Bring Back The 3 Act Musical!

One solution to our audience's shortening attention spans: the 3 act musical!

Here’s what we know…

Fact: Our audience’s attention spans are getting shorter. Social media, video games and TV are actually re-wiring our brain’s attention span. Seriously.

Fact: Our audiences are addicted to technology and get downright agitated if they can’t get a regular fix of email, facebook, sports scores, twitter, etc.

Fact: Musical theater is nothing if not adaptable to the times and current tastes.

That said, before we start shrinking and shortening all our new musicals to fit into a 90 minute package, I’d like to make a case for the 3 act musical. I’m not talking about back in the day of Shakespeare and the Greeks where you could spend 5 or 6 hours at a time (often standing!) at the theater. Perish the thought!

But how about something like this…

Act 1: 40 minutes
First Intermission: 15 minutes
Act 2: 40 minutes
Second Intermission:15 minutes
Act 3: 30-40 minutes
Total Time: 2 1/2 hours or less!

How long is the average two act musical right now? 2 1/2 hours!

Fact: Having been reprogrammed by modern technology, it’s been proven that our brains have been re-wired to need a break sooner than they used to.

Fact: Our audiences would have twice as many opportunities to tweet, text, check-in and otherwise spread the good word about the show – not to mention get enough of a tech fix that they don’t go into withdrawal half way through a traditional second act.

Fact: With two intermissions theaters would have the opportunity to make twice as much money on concessions

Fact: An extra bathroom break wouldn’t be so bad either!

But what does this do to musical structure you ask? Good question. We’d need a new structure! And that wouldn’t be so bad, since most people can’t get the existing two act structure to work anyway (did I just say that out loud?!).

I’d suggest that this new structure begin and end each act with a bang – what musical didn’t benefit from more big numbers or dramatic cliff hangers? Those pesky TV shows sure know the formula to keep people coming back after the commercial breaks.

Have any of you writers out there broken the mold and written a 3 act book musical recently? I, for one, would be extremely curious to hear how it worked out. I’m not suggesting that this would work for every new musical but a little experimentation couldn’t hurt. It might be time to shake things up on Broadway!


  1. I
    s this a serious suggestion, or am I missing the sarcasm? “Fact” One is, first of all, simply untrue. I worked for the Shuberts when Nicholas Nickelby was running in NY. EVERYONE wondered if the audience would be able to “sit still”, what with our allegedly shrinking attention spans. The FIRST intermission of the first half of the 8 and one half hour performance came over 2 hours into the show. During that time you could hear a pin drop; you heard not the rustle of a program; not ONE person got up to pee. The point? They were THAT in to the STORY. As for “Fact” Two — It’s somewhat inane to suggest that the theater needs to be MORE like our over-wired society in order to thrive. The theater needs to offer an ANTIDOTE to our over-wired society in order to thrive (one might even say “survive”.)

  2. And curiously, movies are still written in three act form. Also, there are other reasons theatre used to be an all night affair. It was a social event. It was all about seeing and being seen. Second, concessions. More intermissions, more sales. Third: The opera used to start at 6 and end at midnight. You got a lot for your money in the old days.
    But we are impatient, and we want our fix of culture to fit in before Letterman comes on.

  3. Offhand, I know of one musical that did succeed in its 3-acts; “The Apple Tree”. It had three separate stories. Creatives struggle with finding the point in a show where to split it; what is a good enough cliff hanger and how do you drive the audience to run back to their seats with anticipation and excitement. Economically, sure more profits are gained with concession and souvenir between acts; is this an audience issue or a producing issue… I will admit, my biggest complaint about the other “yellow brick road” story is its “wrap it up” second act; i felt cheated. As a theatre lover and patron, I know I am one in a couple hundred who would notice, but could this not be another reason to point the finger at the writer if the 3-act musical doesn’t work? 🙂

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