John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Steven Wong's visualization of Broadway's history shows the creeping influence of long-running musicals.
Have you ever heard of the 1979 Broadway show "Got Tu Go Disco," a vapid musical about a girl who hates disco that starred Studio 54's real-life doorman? (Michael Musto review: "He should have been beaten with his clipboard.") Or what about 1965's "Kelly," a tale of a "daredevil busboy" who jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge, which wound up as a $650,000 flop whose set pieces were buried in a New Jersey dump?
Probably not. But while these awful shows may not have succeeded in real life, they recently received the dubious honor of being included in this impressive visualization of Broadway's history. What you see above is a timeline of all of Broadway's theatrical productions from the early 1900s to the present, representing 6,168 shows in total, color-coded for musicals (red), plays (blue), and "special" (yellow). That last category presumably encompasses stuff like Christmas spectaculars and "Bea Arthur on Broadway," an "evening of songs, stories and jokes, which also included a recipe for lamb."
The graphic was created by Steven Wong, a California multimedia designer who for the time being is working in northern Germany. Wong got his data from the Broadway League, a trade association, and the Internet Broadway Database, kind of like the IMDB for theater. He even took the time to research what became of theaters that temporarily shut down. That long stretch in the '90s when the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre went dark was because somebody had set it on fire, for instance. Others closed to become discotheques, movie houses or a Toys "R" Us.
Wong's presentation depicts a couple of trends that Broadway enthusiasts will no doubt recognize. One, the length of productions steadily increased in the last part of the 20th century. While the reasons for this change are no doubt many, Broadway Spotted attributes it in large part to the influence of Andrew Lloyd Webber's fantastically successful and long-running shows, like "Cats" (whose 18-year run ended in 2000) and "The Phantom of the Opera," which debuted in 1988 and is still running at the Majestic Theatre.
You'll also notice that musicals and musical revivals seem to enjoy longer lifespans than plays. A while back, researchers at New York University investigating why this was often the case arrived at the following conclusion:
Musicals are considerably more expensive to produce than other shows, and such increased production values might appeal to consumers. Musicals also typically charge higher ticket prices than other types of shows, so a producer might keep a musical open longer to try to recover more of the initial ﬁxed cost (if, for example, weekly revenues are disappointing, but still exceed weekly costs). By deﬁnition, a revival of a show provides a “stamp of approval” from it having appeared on Broadway before, a potentially positive signal to consumers.
Wong created these other depictions of the average lengths of Broadway productions as well. If you could click on each data point to find out what the show was, these graphs would be perfect theater-geek fodder (larger versions):