How to Make a Hit Musical

So while a familiar face won’t hurt your chances of success, viewers have been more than willing to throw their money at works that don’t feature a single recognizable name on the marquee.


Industry wisdom has always been that a revival of an already cherished musical is always safer than premiering an unknown show. This is why the calendar is generally punctuated by a Anne or one Phantom or one Chicago – these shows come with a pre-made fanbase that will almost guarantee a certain level of success. Almost.

Josh Piterman will star in The Phantom of the Opera in Melbourne. Credit:Johan Persson/Justin McManus

Adaptations of stories known from elsewhere in the pop cultural canon are also favored – The Lion King, Cinderella and Little shredded pill bring in curious audiences to see how a live version of a beloved classic will perform. Let’s face it: ever since Baz Luhrmann hit it big with his 1990 production of Bohemianhe obsessively remakes the same show through various iterations of Red Mill!and tickets to the ongoing production at the Regent become gangbusters.

However, adaptations can backfire. In recent memory productions based on films like Ghost, Xanadu and The bodyguard opened to middling reviews, and didn’t exactly leave the transformed landscape in their wake.


Some of the finest works of musical theater achieve the kind of grandeur that transcends the moment of their creation. Then there are shows with a flying car.

Grant Almirall as Don Lockwood is spellbinding in the title song sequence of Singin' In The Rain.

Grant Almirall as Don Lockwood is spellbinding in the title song sequence of Singin’ In The Rain. Credit:Hagen Hopkins

It’s great if you’re working with a composer like Sondheim, but it doesn’t hurt to have a gimmick either. Sing in the rain is much more appealing when the actors sing in the rain, and even reviews of early versions of King Kong had to admit that the monkey was really big.


Raiding an artist’s back catalog for a set of precooked hits has always been popular in musical theater. So-called jukebox musicals are often derided for relying on someone else’s musical genius, rather than presenting the world with original songs, but there have been plenty with real chops. Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia! and Priscilla, queen of the desert are all jukebox musicals, but few would argue that they don’t stand up for themselves in their own right.

Be aware, however, that the more popular the music, the higher the price. You can’t ride on the heels of a great songwriter without paying the rights – take Red Mill!whose medley of some of the most earworm-worthy songs of the last 100 years meant it had to pay more in licensing fees than any musical in history.


Musical theater isn’t always associated with the most complex storytelling, but there’s more to it. The stories that seem least likely to work in other forms sometimes shine in musical form – Victorian Opera’s recent production of tommy confirmed it as one of the most bizarre backstories ever. On paper a sight such as hamilton sounds like a terrible investment, but it’s a show that changed the whole industry.

Cast of Tommy!  during a rehearsal at the Théâtre du Palais.

Cast of Tommy! during a rehearsal at the Théâtre du Palais.Credit: wayne taylor

Stories in musical theater do not need to be believable, per se, or even relatable, but it is essential that they are not treated as disposable. Like form-loving audiences, they might be interested in a night of fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously – or a darker, longer night of the soul – but just like those audiences, they demand to be taken. on their own terms.


Even people who don’t know hamilton to know hamilton. It’s hard to think of many works in any medium with better word-of-mouth – in New York, the musical is famous for the years it takes to get a ticket, and the sometimes ridiculous amounts that people will pay to enter.

Left to right: Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2018.

Left to right: Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2018.Credit:cassell

Alex Lacamoire is musical director and orchestrator of the Broadway production and travels to Melbourne to play the same roles there. He met hamiltonLin-Manuel Miranda’s mastermind and director Thomas Kail in 2008, when the three worked on Miranda’s musical In the heights.

It was during a performance at the White House with Miranda that Lacamoire first encountered a song that would become the opening number for hamiltonand over the next few years, he watched the show slowly come together.

He says part of Manuel’s genius lies in the way his compositions operate on almost unconscious levels that aren’t always obvious to the listener.

“One of the things that Lin is a real genius at is using patterns and reusing chord progressions, reusing lyrics and having them appear as repeats throughout the show. He’s really good at it. to lean on something.”

He takes the example of hamilton song To burn“What you might not immediately notice is that the song’s entire chord progression is built around two songs that we’ve heard before on the show, one being the opening number and the other being a song that Eliza sings called It would be enough. These progressions make up the song but the melody is different, Eliza’s song is a waltz while the others are in 4/4 time.

“So these kind of subliminal things tie the score together and make it sound like one big piece, with themes that repeat and reoccur.”

This dense stratification of meanings resonates at all levels of hamilton, he says. “Visually, there are a lot of dance moves and directing choices that are really layered and you don’t catch them on the first watch. Once you revisit the show and pay attention, you really see how well the choreography has been planned.”


Lacamoire says there is no recipe for success in musical theater and only a fool would try to guess the tastes of the audience. “I’ve worked on shows where I thought the script wasn’t funny at all, and the audience was angry every night. There are bits where, again, you know the music is so compelling and you’re obsessed with the story, and it can’t sell a ticket and closes early.

But where the level of hamiltonThe success of took everyone by surprise, he says it was due to something else unexpected: “It’s not typical that everyone is on the same page, every designer really understands, everyone gets along, everyone is equally inspired, not just by the musical material but by each other’s work.

“It’s a really compelling story told with great skill, and everyone saw the show the same way and has great leadership from our director. I’d be lucky if I did something remotely as satisfying as hamilton in my life.”

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