Teen Musicals struggle on the Broadway stage

“The Lightning Thief”, Broadway’s newest show targeting teens, made 29.8% of their gross potential the week of Nov. 17. 

A devastatingly low number, “The Lightning Thief” is the second lowest grossing show on Broadway (just in front of “Linda Vista”). It is not the only ill fated teen centric show; last year’s season had two standout Broadway shows, “The Prom” and “Be More Chill”, both of which are now closed. But “Dear Evan Hansen”, another teen-focused show, has been running for over three years. 

The financial issues with these shows makes regular theater-goers question if teen centric shows should remain off Broadway, and what caused “Dear Evan Hansen’s” profound success. 

Teen centric Broadway shows are shows that are written about teens for teens, and targeted at teen audiences. “Be More Chill”, “The Prom”, “The Lightning Thief” and “Dear Evan Hansen” are all teen-based stories new to the stage, rarely appealing to older audiences due to their narratives and contemporary musical styles. 

Similar shows that have much greater success ride off of nostalgia. These are adaptations of what attracted the youth of the past. Nostalgia-baiting shows can be written about teenagers, but mostly target older audiences trying to relive their glory days. Ultimately, these nostalgic shows, such as “Mean Girls” or “Beetlejuice”, definitely do attract teenagers, but are not made primarily for them. They cater to all audiences, and that is what makes them a financial success. 

The target audience plays a large role in the revenue and gross potential of all shows, as financial issues arise when the target audience is unable to see the show and generate revenue for it. The younger target audience for these teen-centric shows are rarely able to afford Broadway’s high ticket prices. If the primary audience cannot afford to see the show, it will not make nearly enough to remain running. 

While on Broadway, the target demographic rarely is the actual audience for teenage shows. The old and the elite are readily able to afford Broadway’s prices, and do provide some revenue for teenage shows. However, they are more likely to see and recommend shows made for their demographic. Without word of mouth, teen-centric shows remain underground even on Broadway. The only chance such a show has for success is recognition. And recognition tends to come through the Tony’s. 

For a show to survive on Broadway, it needs to win a Tony, and this is not a common occurrence. “Be More Chill” was only nominated for one, and won zero. Shortly after, their closing was announced. “The Prom” was nominated for many Tony’s, but lost out to bigger shows like “Hadestown” and “Ain’t Too Proud”. Contrarily, “Dear Evan Hansen” won a number of Tony’s. 

The prestige of the New York Times is not lost on Broadway, and their reviews have remarkable weight on public opinion, and even the outcome of the Tony’s. So it is very important to note that their review of “The Lightning Thief” was brutal: “It is both overblown and underproduced, filled with sentiments it can’t support and effects it can’t pull off,” highly esteemed theater reviewer Jesse Green wrote.

 Before this review was released, “The Lightning Thief” was making 38.02% of gross potential and earning more every week. The week after, it made 28.24%, and began a steady decline. 

The review of “Be More Chill” was similarly harsh, saying the show “sounds like more fun than it is – at least for anyone over the age of 21.” But “The Prom” had an overwhelmingly positive review, and it also closed soon after the Tony’s. But “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Prom” both had overwhelmingly positive reviews. 

Recently, the importance of The Times has been questioned. “The Lightning Thief’s” official twitter tweeted, “Probably the funniest part of the bad reviews we got is all the handwringing over ‘too many whiny teens’ – you know, considering that cis het middle-aged white men having crises over their adult life choices is the bread and butter of the serious American theater canon” the day after their review was released. 

They went on to insist that they don’t hate the critics for doing their job, but the message persists: young lighthearted musicals are butting heads with the opinions of The New York Times. 

Among teenage shows, “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Prom” stand out as exceptions. They were both critically acclaimed and generally accepted as high quality. The only major discerning factor was that “The Prom” was only nominated for a number of Tony’s, whereas “Dear Evan Hansen” sweeped. 

The popularity also differed: “Dear Evan Hansen” has almost Hamilton-like popularity, achieving widespread success. “The Prom” was well known among the theater community but did not reach mainstream audiences. This could be attributed to the different musical styles: “Dear Evan Hansen” has pop influences in it’s score, but “The Prom” has more classic showtunes. Overall, for a teen-centric show to succeed, it has to have mass appeal, through the book or score.

Shows that don’t appeal to everyone tend to thrive off-Broadway, as they have significantly cheaper prices and tend to be more accessible to the youth. 

Many of these Broadway failures find success off-Broadway and on other productions. “Heathers” is a very popular musical, and it has never had a Broadway run. “Be More Chill”, prior to its Broadway run, was a huge success at the Two River Theater. “The Lightning Thief” went on highly acclaimed tour across America, winning a Theater Fan’s Choice Award for best touring production. 

Broadway’s accessibility is a hot button issue in the community, but perhaps the best course of action is to encourage below Broadway-caliber shows to stay off-Broadway to let their main demographic see the show without breaking the bank.