It's not so much a question of profitability: musicals bring in the bucks at nearly every theatre venue in the world. It's not a matter of viability: between Hamilton's dominance of Broadway (and the zeitgeist) and La La Land's near miss at Best Picture, I'd say musicals are alive and well today. It's one of durability: will modern musicals have the staying power of older classics?
Odd to ask, I know, given the heavy hitters I just named and then some (Beauty and the Beast came to cinemas just this month). But it came up during a rehearsal break recently, when an actor and I discussed whether musicals of an earlier age are easier to sing. "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma! was named as an example: it's a simple rhythm with midrange notes that just about anyone can hum along to.
Compare that to the scores of Weber or Sondheim. These modern musical heavy hitters dazzled audiences with complex syncopation or belting from the highest pitch you could imagine. Not just them: Les Miserables is a prime casestudy of musical athleticism. We listen to it and sit back amazed.
Now consider performing any of these shows with amateurs at your average high school. There's a reason few dare attempt to Phantom of the Opera or Sweeney Todd in these venues, despite their popularity on Pandora or Spotify. I've seen two community productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, and both confirmed my belief that no one should attempt this show without leads who can cover the rock wail so woven into the score.
Musicals are an American artform, smashing together the grand tradition of opera and the popular charm of vaudeville. Today it looks like that struggle between the highbrow and the vulgar is at work in the "jukebox musical." Mama Mia, Jersey Boys, and Million Dollar Quartet are at their heart concerts of favorite songs, whether they be from Abba or Elvis. Few people have difficulty mouthing along to "Dancing Queen," even if they don't know all the words.
It may be it's all part of this art's evolution, and that we should stop thinking of it as so monolothic. After all, we don't bat an eye at different kinds of plays, or that Shakespeare is not exactly the same thing as Neil Simon. Maybe the jukebox concert is a way to fill the void left by the trend of more difficult, advanced shows.
Then again, near Christmas I heard several kids (albeit ones in a professional show) performing Hamilton ballads at the cast party's Karaoke. Maybe young audiences are going to soak up these songs they same way older ones did "Singin' in the Rain."
It's a conversation that I don't think has a definite answer. What do you think? Will today's Broadway hits live past their first run's tour? Is musical theatre largely a spectator sport now, or can anyone still pick up a songbook and learn? How "humable" do you find contemporary shows?