Broadway Critics Have a Problem With Teen Musicals. How Do We Solve It?
Ask just about anyone who keeps up with Broadway, and most people will agree that it’s having a bit of a teen musical Moment.
Broadway musicals for and about teenagers are a relatively new phenomenon in the grand scheme of things. 2006’s Spring Awakening was arguably the turning point, at least in terms of offering a musical that covered hot-button teen angst topics (albeit in 19th-century garb) to a catchy, rock-hued soundtrack that could sit comfortably among the non-showtune offerings on the average disaffected high schooler’s 2nd gen iPod Nano. It was also a gamechanger in terms of how musicals responded to social media hype: actor Andy Mientus, who made his professional debut in the show’s First National Tour, first came to the attention of producers as the creator of a popular Spring Awakening fanpage on Facebook, and the touring production’s “Totally Trucked” vlog series on YouTube feel like a natural precursor to Broadway.com’s popular vlogs.
It’s within the latter half of this decade, however, that the teen musical has really come to proliferate on Broadway. Dear Evan Hansen opened to rave reviews in late 2016, combining a hard-hitting plot about mental health and social media with Pasek and Paul’s radio-friendly pop sound. In the 2017–18 season, an adaptation of cult movie Mean Girls opened under Casey Nicholaw’s high energy direction; the following season, he also directed and choreographed The Prom, an original story about a group of Broadway veterans who come to the aid of a teenage lesbian in small town Indiana. The 2018–19 season also welcomed Be More Chill, a campy slice of teen sci-fi which made its way to Broadway thanks to an unexpected and meteoric rise to social media popularity, but failed to find favour with critics or ticketbuyers and closed just over 5 months after opening night. The Off-Broadway scene has also been home to a handful of teen musicals in recent years, from 2014’s Heathers (a cult hit which went on to have two successful runs in London in 2018) to 2019’s We Are The Tigers (less successful, receiving mixed reviews and an early close).
On October 16th 2019, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical joined the fray. It’s an adaptation of Rick Riordan’s 2005 novel of the same name, the opening installment of a bestselling middle-grade series about a 12 year old boy who discovers he’s a demigod (the books are often described as Harry Potter for Greek mythology fans). Originally written as an hour-long show for schools before its expansion into a full two-act musical for a 2017 Off-Broadway run, The Lightning Thief arrived at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre (previously home to The Prom) for a 16-week limited run off the back of a national tour earlier in 2019. The preview period was financially shaky, with the production consistently reaching less than 70% capacity and 40% of its potential gross. It looked like The Lightning Thief was a show that was going to need a significant critical boost in order to find its legs on Broadway.
And a critical boost it did not get.
A quick look at BroadwayWorld’s Review Roundup is disheartening, to say the least. Jesse Green of the New York Times described it as “overblown and underproduced.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck, who had previously given the Off-Broadway incarnation of the show a positive review, said “Mea culpa… any parents who shell out [$199] for this tacky, bargain-basement production seriously need to reevaluate their financial priorities”. Publications like Variety and Deadline were more favourable in their assessments, but the overall reception remained decidedly mixed.
Now is probably a good time to confess that I have a limited investment in The Lightning Thief as a show in its own right. I never got into the books as a child (Greek mythology wasn’t my thing), I never saw the much-maligned attempt at a movie adaptation, and I’ve only listened to half a song from the musical’s cast recording. I have no clue whether critics’ complaints about the low production values or bloated plot are justified, and on a purely personal level I don’t really care all that much, beyond a general desire to see all good-hearted new musicals (The Lightning Thief’s official Twitter account is a joyously wholesome affair) succeed.
But even as someone who, by my own admission, Does Not Really Care About The Lightning Thief, I was horrified by some of the more negative reviews. Sometimes because of what they said about the show itself, but mostly because of what their complaints revealed about critics’ vicious bias against the teen musical subgenre.
In his review, Green criticised the bulk of teen musicals on the grounds that they “normalize the idea that actually quite privileged youngsters are victims of social or parental neglect.” “What battle?” he wrote, in reference to a lyric from The Lightning Thief’s finale. “The one with the parents who ponied up the big bucks to bring you to a show featuring flashlights and sock puppets? Better to count your blessings and find another fantasy.” Meanwhile, the “bottom line” summary of Scheck’s Hollywood Reporter review reads simply: “The infantilization of Broadway continues.” The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones skipped straight to insulting the intelligence of young people, with a jab that feels like it came straight out of that Facebook group where people pretend to be stereotypical baby boomers: “Percy is, in fact, a rock star among the portion of the tween set that can actually still put down their phones and read.”
Be More Chill faced criticism on similar grounds when it opened on Broadway in March. Green’s New York Times colleague Ben Brantley slammed it as the worst of the “crowded field of shows about hormonally-overcharged outsiders longing for acceptance”, but conceded, rather snidely, that its “ostensible amateurishness may be exactly what sells Be More Chill to its young target audience.” Confusingly, earlier in the same review he stated that theatre audiences full of high school students “might be refreshing given the general grayness of theatregoing audiences.” How, one wonders, are Broadway theatres meant to attract younger people when critics insult their intelligence and act as if having a teenage target audience is a stumbling block that musicals have to overcome in order to have a hope at artistic success?
In theory, it should help that teen musicals are basically critic proof among their target audience. In the age of Stan Twitter, young people tend to be firmly set in their artistic opinions on any given show, and are more likely to be swayed by online discussions with their peers than by a professional review. But as Be More Chill’s rapid rise and fall proved, a devoted internet fandom can only carry a show so far. Many of the teenagers who fall in love with musicals online discover them through cast recordings or bootlegs, living far from New York and not necessarily having the means to travel across the country, or even across the world, to experience their favourite shows live. And so, when it comes to teen musicals finding a sufficient in-person audience to sustain a Broadway run, critical opinion can still be an important factor. Furthermore, if it becomes more and more apparent that teen musicals have to be akin to the next Spring Awakening or Dear Evan Hansen in order for critics to give them a fair artistic assessment, there’s a risk that in the future creatives and producers will become more reluctant to risk bringing these shows to Broadway at all.
Of course, one shouldn’t draw from this the conclusion that teen musicals should never be criticised at all. Teenagers deserve excellent theatre as much as adults, especially if we want to encourage young people to grow up with an appreciation for the arts in a time when theatre is often undervalued and underfunded as an extracurricular activity. But criticism of teen musicals, as it currently stands, too often falls into a number of fallacious misconceptions: that teenagers are intellectually incapable of appreciating what some would call “high art”; that just being a teen musical is not enough, and shows must instead have some sort of serious (read: “adult”) appeal in order to actually be good; and that teen-specific plotlines are shallow, whiny, or, as Green would have it, representative only of upper-middle class privileged teenagers with no conception of real problems. It’s hard for readers and creatives to take on board valid artistic criticisms of new teen musicals when it’s unclear to what extent these critiques are just the result of critics’ anti-teenager bias.
A cursory glance over any social media site frequented by theatre kids — Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr — will reveal that the average musical theatre-loving teen has far more varied and intelligent taste than critics like Brantley give them credit for. It’s true that teen musicals like Be More Chill and Heathers dominate online discussion, but so do shows like Hamilton and Six that, while still scored with catchy pop tunes, are both critically acclaimed and decidedly not about the teenage experience. Teenagers also love artier shows like Hadestown, the 2019 revival of Oklahoma!, and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (two years on, sending an anonymous Tumblr ask about whether Hansen or Great Comet should have won the Best Musical Tony still has the potential to ignite some seriously vicious discourse). There’s even an enthusiastic fandom for Falsettos, whose members seem far more interested in Whizzer, Marvin, and the Lesbians Next Door than the sole character who’s actually around their age range, and anyone who’s had a peek around the theatre-loving corners of the internet can attest to the large and passionate fanbases for shows like Les Miserables, Wicked, and Phantom of the Opera. Teenagers who begin their journey into theatre appreciation with the shows sometimes referred to online as the “Big Four” (Dear Evan Hansen, Be More Chill, Heathers, and Hamilton) can and do go down elaborate and increasingly niche chains of musical theatre discovery simply by following the Playbill bios of actors they admire.
This said, teenagers are a lot more likely than adult theatre aficionados to forgive a show for not being a flawless work of art, provided it hits the right emotional beats. This is something of a double-edged sword: there’s admittedly a risk that this lenience on the part of the target audience could result in a similar willingness among creatives to ignore glaring artistic problems during the creative process, especially if they feel they can’t win with the critics anyway; but on the other hand it certainly is refreshing to see so many people assert that actually, it’s okay sometimes if a musical’s main priority is to be fun. That latter point is something that critics still sometimes struggle with despite musical theatre’s historical roots in the near-plotless musical comedies of the 1910s and 1920s, as evidenced by the fact that the headline of Chris Jones’s pan of The Lightning Thief describes it as “all just flash and fun.”
The rare few teen shows that have achieved near-unanimous critical praise are those which lean away from having “fun” — or at least fun aimed at teenagers — as a priority. While Spring Awakening and Dear Evan Hansen have their moments of puerile humour (the former has a character whose name translates as “Miss Big Bra”, and the latter contains the lyric “I rub my nipples and start moaning with delight”), they’re offset by a sufficiently straight-faced approach to serious topics like suicide and sexuality for critics to comfortably categorise them as serious theatre that adults can also enjoy. Be More Chill, which opens on its lead preparing to masturbate while singing the lyric “I’m waiting for my porno to load”, isn’t so lucky. Poor Jeremy doesn’t even get to do the deed onstage, unlike Spring Awakening’s Hanschen. Oh well. Maybe the critics would have given him an easier time if he’d also thrown an Othello reference or two in there.
Meanwhile, The Prom, although not as unreservedly raved about as Dear Evan Hansen or Spring Awakening, may sometimes approach its story about small-town homophobia with tongue firmly in cheek, but it found favour with critics in part because of its handling of the adult characters, from whom much of the comedic material is drawn. Jesse Green acknowledged that lead character Emma and the other teenagers in the show were written as “something of a blank” — but his observation, which would probably be closer to a critical dealbreaker had it been an adult lead in an adult-oriented show who felt underwritten, feels like something of a footnote when there’s so much about the adults’ material for him and other audience members his age to enjoy.
The insistence that a teen musical must be more than just fun in order to be good also results in some very strange comparisons. Holding up Dear Evan Hansen as an artistic paradigm is all well and good when reviewing musicals that try to tell a serious, streamlined, fairly realistic story about a significant issue. Dear Evan Hansen (and Spring Awakening before it) is an excellent example of theatre that addresses teen issues, and I can understand to an extent why critics’ knee jerk reaction when they see theatre that they feel doesn’t reach that high standard on an artistic level is to compare. But not every musical that happens to have a misfit teenage character at its forefront wants to be Dear Evan Hansen, and it makes very little sense to compare them on that front, like Green attempts to do in the downright baffling opening to his review of The Lightning Thief. It would make just as much sense to use The Last Five Years as a critical standard against which to hold Hamilton — after all, they both involve a character who loves to write and cheats on his wife! — but it’s (hopefully) safe to say that no critic or editor with two braincells to rub together would ever let that comparison get anywhere near publication. Perhaps critics would produce far more valuable assessments of the majority of teen musicals if they made a serious effort to ascertain and appreciate the different artistic goals of each show, rather than assuming that because they are inclined to view every post-2016 teen musical as a pale imitation of Dear Evan Hansen, then that’s what the creative team was trying to do as well. And maybe, on the flip side, we’d have fewer shoehorned inspirational “You Will Be Found” moments in teen musicals if creatives didn’t feel like they were constantly being held up to Dear Evan Hansen’s standards, even in shows where that kind of narrative doesn’t really make a whole lot of thematic or stylistic sense. I have a feeling that “fun” musicals might end up being a whole lot better if we just let them be fun with no inescapable expectation of a deeper meaning or message.
It’s kind of funny (read: infuriating) that considering how Green seems to have Hansen permanently at the back of his mind, he still assumes that coming from a family with the financial privilege to buy tickets for a Broadway show somehow renders teenagers immune from experiencing any sort of Real Problem, parental neglect included. Dear Evan Hansen’s young suicide victim Connor Murphy comes from a rich family, one which could afford to throw expensive rehab and therapy schemes his way. But that affluence in no way negated his inability to fit in at school, or the fact that his severe mental illness was written off by his father as a cry for attention. His sister Zoe was also consistently overlooked by their parents due to their focus on (ineffectively) dealing with Connor, who was often abusive towards her, but I suppose that, considering their parents would have had no issue buying $199 tickets for The Lightning Thief on Broadway, Green’s advice to them would be to “count their blessings and find another fantasy.”
This out-of-touch approach to the problems teenagers face is symptomatic of, I think, the greatest problem that emerges in criticism of teen musicals: older critics have simply forgotten how it feels to be a teenager. They’ve forgotten that teenagers can be just as intelligent and discerning as adults, preoccupied as they are with Boomer-parody truisms (false-isms?) like “Why read a book when you could read the Facebook?” (another Dear Evan Hansen reference, just to keep Jesse Green happy). They’ve forgotten that while teenagers are perfectly capable of engaging with complex and serious subject matter, sometimes they just want to watch things that are fun, and that’s okay. And, most importantly, they’ve forgotten that being a teenager is a confusing, isolating, highly emotional time during which problems like grades and sex and fitting in can feel like life-or-death issues but are often dismissed by adults as first-world problems coming from whiny children desperate to complain about the smallest inconveniences, frequently only taken seriously once a child resorts to suicide. It’s depressing and concerning to see this real-world attitude replicated in theatre criticism: one gets the impression that, had Percy Jackson responded to his repeated failures at school the same way as Moritz Stiefel, or if Jeremy Heere had reacted to his feelings of isolation at school like Evan Hansen or Connor Murphy did, we might be reading very different reviews of the musicals that came about as a result.
Several people on Twitter and other theatre kid-dominated social media platforms have responded to these offensive, misguided reviews of The Lightning Thief by demanding that major publications employ younger theatre critics who will give teen musicals a fair chance. I think that this is part of the solution, but I also think it’s imperative that we urge the existing older critics to stop looking down on shows written for teenagers simply because they’re for teenagers, and instead to cast aside their adult perspectives and ask themselves: “is this the kind of show my teen self would have wanted, even needed, to see?”
It’s vital to foster an environment where all kinds of musicals can flourish to the highest artistic standard possible, be they campy teen movie-esque romps, jukebox musicals, avant-garde electropop operas, or, yes, Dear Evan Hansen. As it stands, the current critical environment sets teen musicals up to fail before even considering their actual artistic strengths and weaknesses, and it’s hard for creatives and potential audiences to find and take on board the genuinely useful nuggets of criticism found in some negative reviews of shows like The Lightning Thief and Be More Chill when they have to wade through so much unnecessary cynicism and bias to get there. And if critics are genuinely worried that encouraging the rise of teen musicals will cause them to take over Broadway entirely, leaving nothing for overly serious adults to enjoy, then all I can do is point out once again that before very recently it was the teenagers who had nothing just for them on the musical theatre stage. So, maybe, said critics just need to count their blessings and find another fantasy.
The bare bones of this article were first published as a Twitter thread in the regrettably early hours of October 17th, 2019.