Rappers and Rebels on Broadway

New musicals are coming to Broadway. No, not the block right outside Manhattan College’s campus, but the street downtown that is otherwise known as the Great White Way.

Along with the continuation of longstanding productions such as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Chicago” and “The Lion King,” two particularly interesting new musicals are expected to debut in 2014.

One is called “Holler if Ya Hear Me.” Fans of West Coast rap might recognize the name of the title as one of the songs by Tupac Shakur. It is no coincidence – the musical is based around the collective work of the late hip-hop artist who was killed in 1996. However, the show is not a biography of the rapper. Rather, his music is used to tell the story of a struggling urban community.

Another new musical recently announced for 2014 also features the work of a 90s musician. However, her music is not from the genre of rap, but alternative rock. Alanis Morissette’s widely successful album, “Jagged Little Pill,” will serve as the foundation for an original musical of the same name.

At first, the inspirations of these new shows might seem a far cry from typical Broadway fodder. However, one needs to only look at the success of the shows now playing to see where producers are coming from.

Theaters are currently filled with musicals based on the work of a particular artist or genre. “Mamma Mia!” (ABBA), “Jersey Boys” (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) and “Rock of Ages” (80s glam rock) are just a few of the productions that have seen tremendous box office results by utilizing the existing work of specific artists for their score. These kinds of shows are often referred to as jukebox musicals by the theater industry. They are now joined by recent newcomers such as “A Night with Janis Joplin” and “Motown: The Musical.”

While some might think the jukebox musical is a relatively modern phenomenon that has only flourished in the last few years, Margaret Farrell disagrees. Farrell is an assistant adjunct professor who teaches a course titled “History of the Broadway Musical” at MC. She feels that structuring Broadway shows on popular music is in fact a practice that is based heavily in musical theater tradition and history.

“It’s not new, you can trace it back to the revue,” Farrell said. Revues were variety entertainment shows that tied together different songs and acts with a theme or thin plot. “It’s always been going on, the difference is how creative they do it,” she continued.

While Billy Joel (his own music the subject of Broadway show “Movin’ Out”) may have predicted the lights to go out on Broadway in 2017, it doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. The past few years have seen annual gross ticket sales of upwards of $1 billion and attendance of roughly 12 million people each year, according to The Broadway League.

But just who is buying relatively pricey Broadway tickets? A recent report by The Broadway League on the 2012-2013 season found that the average theatergoer was Caucasian (accounting for 78 percent of ticket sales), female (68 percent), middle-aged (about 40 years old) and a tourist (66 percent).

Perhaps Broadway is trying to attract a younger, more diverse crowd by including the work of artists such as Shakur and Morissette. Additionally, formerly marginal music genres such as rap and alternative rock have now become more mainstream and therefore might be deemed suitable for the theater. Punk rock already saw its Broadway debut with “American Idiot,” a musical based on the album of the band Green Day.

Regardless of a larger motive, Broadway organizers are certainly making their decisions with the hopes of turning a profit.

“The thing you have to remember is that it’s a business – it’s show business,” Farrell said. “The other thing to keep in mind is that today’s economy plays into how far of a chance they [Broadway producers] are going to take. Whatever’s popular is what they are going to sell.”