences is connecting with a new generation of Broadway musicals, and that is cause for hope and celebration.