Everything Changes: Reflections on the Life and Death of Broadway Shows

Everything Changes: Reflections on the Life and Death of Broadway Shows

In the past month, seven Broadway musicals have announced their closing dates: The Prom, Be More Chill, The Cher Show, King Kong, Pretty Woman, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Waitress. While several of these shows had notably longer runs than others, they all drew dedicated fans, many of whom who are saddened by their closings. 

The closing of a Broadway show highlights one of the most unique and powerful of aspects of live theatre: it is, by nature, ephemeral. Any single performance cannot be recreated. Any particular production cannot be seen in the exact same way again once it has closed. Unlike your favorite movies, theatre cannot be rented, paused, or rerun on Saturday television. When it is gone, it often feels like a loss. The idea that something which hundreds of people have put countless hours over many years to create can close its doors and somehow seem to disappear is the crazy, terrifying, beautiful madness of this industry. And while I understand the feelings of sadness or even anger at the loss of a beloved show, it is around this season of mass closing announcements that I find it crucial to remember that while the ephemerality of the performance arts can be frustrating, it is also what makes them precious. If shows did not eventually end, new, different, and exciting projects could not fill the theaters they leave behind. If the heart-wrenching and divine revival of Once on this Island had not left the Circle in the Square, a closing I felt particularly deeply, the fresh and raw revival of the classic Oklahoma could not have filled its stage with its own artistic heart and soul. The argument here is not that you shouldn’t feel any sorrow at the closing of a favorite show, but rather that the process can be understood as a sort of artistic circle of life. One brilliant show makes way for another in a great sharing of the stage known as Broadway.

So, in recognition that these shows’ closures open the doors to many new works, I want to take a moment to highlight what they brought when they entered their theaters. Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin’s The Prom brought a true story of love in the face of bias set against the background of theatrically indulgent, self-deprecating comedy to the Great White Way. Nominated for seven Tony Awards, The Prom departs Broadway having touched many young, queer people who have seen themselves in the characters Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabella McCalla have faithfully brought to life each night. A run just shy of ten months may seem short, but for a musical comedy with its blend of drama-geek inside jokes and diverse leading characters, its survival and popularity opens doors for more shows of its kind to be written. The Prom leaves everything on the dance floor, August 11th.

Joe Iconis’s Be More Chill has polarized theatre fans from the start. It has a cult following of young audiences and a healthy amount of older audiences that are vocally not its biggest fans. Regardless of how you may feel about the sci-fi high school musical, it has brought many younger people into the Broadway audience and made them feel included in an industry that has often felt restricted to older, wealthier viewers. It has helped breed understanding and appreciation for the work that goes into creating a show and bringing it to Broadway in its successful social media campaigns. The truth is, it is an incredible feat to get a show to Broadway, and the contributions of a strong fan base cannot be discounted. In many ways, Be More Chill can be seen as blazing a trail for new and inventive ways to market a musical. It will certainly not go out quietly as it saves the school one last time on August 11th.

The Cher Show may not be an original story like the two previous musicals mentioned, but it did earn Stephanie J. Block a Tony Award that has been long awaited by many of her fans. Regardless of how you feel about that win or the show itself, the show’s incredible designs and recognizable tunes brought fun and nostalgia to its audiences. It is a good reminder that a show does not need to make the most profound statement to mean something to someone. It flashes its final sequins on August 18th.

King Kong got its recognition from the American Theatre Wing in the form of a special Tony Award for the amazing work that went into the creation of the titular character himself in puppet form. A work of technical genius, Sonny Tilders brought the legendary monster to Broadway in a visceral, theatrical experience that showcased the brilliance and ingenuity of the often unsung heroes of theatre: designers and technicians. It sets the bar even higher for future artists, and asks us all to dream ever-bigger in our visions of what is possible. That larger-than-life puppet takes its final bow August 18th. 

Pretty Woman met almost entirely negative reviews. I will not disagree nor try to argue that it is a remarkable feat of theatre, but it highlighted the talents of leads Samantha Barks and Steve Kazee who, despite unfailing dislike of the material itself, earned praise from critics for working well with what was in front of them. Of course, it also fills the need of many audiences seeking lighthearted romances over dark or difficult storylines. It, too, closes August 18th.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is the longest running show to announce its closing in the past month. It opened at the Stephen Sondheim Theater on January 12th, 2014. Beautiful is both a jukebox and biopic musical which has succeeded at making both of these traits, which are often viewed as artistically lesser among Broadway elites, work in harmony to create an engaging and dynamic piece of theater. Beautiful also earned Jessie Mueller her Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. She has gone on from Beautiful to earn nominations in the category again for Waitress and Carousel. Beautiful has already had productions on the West End and touring in the US, UK, and Australia. It departs Broadway on October 27th as the 27th longest running musical in Broadway history.

Sara Bareilles’s Waitress announced that it will end its three-year run just last week. Beyond its many stars, miniature pies, and karaoke nights, the legacy Waitress really leaves is Broadway’s first all-female creative team. Think about that. Until Waitress’s opening in 2016, no show in the history of Broadway had its creative time comprised entirely of women. While it won none of its four Tony nominations, Waitress has hardly been unsuccessful. In fact, its influence has spread internationally. It has launched a US National Tour, West End production, Filipino production, Argentinian production, and has a forthcoming Australian production. Even though its time at the Brooks Atkinson is nearing a close, Waitress is far from gone. To use Sara Bareilles’s words, you can get yourself a slice of happiness pie until January 5th.

As we mourn the loss of the above shows, we can also anticipate with hope the many new works to come and barriers to be broken. These seven shows pass the torch in the long line of stories that have been told in their theaters. They become ancestors, legends, pieces of a vastly larger narrative. As the cycle continues, we can only await what might touch our hearts next. May we all be so lucky.