Guess what? Broadway is back in a big way and it feels, these days, as though musical theatre is more popular than ever. As blockbuster shows have become big news for the mainstream, we’re seeing cast recordings top the Billboard charts in America, something that hasn’t happened in more than fifty-years. Could this be the renaissance that theatre lovers have been waiting for?
Of course, Broadway never really went away. Massive shows like Les Miserables, Cats, and Rent, all continue to maintain their popularity. However, we haven’t seen the stage connect with a young audience quite like this in some time. You could say that things really started picking up steam again with the smash-hit musical The Book of Mormon, from the minds of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It was an incredible success, winning a massive nine Tony Awards and has embarked on several sold-out tours throughout the United States. It’s also managed to appeal to both theatre nerds and mainstream audiences alike with its brand of catchy showtunes and irreverent humour.
However, even bigger than The Book of Mormon has been the monster success of Hamilton. Hamilton, the latest musical by MacArthur Genius Grant winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, is based on the 2004 biography of the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (of $10 bill fame), written by Ron Chernow. The musical follows the life of the Founding Father through a series of raps, ballads and showtunes from Hamilton’s early days as an orphan in the British West Indies, to his fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.
The musical has struck a chord with audiences, and the original cast recording debuted at #12 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart, the highest premier for a Broadway cast recording since 1963. Since then, it has even gone on to reach #1 on Billboard’s Rap Albums Chart ahead of modern day linguistic luminaries like Drake and Future. As of this writing, the album has achieved Gold status, according to reports. That means it’s sold a whopping 500,000 records, no small feat in today’s fickle music industry.
The last time that cast recordings from musicals were finding their way onto the charts was more than half a century ago, and since then, only one musical debuted at a higher position. That was Camelot, which went to #4 on the charts back in January 1961. The popularity of Camelot went on to inspire satirical Monty Python musical, Spamalot, in 2005, which actually set the stage for the success of future silly shows such as The Book of Mormon.
While the wildly successful performance never charted with its cast recording, its popularity did earn the musical its own video game. As you can see on this gaming platform, the ribald musical has its own licensed slot-themed adaptation. That’s certainly not something you ever saw Les Mis or Rent achieving, and it just goes to show that audiences love to laugh and are willing to pay for it.
What most people don’t realise is that Spamalot is actually a rather terrific musical in its own right, much like The Book of Mormon, and shouldn’t be written off simply because it’s a comedy. The original 2005 Broadway production was directed by the legendary Mike Nichols, who you might remember from a little movie called The Graduate. It also won three Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical.
The triumphs of Hamilton, Spamalot and The Book of Mormon have proven that success on Broadway isn’t predicated on spectacle, as seen in colossal failures such as the ill-fated Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Sometimes all you need is a fascinating, but ultimately relatable, story along with some fresh ideas, a fun attitude, and catchy songs and the rest has a way of working itself out. Like the Founding Father of the same name, Hamilton continues to make history and we don’t see the legacies of either going anywhere anytime soon.