Koenning: How millennials are shaping the American musical

  • Lyn Koenning
  • Special to the American-Statesman
12:00 a.m. Thursday, March 10, 2016 Opinion

As the musical “My Fair Lady” — proclaimed by the late New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson as “One of the Best Musicals of the Century” — celebrates the 60th anniversary of its Broadway premiere, it’s the perfect time to contemplate whether the American musical as an art form will not just survive, but thrive in the years ahead.

For those who worry that the American musical won’t survive amid the economies and technologies of the 21st century, there is good news: You’re wrong. The millennial generation has your back. I should know; I research musicals and millennials.

There’s a proclivity among theater producers to blame young people for a decreased appetite for live theater, claiming their attention span is too short, they can’t put down their devices, or they won’t go to a theater because they can easily stream their entertainment from the comfort of home.

But although the average age of theatergoers today is 44, a new, vibrant generation of arts enthusiasts is emerging.

According to a recent Eventbrite study focusing on millennials and the arts, this younger audience is actively seeking unique experiences, with 49 percent having recently attended a live theater performance. In fact, a significant number of millennials earmark a portion of their annual disposable income toward attending performing arts events.

Take, for example, savvy visionaries such as musical theater director Diane Paulus, named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2014, who redefined the theatrical experience to better attract highly social millennials.

Paulus understands that this constituency isn’t necessarily one that “goes to the theater,” but it does go out at night. In a visionary move, Paulus reinvented Cambridge’s Zero Arrow Street Theatre into OBERON, a hopping nightclub, attracting throngs to “The Donkey Show” disco experience every Saturday night.

Because millennials use social media to create community and buzz, they not only want, but expect, open accessibility to the arts community, avoiding activities that don’t have a website, Facebook, or Twitter page and using their devices to research and spread the word about recommended events.

Shrewd producers and ancillary enterprises are leveraging this intuitive affinity for technology to more effectively promote their product. Broadway shows such as “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “On Your Feet” now operate their daily discounted ticket lotteries online. On a typical day, as many as 50,000 people log onto Broadway Direct to take part in the “Hamilton” online lottery. The strategy is clearly working.

In December, tech-wise producer Ken Davenport presented the first livestream of a Broadway or Off-Broadway show. The hashtag #DaddyLongLegsLive trended nationally on social media during the broadcast, and the free livestream was seen by 150,055 people in 135 countries.

And TodayTix, a free mobile app that offers discount prices on last-minute theater ticket purchases, is reaching the younger generations, reporting that the average age of its users is 32.

But can the content, style and form of American musicals evolve to fit millennials’ desire for art experiences that they find both unique and relevant? In short, yes. One need look no further than the success of the new generation of shows such as “Hamilton,” “Fun Home” and the revival of “Spring Awakening.” These musicals inspire millennials because they are a reflection of them.

The original cast recording of “My Fair Lady” went on to become the best-selling album in the country in 1956. Fast-forward 60 years to the 2016 Grammy Awards, which featured a performance of “Hamilton’s” opening number: a groundbreaking live broadcast straight from Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre. The musical’s pop radio-influenced sound — rap, hip-hop and R&B ballads — propelled it to win Best Musical Theater Album. When the most enthusiastic standing ovation of the night comes in response to the performance by the cast of a Broadway musical — and it’s not the Tony Awards — the future of the art form seems a little more secure.

Millennials want to be a part of the Broadway conversation — and the most organic way for them to be involved is via social media. As they cultivate community, encourage conversation and influence content, we can all rest assured that millennials will sustain the American musical for years to come.