06/29/2010 11:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Broadway Experience

I have been thinking a lot about the Broadway experience as it relates to musicals. Is sitting in a grand theater all it takes to get the experience? Or is a certain amount of flash necessary? Or something else?

This past spring, over the course of two weeks I saw All About Me, The Addams Family and Million Dollar Quartet (in that order). At the end of the final one, my mother said to me: "Well, this was by far the most entertaining of the last three, which must make the other producers angry, because this has to have cost less money." She was right. Million Dollar Quartet, with its small cast and band, was the cheapest to run of those entries and it was the best. But it's missing something -- it is missing the "this is what Broadway is all about" feeling. That doesn't mean it's not enjoyable; I had a good time at the show. I tell people honestly that I like it. Yet I don't send tourists to it. I am not exactly sure why, but I think it is because part of me feels they could get a similar show in their hometown. That might very well not be true, but some part of me thinks it is. Which gets me back to my original inquiry -- what makes a show uniquely a Broadway show?

Oddly, in many ways it's easier to spot what makes an off-Broadway show than a Broadway one. Whenever I sit with folks at a musical theater festival and something is good, but doesn't seem like it would appeal to a wide mainstream audience, we say, "off-Broadway." When those shows have a large cast, we say something like: "That should be an off-Broadway musical, but with how expensive those are now, it probably just won't be produced." This goes along with what we all know -- we know that a Broadway musical typically has some mainstream commercial potential. But what else is required to make a property uniquely Broadway?

There are some that will argue that nothing is uniquely Broadway. Shows tour and, some would say, The Lion King in Iowa is the same as The Lion King at the Minskoff. But that reasoning is faulty. Wicked on Broadway is somehow more special than Wicked in Pennsylvania. I can never pinpoint exactly why this is, but I hear it time and time again from audience members. However I cannot say that just being on Broadway makes something extremely special, as that would go against my Million Dollar Quartet statements.

So now I am back to the start once more. Trying to identify an intangible. Perhaps it is a losing battle. I don't want to say it's about production values, though that factors into it. I don't want to say it's about originality, as that is shaky ground to stand on. I can't claim it's all about cast size or orchestra size necessarily. I can't even say why it matters, despite the fact that I am sure many of you reading this are looking for some reason why you are still reading this. What I do know is that it does matter. If people are only going to see one show while they are in town, I want it to be something that feels like you could only see it in New York. Now, with the exception of a show like LoveMusik, you can indeed see most musicals in Cleveland at some point, but there are those musicals that feel like they somehow belong on the Great White Way. It's those musicals that epitomize the Broadway experience, whatever that may be.