The State of Broadway Part III: Specials

Now that we’ve covered big Broadway trends and game-changing plays, it’s time to take a look at the Great White Way’s most unique genre: specials.
Special productions from the last twenty years have run for an average of around 48 performances (or about two months), but what makes a production a special?
Loosely, these productions eschew the traditional structure of a musical or play either by highlighting a unique performer or group of performers comprising a theatrical but often non-narrative act (i.e., a notable musician, comedian, or illusionist). In many cases, it often comes down to how the performer wants to define the production.
It’s a very special concept — and in this case, we relied on the Internet Broadway Database and Tony Award® guidelines to define and sort our shows going forward.

One (or One Hundred) Nights Only!
In evaluating the last two decades of specials, the only distinct pattern is that there is no distinct pattern. Over the last twenty years, 25% of specials ran for less than 10 performances, while 32% ran for more than 48 (the current, overall average number of performances), and 13% ran for more than 100!
Keeping with their namesake, specials have such a wide variety within their own defined genre that, while number of performances may signify the success of a musical or play, some shows are meant to only last for one performance: a one-night-only benefit concert from Mandy Patinkin isn’t a flop because it’s the lowest data point.
With that in mind, we’ll take a look at two specials that achieved success in not just longevity, but critical acclaim.

A Very Boss Special
With its most recent extension and over 100 performances under its belt already, Springsteen on Broadway is on track to become the longest-running special in two decades. What propelled the Boss to not only break records, but multiple critics’ top ten lists?
By weaving in heartfelt stories from his recently-released memoir with some of his most iconic songs, Bruce Springsteen gives both superfans and new listeners an intimate peek at the real man behind the legend, allowing audiences to relate to and enjoy the material in the same way as bio-jukebox musicals like Beautiful and the recently-opened Summer, only with the subject playing the songs themselves.

Dame Edna Still Reigns
While the Boss is close to breaking the record for the longest-running Broadway special ever, the title for the most performances of a special still belongs to Dame Edna Everage.
While the Boss takes breaks in between sets (contributing to his particularly lengthy stay at the Walter Kerr), Dame Edna ruled the stage in The Royal Tour for 297 performances — then came Back with a Vengeance for 163 more. The satirical, cutting diva picked up awards from Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and special Tony Awards® and took both shows on the road after successful Broadway runs.
How did this solo performer rack up more performances on Broadway than 9 to 5, Bring It On, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood combined? Her dangerous (and often controversial) wit interacted directly with audiences each night as she brought an unparalleled level of personality to the stage. By never playing it safe, Dame Edna created a performance that couldn’t be missed, and sustained it through the structure of a one-woman play.

While the content of special productions on Broadway covers a range of genres, they all bring something unique to the New York theatre scene by breaking free of the conventions of most stage productions. Be it a Boss, a Dame, or one night with Mandy Patinkin, these performers give audiences a chance to experience something completely new in a Broadway theater.
Don’t forget: you can find your own Broadway Outliers in our complete list of the last two decades of Broadway shows here, and stay tuned for our fourth and final installment: Musicals.