There's a Broadway arms race raging in cruise ship entertainment. It started nearly a decade ago when Norwegian mounted a chopped-down version of the lesser-known musical Smokey Joe's Café (1994) on one of its ships. That show, a simple revue of Leiber and Stoller early rock songs, fit the mold for the jukebox style of live entertainment passengers expected: familiar, plotless, tuneful, and over within 90 minutes.
But the Broadway/cruise line divide had been broken. Soon, Royal Caribbean licensed a bona fide musical theater smash for one of its ships. A pared-down version of Hairspray, a 2002 blockbuster, was installed as the signature evening show on its new Oasis of the Seas, then the largest cruise ship in the world. It was, if you'll pardon the phrase, a sea change for cruise ship shows: Not only was it a property that was normally only available on Broadway or on national tour, but it was also a show with a plot and spoken acted scenes. Even the cast got an upgrade from the usual: The role of Edna was played by Jim J. Bullock from the '80s sitcom Too Close for Comfort.
Other Broadway brands followed on many other ships, as Royal Caribbean and Norwegian added popular shows such as Rock of Ages, Legally Blonde, Chicago, Cats, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Usually, they were condensed versions, but last year, Royal Caribbean busted that convention, too, by mounting a full version of Mamma Mia!, complete with an intermission, lifted word-for-word from the Broadway version—no cuts, no concessions. No one was sure whether audience members would wander away during the break—and most didn't.
This year, it's Princess Cruises' turn to evolve the conventions of the once-stale cruise ship show. It partnered with Stephen Schwartz, the composer-lyricist of Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, and other iconic shows, to create Magic to Do for the Crown Princess. On the surface, it's a simple, one-act revue—the kind of entertainment cruise ships have mounted for years, albeit with a very high technical budget and contributions from major Broadway creatives such as director Gabriel Barre and lighting designer Ken Billington.
Magic to Do is billed as "a new musical," but it's actually a revue of songs, some of which are well-known ("Day By Day," "Defying Gravity") and some of which come from lesser-known Schwartz projects (the unfinished Houdini).
But this show is more significant than the typical cruise ship revue because it marks the start of a four-show collaboration with Schwartz—the first time a cruise line has signed a formidable Broadway talent to create a series of new shows expressly for ships.
"They came to me with the idea to do this revue, Magic to Do, which is a basically a revue of my songs incorporating magic illusions," says Schwartz.
Once they were in the middle of the show, though, the two parties agreed to expand their collaboration to a series of four shows.
"I thought, this is a great opportunity for me and also for the musical theater creators that I know to create something especially for here," says Schwartz, who will be tapping talent both write and mount all-new material. "I'm finding the people. It's my debut as an impresario," he joked.
Now Princess will be diving into musicals that are not only cabaret-style revues but ones that may have a plot and spoken scenes, which on Broadway are called "book musicals."
"We have one book show that we're going to try," says Schwartz. "No one's done this. All of this is an experiment, so some things may work better than others. Even the revues—we want to have not just a succession of numbers but some kind of overall theme and some kind of emotional impact to elevate the concept of a revue a little bit."
Whereas licensing a Broadway show is often a simple matter of staging a script that is already proven to work, inventing new shows from scratch requires investment and patience.
"This had a whole developmental process, and while we were doing the work last week on the ship, we were making changes," says Schwartz. "We may actually make a few small adjustments in this as we put it on other ships, but the show is basically done."
Magic to Do had a three-week rehearsal period in July, and the show's debut last weekend was preceded by a month of technical rehearsals—the onstage illusions stretch the limited space and capabilities of a cruise ship's theatre. The creatives don't come cheap either—to attract talent worthy of the investment, the principal singers receive the equivalent of a Broadway-level salary.
In 2008, Disney Cruise Line debuted a 7-song musical version of Toy Story, but Disney's audience generally prefers revues culled from material that is familiar to them—this fall, the cruise line will debut a musical version of the Rapunzel animated film Tangled.
But Princess appears to be creating something that borders on a conservatory program for new show—albeit ones that will probably not be as complex as the ones that Broadway audiences demand.
"Princess is doing a thing that really, no other cruise line has done," says Schwartz. "We'll see what happens, but it's been fun to do something in a new venue and in a new medium. I really felt a responsibility to Princess to really deliver something for them. They gave a lot of support, they spent a lot of money to really do a great show and I felt it was up to me to deliver. And now we've got three more shows to play around with."