BWW Blog: A Lesson in Econ, Stats, and Theatre - Bring on the Adaptations
Broadway has become America's live Hollywood. From family classics like The Lion King to teen comedies like Mean Girls and even dramas like The Band's Visit, Broadway has seen countless films come to life. But why do some Broadway producers invest in adaptations when they could produce original work? The answer is simple: risk aversion. Although there are many Tony Award winning original musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and Hadestown that deserve outstanding praise, stage adaptations of movies tend to be less risky investments that still stimulate creativity.
After spending my first year at the University of Pennsylvania taking courses in economics, statistics, and theatre management, I have been able to understand the theatre industry and the markets in which it operates. Anyone in the business side of theatre must not only understand the theatre they produce, but they also must have an economic mindset when making decisions. A commercial Broadway producer's goal is to hit recoupment and then make profit while following their producing organization's mission statement to spread creativity. The simplest way to achieve this goal is producing a show that will best attract audiences in the current market, and what better show than an adaptation of a popular film? Considering the financial crisis due to Coronavirus and the recent extension of the Broadway shutdown to January 3rd, Broadway producers must continue adapting movies into musicals.
Musicals based on films have brand establishment. Disney Theatrical Productions produces many profitable stage adaptations such as The Lion King and Aladdin that still run on Broadway and have national touring productions. Frozen recently closed, but the closure emphasizes that theatrical companies are losing money and cannot afford to produce multiple quality productions while paying actors and designers. As my microeconomics professor would explain, the benefits of closing Frozen outweigh the costs of keeping it open.
Nevertheless, Disney has a global fan base spanning multiple generations that would buy a ticket in a heartbeat without watching promo videos or reading critic reviews. Other adaptations, like Legally Blonde, attract audiences just from their well-known title. Since Broadway is in New York City, the heart of American tourism, it is geared towards both theatre lovers and tourists eager to spend money. Tourists will likely buy tickets to musicals based on films they already love to guarantee enjoyment. A 2013 statistical and economic study by Ithaca College's Theatre Arts department even shows the most significant factor positively influencing median weekly gross income of a musical is whether the musical is based on a movie. This means producers should develop adaptations once Broadway reopens to reduce economic risk, but the adaptation must be efficiently marketed to produce the desired economic outcome. One of the first lessons learned in an undergraduate statistics course is that correlation does not imply causation. Thus, simply producing an adaptation will not cause money to come rolling in. Other business disciplines, such as marketing, must have strategic plans to ensure success of the adaptation.
This economic choice still makes sense when theatre lovers are taken into consideration. Take myself as an example. I am a theatre lover and tourist when I see a Broadway musical, so what encourages someone like me who considers reviews and promotional media to buy a ticket? New material. Movies adapted for the stage are not always originally musicals. Adaptations provide opportunities to dive deeper into a character's development and to create a score if the movie was not a musical. For instance, Tina Fey's Mean Girls based on her 2004 film was not a musical, so I desired to see this production to hear the new score with music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. I saw Mean Girls in previews before the public release of most promotional photos and videos, and I fell in love with both the innovative score and revamped plotline. Fey could now address socially relevant issues such as feminism, LGBTQ+ acceptance, cyber bullying, and online sexual predators. The inclusion of new socially relevant material in an adaptation attracts theatre lovers who crave to see a film's theatrical transformation. The audience for adaptations is not only tourists, but also theatre lovers. With such a large crowd demanding tickets, it is evident that adaptations are a less risky investment than original works.
Although there is reduced economic risk of an adaptation, some theatre critics insist producers run a moral risk since they can shut out marginalized voices. Once again, my microeconomics professor would say that the externalities, or social effects, of a decision must always be considered. It is true creative teams for adaptations often consist of movie moguls, like Baz Luhrmann and Moulin Rouge!, which makes critics believe there are less opportunities for minority voices. However, look once again at Mean Girls. The writer and lyricist are not straight white men, but instead women accounting for socially relevant issues and diversity. Fey wrote alternative lines to embrace the African American and Latina ethnicity of the former Regina George standby Ashley De La Rosa. In addition, in the original Broadway cast, Gretchen Wieners was not played by a white girl, but instead Ashley Park who is Korean. Producers can ensure marginalized voices are heard by diversifying creative teams and casts. This reduces the moral risk of adaptations and guarantees a huge diverse audience desiring to see representation in mainstream commercial theatre.
Many theatregoers still argue original work can result in greater economic return than an adaptation. Original work can have lower costs or win more awards leading to larger returns for producers. However, Tony Award winning Broadway producer Ken Davenport has blogged that the average run of an adaptation is about double the average run of an original musical. Also, in the past 30 years, over 83% of winners of the Best Musical Tony Award, the most regarded theatre award, were adaptations. An adaptation will most likely recoup faster than an unknown original work as long as producers ensure a low feasible budget.
What does this mean for Broadway's current situation amongst the pandemic? We may see less expensive sets and special effects, but we will at least have live theatre as the economy works toward its natural rate. This does not at all mean Broadway producers should stop producing original works, by all means they should continue, but instead producers should focus on adaptations when the economy is suffering. As an aspiring producer, I hope to always have an economic and philosophical approach to making decisions shaped by my college education in the social sciences. Our goal in the theatre industry is to produce and enjoy incredible art. We can accomplish this with risk aversion and basic managerial economics. We must ensure Broadway has enough funds to last for not only our lifetimes, but for future generations. Adaptations will keep Broadway marquees lit.