Broadway finds its voice, again

Original tuners rally as funds free up and investors aim higher

Last season, Broadway was accused of having lost its voice with only two new book musicals opening: “Memphis” and “The Addams Family.” Obviously, the tuner- people took that slap to heart, because the new fall season rebounds mightily with “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Elf,” “The Scottsboro Boys,” “Spider-Man” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Plus, “The Book of Mormon,” “Sister Act” and “Wonderland” are confirmed for the spring, and yet another, “Catch Me if You Can,” is very likely to arrive before season’s end.

Nine original musicals in one season is certainly not business as usual, at least not anymore. In fact, that kind of activity harks back to Broadway’s last golden age of musicals.

Back then, including the 1949-50 and 1959-60 seasons, there were never more than 11 new book musicals, and sometimes only five, crammed into any one season. But some of those seasons offered some pretty amazing back-to-back offerings: “Guys and Dolls” and “The King and I” in 1951-52, “My Fair Lady” and “Most Happy Fella” in 1956, “West Side Story” and “The Music Man” in 1957.

Journos love to beat up today’s creatives with those seemingly unsurpassable titles. A contrarian, however, might point to fall 1952, when Broadway offered up no new original musicals but rather the Bette Davis-Jerome Robbins flop revue “Two’s Company” (90 perfs) and a curiosity called “My Darlin’ Aida” (89 perfs), which took Verdi’s music and updated the opera-turned-tuner to the Civil War South. The 1952-53 season improved immeasurably a couple of months later with “Wonderful Town,” although there was carping about that Hollywood interloper Rosalind Russell, whose previous musical offering on Broadway was “Garrick Gaieties” in 1930. Russell scotched that pre-opening criticism with the power of her performance, just as any number of movie and/or TV stars (Denzel Washington, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Hayes, etc.) did last season.

The 1952-53 season brings to mind another 2010-11 development. “Wish You Were Here,” thanks to its big swimming-pool set, opened cold on Broadway in June 1952 with no out-of-town tryouts. Similarly, this season, nearly half the projected tuners are world-preeming on Broadway.

Will the 2010-11 Broadway season produce a classic like “Gypsy” (1959) or “Peter Pan” (1954)? Or will it be another unbroken string of unrevivable tuners like “Arms and the Girl,” “Happy as Larry,” “The Liar” and “Great to Be Alive!” — all from spring 1950?

Some producers, plus a few creatives, think the Broadway musical has found its voice again, for a number of reasons.

Or not. “It’s happenstance,” says one veteran helmer. “Every decade there are always these occasional splurges of activity,” says one producer.

Others look to the Dow. “It’s the economy again, stupid!” says one tunesmith. The stock market crash of autumn 2008 postponed or scotched more than a few original tuners.

“Memphis,” opening early in 2009, had its cash together before the market went belly up, and despite its $16.5 million capitalization, the “Addams Family’s” familiar title plus the star power of Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, attracted the necessary money.

Even the 1950s golden age wasn’t immune to a tough economy. In the wake of the 1953 recession, the Broadway boards saw only five originals in 1953-54, with a questionable sixth, the Borodin ripoff “Kismet,” a harbinger of the many jukeboxers to come. Likewise, investors either sat out 2009-10 or put their money in the less-expensive, supposedly less-risky jukebox shows that had the imprimatur of a pre-Broadway rave from the New York Times, including the recently shuttered “Come Fly Away” and the currently B.O.-impaired “American Idiot” and “Fela!”

And it’s not just investors who got skittish with the new. The Nederlanders rented the Marquis to the Times-sanctioned “Come Fly Away” rather than the original “Minsky’s,” which the Times didn’t like in L.A.

“Last season was the last season that anyone brought in a show on the strength of the Times’ out-of-town rave,” says one producer of the lessons learned in relying on any one barometer of box office potential.

Certainly jukeboxers from last season took a hit, which has opened up theaters this season to original musicals. Only two jukebox musicals, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and the limited engagement of the Beatles’ “Rain,” have announced for 2010-11.

The favorable fortunes of “Memphis” and “Family” have helped.

Says one producer: “Investors are willing to take a risk on an original, hoping it will be a franchise that can turn into a tour, a movie.”

Also, the stock market has recovered enough from its doldrums that investors are once again willing to withdraw money and invest it somewhere creatively.

“A Broadway musical looks like a pretty good investment compared to keeping it in the money market or the stock market” with trading relatively stagnant, opines another producer.

Others point to the increased presence of corporate dollars — Warner Bros. has coin in “Elf” and Sony in “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark” — and nonprofit money (LCT in “Women on the Verge” and the Public in “Andrew Jackson”).

Right now, nine new book musicals looks like the limit.

Back in the 1950s, two seasons produced 11, but that was an era when a show could recoup in three months, that the rare megahit ran four to five years at the very most, and many failed tuners closed after a week, if not sooner. All of which freed up theaters for fresh fare.

In spring 2011, it’s doubtful if there’s a Broadway house to be had even if, say, “Leap of Faith” (now previewing at L.A.’s Ahmanson) lived up to its title and wanted to enter the foray before season’s end.

If the new Alan Menken tuner is any good, perhaps it’s best that it add to the bounty of the 2011-12 season. No one wants Broadway to lose its voice all over again.