American musicals’ comeback

After yielding to the British, 'Producers' leads U.S. charge

If the ’00s have not been a golden age of American musicals, they most certainly represent a comeback.

The Broadway musical had always been synonymous with the American musical. But those tuner tracks diverged in the 1980s when Andrew Lloyd Webber followed “Evita” with the double whammy of “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” Added to this British mix of sung-through tuners were Cameron Mackintosh’s productions of Schonberg and Boublil’s “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.”

Stephen Sondheim continued to see his shows produced, most notably “Sunday in the Park With George,” but the premature deaths of Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse left a creative vacuum on this side of the Atlantic.

Things turned around a bit in the late 1990s as Disney recycled its movie hits “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” for Broadway and Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” hit the boards.

Suddenly, Americans were poised to take back the Broadway musical with a vengeance. Not only did “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “Spamalot” and “Jersey Boys” heat up the box office, they won crix raves and Tonys. Destined to be the most profitable of that lot, “Wicked” lost the Tony to little “Avenue Q,” another Yankee tuner.

Sondheim’s last musical, “Road Show,” never made it to Broadway. But his progeny did in the 2000s: “Caroline, or Change,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Spring Awakening,” “Next to Normal.” Some of them made money, some didn’t. Then again, how many Sondheim shows ever turned a profit on the Great White Way? Sometimes being great is enough.

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