Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University, has conducted an epic analysis of the creative teams behind every musical produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1989. He charted the collaborations and friendships of more than 2,100 different artists, from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Uzzi chose musicals for a simple reason: they are a model of group creativity. “Nobody creates a Broadway musical by themselves,” he said. “The production requires too many different kinds of talent.” A composer has to write songs with a lyricist and a librettist; a choreographer has to work with a director, who is probably getting notes from the producers.
The first thing Uzzi discovered is that the people who worked on Broadway were part of an extremely interconnected social network: it didn’t take many links to get from the librettist of West Side Story to the choreographer of Cats. Uzzi then came up with a way to measure the density of these connections for each musical, a figure he called Q. In essence, the amount of Q reflects the “social intimacy” of people working on the play, with higher levels of Q signaling a greater sense of closeness. Uzzi’s questions were simple: Is there a consistent relationship between Q and theatrical success? How does the structure of the group impact the creative work?
After analyzing all the musicals, Uzzi had his answer: the social intimacy of the collaborators was one of the most important variables on Broadway. “Frankly, I was surprised by just how big the effect was,” Uzzi says. “I expected Q to matter, but I had no idea it would matter this much.” According to Uzzi’s data, when the Q was low, or less than 1.7, the musicals were much more likely to fail. Because the artists were all strangers, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. “This wasn’t so surprising,” Uzzi says. “After all, you can’t just put a group of people who have never worked together in a room and expect them to make something great. It takes time to develop a successful collaboration.” However, when the Q was too high (above 3.0) the work also suffered, since the group was vulnerable to groupthink. The artists were so close that they all thought in similar ways, which stifled theatrical innovation. According to Uzzi, this is what happened on Broadway during the 1920s. Although the decade produced many talented artists -Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein II- it was also full of epic artistic failures. In fact, according to Uzzi’s data, 87 percent of musicals produced during the decade were utter flops, which is 20 percent above the historical norm. The problem, says Uzzi, is that all of these high-profile artists fell into the habit of only collaborating with their close friends. “Broadway [during the 1920s] had some of the biggest names ever,” says Uzzi. “But the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity.” The end result was a surfeit of mediocre musicals.
What kind of collaboration, then, led to the most successful musicals? If it’s dangerous to work with complete strangers, but we also shouldn’t work with our best friends, then who should we work with? Uzzi’s data clearly demonstrates that the best Broadway shows were produced with intermediate levels of Q. The numbers tell the story: a musical produced at the ideal level of Q (2.6) was two and half times more likely to be a commercial success than a musical produced with a low Q (<1.4) or a high Q (>3.2). It was also three times more likely to be a critical success. This led Uzzi and his collaborator Jarrett Spiro to argue that creative collaborations have a sweet spot: “The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact well -they had a familiar structure to fall back on- but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.”
Uzzi’s favorite example of “intermediate Q” is West Side Story, one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. In 1957, the play was seen as a radical departure from Broadway conventions, both for its willingness to tackle social problems and for its extended dance scenes. At first glance, West Side Story might look like a play with high Q, since several of its collaborators were already Broadway legends who had worked together before. The concept for the play emerged from a conversation between Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents. But that conversation between old friends was only the beginning. As Uzzi points out, West Side Story benefited from a crucial injection of unknown talent, such as the 25-year-old lyricist Steven Sondheim, who had never worked on Broadway before, and Peter Gennaro, an assistant to Robbins who provided several important ideas for the choreography. “People have a tendency to want to only work with their friends,” says Uzzi. “It feels so much more comfortable. But that's exactly the wrong thing to do. If you really want to make something original, then you’re going to need to seek out some new people, too.”