Not the Greatest Gatsby

By: Aliza Billet  |  July 1, 2024

By Aliza Billet

By the time most American teens graduate high school, they have read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The novel is a favorite among English teachers because of its continued relevance to current times through its themes of social class, corruption, and disillusion with the American Dream. It is a snapshot of 1920s American history told in an accessible way. Lastly, the novel is an excellent literary teaching tool, containing accessible and clear examples of symbolism; newer readers of the classics can use Gatsby as a bridge through which to understand more complicated literature.

Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby follows Nick Carraway, a young bond salesman, as he is introduced to the wealthier side of 1920s New York. Although the people Nick meets and the parties he attends initially appear to be exciting and fun, he eventually becomes disillusioned with the wealthy society and realizes that it is actually amoral, toxic, and even dangerous. The central plot of the novel focuses on Nick’s cousin, Daisy, and his neighbor, Gatsby, as they rekindle their relationship under the nose of Daisy’s adulterous husband, Tom. However, their relationship serves as a lens through which to view the materialistic and hedonistic society in which Nick finds himself, and not as a love story for the ages.

One would think that a musical adaptation of The Great Gatsby, especially one starring musical theater icons such as Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) and two-time Tony nominee Eva Noblezada (Miss Saigon, Hadestown), would be a smashing success. However, Broadway’s The Great Gatsby is not as great as its title implies.

While it is impossible to ignore the musical talent of this cast, whose numbers not only include Jordan and Noblezada (Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, respectively), but also Noah J. Ricketts (Nick Carraway), Samantha Pauly (Jordan Baker), and others, most of the songs are not particularly memorable. Rather than furthering the plot or providing emotional resonance, the solo numbers simply showcase the performers’ musical skill. While that skill is undeniable across the board, for audience members coming to see a story rather than a concert, the solo performances are disappointing. 

However, there are also group numbers which are full of energy, exciting, and fun to watch. The opening number, “Roaring On,” excellently sets the tone for the lifestyle of the wealthy party-goers in the 1920s. “New Money,” where the audience gets to see one of Gatsby’s famous and extravagant parties, justifies the musical’s singular Tony nomination (and win!) for Best Costume Design; the company shines in their dazzling 1920s-esque dresses and suits. Both the technical skill of the performers and the quality of the costumes and sets make these large group numbers exciting to watch.

Although not nominated for Best Scenic Design, the sets in The Great Gatsby are a joy to see. The stage transforms multiple times to various places, such as different rooms in Gatsby’s lavish mansion, the Buchanan home, multiple hotel rooms, Wilson’s gas station, and Nick’s cottage. Each set feels complete and like the audience has truly been transported to a different location. Props and moving set pieces are used particularly well in the number “Only Tea,” when Gatsby, preparing to be reunited with Daisy, frantically and humorously goes over-the-top in decking out Nick’s small cottage with excessive grandeur in an attempt to make everything perfect for his love. In terms of sets, The Great Gatsby pulls out all the stops and audiences are sure to appreciate that aspect of the production.

However, the musical adaptation of The Great Gatsby differs from its source material in a few major ways. These changes detract from the quality of the adaptation. 

At its core, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a tragedy known for its symbolism, which explores class structures in 1920s New York. However, the musical adaptation is painted as a simple love story between Gatsby and Daisy. While the actors do a good job telling the story, this reframing negates the entire point of the novel, as it waters down themes that are a crucial part of the book and paints morally gray characters in a better light for surface-level storytelling purposes. Symbols such as Daisy’s rose, the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, and even the famous Green Light lack the substance they do in the novel. Ultimately, the changes made in adapting the classic novel to the stage lead viewers to wonder why such a story was adapted in the first place.

If you are deciding whether or not to see The Great Gatsby on Broadway, I personally believe that the musical overall is not the greatest adaptation of its source material, nor the best of those currently on Broadway (I recommend Suffs over Gatsby any day of the week). However, it has talented performers, excellent sets and costumes, and exciting choreography. One other thing the show has going for it is its student rush ticket policy, which allows people with valid student IDs to visit the box office on the day of the performance and purchase up to two $25 tickets, provided there are seats available for that day. With that in mind, have fun at the show if you see it, and don’t worry about it if you don’t.