Back in 2001, theatre critic Chris Jones settled into his aisle seat at Chicago's Cadillac Theatre. The evening's bill was a new musical by filmmaker Mel Brooks — his first attempt at a stage work. It was an adaptation of his classic 1968 film "The Producers," about a conniving down-on-his-luck Broadway producer who, along with his mousy accountant, concocts that idea of purposefully putting together a Broadway bomb in order to pocket the investors' money.
"There I am on press night," recalled Jones, "and the thing was so funny and the audience was so incredibly engaged in it, that I thought to myself on that night, 'This is going to be a colossal smash.' There was something about it, that ineffable quality of brilliance."
The Producers moved on to Broadway to break all sorts of money-making and award-getting records. It was the show everyone knew about, the title on everyone's lips in every corner of the nation. It did that rare thing that happens only once in a blue moon in theatre world these days: It graduated from hit show to phenomenon.
Broadway currently possesses a new show that pulled off the trick. Hamilton has managed to grab the greater culture by the lapels and give it a good shake unlike any show since The Book of Mormon. It's been called historic and game-changing, and the reverberations of those pronouncements have reached all the way to the White House, causing the President, First Lady and Vice President to all take in the show. How did it feel to perform for the President? The Hamilton cast tells all!
How does a show make that leap from a simple piece of boffo box office — which only means the show is popular and selling tickets — to the kind of attraction that becomes part of the cultural conversation? In Jones' mind, it's a number of factors, all happening at once.
"These are different ways of getting into the zeitgeist," said Jones. "Timing is very important. The phenomenon shows are often well-timed. In many cases, the press will push things along and make them into bigger hits. All these things have to work in concert. In the case Hamilton, The Book of Mormon and The Producers, you have everything firing on all cylinders. They have rave reviews; there's something strikingly different about the show; there's a sense of occasion; and the scarcity of tickets."
In the past, it wasn't unusual for Broadway shows to become cultural currency. The theatre was a more competitive form of entertainment, and it was not uncommon for the latest hit or artistic landmark to land on the cover of Time or Newsweek (then, always a sign that a piece of stagework had become bigger than itself). Since the late '60s, however, with increased competition from other forms of entertainment, this has been harder to pull off. In the past quarter century, one can count on two hands the number of plays and musicals that have become phenomena. Among them, are Rent, Angels in America, The Producers, The Book of Mormon and Hamilton.
Why certain shows are anointed and others are not is both a simple and complicated matter, depending on how one looks at it. Put simply, a show usually needs to be exceptionally good to get a lot of attention.
"I think that fundamentally," said Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing and director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Performing Arts, "it has to first be a show that the preponderance of people — critics and audience — think is really good, in the vast majority of cases."
But, as Jones pointed out, this is frequently not enough. "Many is the show that had fine reviews and closed a week from Sunday," said the critic.
The media certainly plays a part. The Fourth Estate must sign on wholeheartedly to a show, for constant press is the spark that sets a show on fire. Since Hamilton arrived on Broadway, barely a day had gone by without a feature story on the show appearing somewhere. (The creators and producers of Hamilton declined to comment for this article, not wishing to appear so boastful as to call their still-young show a "phenomenon.")
In the past, major press coverage meant the cover of The New York Times or news weeklys like Time and Newsweek. (Rent and The Book of Mormon made the cover of Newsweek and, both times, the theatre community greeted the occasion as it the theatre in general had scored a home run.) Today, however, media is measured differently.
"Now it's about social media currency," argued Sherman. "Which Tweeter with 4.5 million followers praised the show? Or does it spawn viral videos, alongside whether it's getting discussed on the editorial pages of not only the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but Politico and The Huffington Post as well?"
Jason Zinoman, who writes about theatre and comedy for The New York Times, thinks the heat-seeking nature of modern media feeds into the idea of phenomenon theatre. "I think mainstream media has become dominated by big events," said Zinoman, "whether it be the rise of Louis C.K. or 'Girls' or the new 'Avengers' movie. This has hurt coverage of theatre more generally, but helped shift focus to the few really big theatre events that have the potential to cross-over in a big way."
Of course, media loves controversy, and a touch of conflict or drama often aids a shash show's prospects. Jesus Christ Superstar was considered sacrilegious in its treatment of the final days of Jesus' life. Many religious groups protested the show when it opened on Broadway. Rent was a regarding as important, and ground-breaking piece of new work in 1996, when it bowed Off-Broadway. But the story of musical was made even more poignant — and newsworthy — by its tragic backstory; creator Jonathan Larson died suddenly, just before the show had its first preview. He never lived to see his show's great success.
The Book of Mormon, which poked gleeful and merciless fun at the Mormon Church, had a different hook, backstage-drama-wise.
"You had the power of outrageousness at work," said Jones. "It seemed so dangerous to everybody. It was instantly newsworthy. At the time, that's what the media and the ticket-buying public were responding to."
Certainly, controversy is what fed the unstoppable media parade that followed the public spectacle known as Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. In contrast to the shows mentioned above, it was not a commercial success on Broadway. However, there's no denying the show was a phenomenon — arguably the biggest yet of the current century.
"Nothing got more attention from national press, talk shows, etc.," said Zinoman.
Playbill.com chronicles the final year of Spider-Man's Broadway run — lawsuits, injuries and more. "Let's face it," added Sherman, "Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark became a cultural phenomenon because of all the problems it had, from the death of its original producer, the vast amount of money that had to be raised, the injuries at the beginning of the run — that were captured by cameraphones — the creative disputes and the two different versions, and so on. Plus the fact that it was a show with a score written by one of the biggest rock bands of the past 25 years, and about a character who has been a part of pop culture for 50 years. That's an amazing confluence of events and elements. But it was also the perseverance of producers who didn't cut and run when problems arose, who kept the show going, that enabled it to achieve a whole different level of attention and even notoriety, which is itself a phenomenon."
But Spider-Man is an anomaly. In most cases, theatre shows soar skyward into the annals of theatre legend.
"Cultural phenomena are about shows that are in some way groundbreaking, whether creatively or thematically," stated Sherman. "A Chorus Line really broke with the musical comedy formula to tell very personal, very real stories, dispensing with so much of what people expected of musicals: romantic entanglements, lavish sets and costumes, and so on."
Hamilton, he continued, "showed that stories need not be literal in every aspect of their telling — hence the multi-racial casting of roles portraying real people known to have been Caucasian — and the use of music that was anachronistic to the period portrayed which employed a range of styles but with authenticity and respect for each style it deployed."
Sherman further suggested that ascertaining whether a show is a phenomenon or merely a hit can be a slippery business, and something that can only be determined in retrospect. Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, special sensations in their day, are still regarded as such by critics today. Other shows haven't fared as well in the history books. "I would suggest that many would say Cats, a phenomenon at the beginning of its run, wore out its welcome and is no longer viewed as a landmark beyond its box-office success," opined Sherman.
Jones, for his part, is not even so sure about The Producers anymore. "What we didn't know at the time was it was dependent on those two stars,” he observed, meaning original headliners Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.