Fashion. Music. Hair. Trends, from shoulder pads to Autotune to mullets and beyond, can define a generation in any genre—and Broadway is no exception. As Broadway.com celebrates its tenth anniversary, we’ve been reflecting on all things stage-related during the new millennium, and we couldn’t help noting 10 trends that helped define the past decade. So here's the rundown, from A (-listers on Broadway) to (Jay-) Z.
1. Stage-to-Screen Musicals
At the 2009 Academy Awards, a Beyonce-backed Hugh Jackman whipped out jazz hands and declared to Tinsel Town, "The musical is back!" Rob Marshall’s slick 2002 screen adaptation of Chicago reminded big-time talents that musicals could equate Oscar gold (Chicago won six) while hauling in $170.6 million at the box office, the best showing of a screen tuner since 1978’s Grease (still the king at $188.3 million). Since then, a glut of Broadway-inspired flicks like Mamma Mia! ($144.1 million), Hairspray ($118.8 million), Dreamgirls ($103.3 million) and Sweeney Todd ($52.8 million) were greenlit with enthusiasm. Marshall’s recent Nine may have been a misstep, but this trend’s not going anywhere: Both In the Heights and Rock of Ages are in pre-production for big-screen treatment.
2. Niche Musicals on Broadway
Ten years ago, predicting that a high-art musical biography of a polygamous African revolutionary-cum-saxophone virtuoso, scored by an orgy of onstage jam-banders, would not only open on Broadway but score 11 Tony nominations might have gotten you committed. Now we know better. Fela! is part of a new landscape in which unique, experimental or "niche" shows like 2008’s Passing Strange and [title of show], 2009’s Next to Normal and the current Everyday Rapture can see the light of day on Broadway. (For the record, all of those shows started off-Broadway, then made the jump.) Have audiences gotten more savvy, or are producers less conservative when it comes to picking content? Both—and not every risk pays off. But it does make for a diverse season, so here’s hoping the pattern continues.
3. Jukebox Musicals
In 2001, Mamma Mia! took the music of disco royalty ABBA, wound it around a spun-sugar plot—and audiences packed the aisles. A parade of songbook shows followed, including Lennon, Good Vibrations, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, Come Fly Away, American Idiot and Million Dollar Quartet. Of course, not every juke-boxer can match the appeal of MM!, but they’re a no-brainer for investor-fans of the music being served up. Jukebox tuners have put revues on life support (this season delivered just one: Sondheim on Sondheim) and kidney-punched the original musical itself—had Memphis been snubbed, 2010’s Tony Award Best Musical category could have been populated entirely by mix-tape nominees.
4. Movie Stars on Stage
Broadway used to be where floundering screen stars went to hoof, belt and emote their way back to the top of the L.A. caste system (just ask Katharine Hepburn, whose commitment to The Philadelphia Story as both stage star and owner of the film rights evolved into an Oscar-nominated screen coup). Today, however, Broadway's more a public boot camp for A-listers looking to tone their acting abdominals, complete with a whirlwind of scrutinized previews followed by sold-out runs that scream, “Stars: We’re Just Like You (Other Show People)!” That’s not to say Hollywood’s glitterati can’t hold their own—check out this year’s Best Actor in a Play Tony nominees. We’re just pointing out that dragging James Bond off the soundstage for a three-month Broadway run might have been impossible 10 years ago.
5. American Idols on Broadway
It’s the biggest casting call in America—and when American Idol starts its annual talent search, Broadway’s casting agents are watching. First, early cast-offs like Tamyra Gray and Frenchie Davis lent their talents to Bombay Dreams and Rent. Then Idol winners Fantasia Barrino and Taylor Hicks joined The Color Purple and Grease. While talented also-rans like Diana DeGarmo (Hair), Ace Young (Hair) and Clay Aiken (Spamalot) built second careers on their musical theater chops, perhaps the best Idol-to-Broadway success story belongs to shaggy-haired rocker Constantine Maroulis, whose butchered cover of Nickelback’s “This Is How You Remind Me” propelled him to the cast of Rock of Ages, where he became a Tony Award nominee in 2009. Stay tuned for winner Jordin Sparks to head to In the Heights this summer.
6. Critics’ Loss of Power
There was a time when a few harsh words from high-powered critics could be catastrophic for even the most star-heavy Broadway productions. But the rise of the Web (with its rapid word-of-mouth buzz and smart commentary such as, ahem, Broadway.com’s Word of Mouth reviews) paired with old-media downsizing (theater critics are among the first to go) means that a single bad review is no longer the kiss of death. Just look at this season’s The Addams Family, doing brisk business ($1.274 million in last week’s grosses) despite mixed reviews. It’s the latest in a long line of shows, from 2001’s Mamma Mia! and 2002’s The Graduate to the most recent revival of Grease, to prove that audiences are more eager than ever to eschew elitist insider opinions and make up their own minds.
7. Scaled-Down Revivals
If the 80s and 90s were all about oversized musicals, the 00s took a more minimalistic turn. Director John Doyle brought us double-duty revivals of Sweeney Todd (2005) and Company (2006) featuring actors on nearly bare stages serving as both stars and instrument-playing orchestra members. In 2008, a naked Studio 54 stage and half-sized pit became the home of a Tony Award nominated revival of Sunday in the Park with George, and a scaled-down La Cage Aux Falles (half the glitter, twice the attitude) is currently blowing audiences away at the Longacre Theatre. Whether it’s a response to the economic demand or simply a return to the less-is-more school of thought, Broadway seems to be all about quality over quantity these days.
8. Eye-Popping Projections
Tech advances have brought the world iPhones, iPads, iPods—and high tech-projection equipment that has changed the face of Broadway scenic design. In 2004, a tiny American flag projected onto a man’s shirt in Assassins was one of the most powerful visual moments of the season. In 2008, the previously mentioned Sunday in the Park with George blasted a lush Seurat landscape in all its pixilated glory across the stage, pulling audible gasps from the audience. Within the last year, we’ve seen a stoner’s trip come to life in 9 to 5, enjoyed karaoke-style sing-along assistance in Fela! and chatted with Sondheim himself in Sondheim on Sondheim, all with the help of Broadway’s new projection obsession.
9. Star Producers
Their names are all over Broadway posters and marquees: Jay-Z. Elton John. Will Smith. Candi Spelling. Oprah. They’re not on stage—in fact, many don’t even walk the red carpet on opening night. But the shows they back get a boost from high-profile producer validation. Queen bee Oprah was one of the first to hop on the celebrity producer bandwagon, anointing The Color Purple with her golden finger back in 2005. This season, Elton John and David Furnish bolstered off-Broadway transfer Next Fall, while Jay-Z and the Smiths helped Fela! rump-shake its way to major acclaim. Is backing a Broadway show the new Hollywood status symbol (especially if the production wins Tony Awards)? Who knows, but when stars support strong new work, we’re all for it.
10. The Internet
Once upon a time, theater fans had to wait for touring productions to come to town, get the news from a weekly New York Times column, hoard original cast recordings or trek to New York to experience Broadway themselves. Now, a few clicks of the mouse can connect you with Rentheads in Peru, call up bootleg clips from Sweeney Todd on YouTube or list entire season's worth of cast albums ready to be downloaded, all in a matter of minutes. Online videos and photo galleries bring opening nights and backstage visits onto computer screens around the world, while entire productions, like the net-savvy Next to Normal, shout out to fans via Twitter. What was once exclusionary simply by location is now accessible 24/7—though no amount of streaming video can replace the thrill of up close and personal live theater.