Let the Culling Begin: Broadway's Dark Holiday

It inevitably happens every year. Broadway shows that just aren't earning enough money go dark to allow the theaters to book new shows that might earn more money. It just seems to be a bit excessive this year, as new and long-running shows alike are shuttering in the next two months.

The first to leave us will be the brilliant yet controversial The Scottsboro Boys. This is the last musical composed by John Kander and Frank Ebb and has been gestating since before Frank Ebb's unfortunate passing. It tells the story of a group of young black men in Alabama sentenced to serious jail time for a crime against a white woman they didn't commit. Even after the alleged victim admitted it was all a lie, the Scottsboro Boys (as they were called by the media) weren't released from jail. It took many years, many appeals, and much strength for the innocent men to be released from jail.

The musical uses minstrel show conventions to tell this story. Unfortunately for Kander, Ebb, and director/choreograph Susan Stroman, the show didn't take off. There was an ill-informed protest near the start of the run claiming the show was racist and inappropriate for telling this story with that method by a group that had quite obviously not seen the show. They heard "minstrel show" and got up in arms. It's a shame, as the work subverts the negative connotations of the genre by using select elements--blackface, a cake walk--to illustrate how this miscarriage of justice was able to go on.

The Scottsboro Boys closes December 12.

 

The next show going dark is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Like The Scottsboro Boys, the debut musical by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers uses a harsh historical period--the turbulent presidency of Andrew Jackson--as a way of re-examining history and mining it for relevant social commentary for today's America. The show re-frames Andrew Jackson as a rock star, complete with mic stand, eye make-up, and onstage backing band.

This too, sadly, was a tough sell. It's described as an "emo-rock musical," which can be as off-putting as it sounds. Is anyone other than a relatively young person going to be drawn to a show of emo music? Couple that with a lesser known historical context (as in, how many people can name five of Jackson's policies, let alone debate whether Jackson was good or bad for the country?) and the show was going to struggle. It's a shame that a show with this low a budget can't even meet its operating costs every week.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson closes January 2.

 

One of my favorite recent shows, Fela!, will also be closing in January. The story of famed Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti is told in his own night club, surrounding the audience with a conceit more suited to a nightclub act than a Broadway musical. It is to be Fela's last performance thanks to political unrest and the death of his mother, political activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.

Featuring gorgeously orchestrated renditions of classic Fela tracks and the hardest choral moment on Broadway, Fela! is a thrilling night of theater that far exceeded expectations during its Broadway run. I thought the show would close very quickly, but thankfully it toughed it out for more than a year. The show is launching international productions and will probably have a healthy life on tour.

Fela! also closes on January 2.

 

In The Heights, the Tony Award winning Best Musical from 2008 is also shuttering. The story is a glimpse into life in Washington Heights. It features stellar vocal arrangements and a very realistic storyline. Writer/Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda was trying to capture a slice of life in the Hispanic neighborhood and he did it.

The show had a healthy run, though has been stunt casting with celebrities like Corbin Bleu and Jordin Sparks in recent months to extend the run. It is currently enjoying a tour and will be adapted into a feature film by Miranda.

In The Heights closes January 9.

 

Next To Normal, the Pulitzer Prize winning musical about a woman's struggle with Bipolar Disorder and the turmoil her condition creates for her family is also going dark. Featuring a challenging score and book by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the production uses a shell of a house filled with marquee lighting to express the grief of the collapsing family.

Though it was a difficult show to experience, Next To Normal had a strong run on Broadway with two amazing core casts. Ellen Ripley, the Tony Award winning Lead Actress from the show, will be launching the nationwide tour. A film adaptation is in discussion, though nothing is confirmed yet.

Next to Normal closes January 16.

 

This post isn't even going into shows like Elling (closed November 28) or La Bete (closing January 9) as I haven't seen many of the non-musicals closing. Nor does it include limited runs like Times Stands Still or The Pee-Wee Herman Show that were always scheduled to close in January.

There is always a new show coming on Broadway, but that doesn't take away the sting of losing an old or new favorite. At least we have Book of Mormon from the creators of South Park coming in the spring.