Contemporary Musical Theatre (or Theater): I Mean, Why Bother??

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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Since starting The Directory project with Lorene Phillips about fifteen months ago, I’ve been asked the following question more than a handful of times:

Why did you start this project? Everyone knows about contemporary musical theatre and how to find it.

The person inquiring is not trying to be rude – they ask with an honest curiosity. This is usually followed by a litany of writing teams we may all know: Pasek & Paul, Kerrigan & Lowdermilk, etc… To them, our resource seems like a noble but somewhat fruitless effort.

I don’t intend to defend the Directory. Everyone is welcome to their own opinion and I’m not threatened if people say the resource isn’t for them. I will, however, try to clarify why we started The Directory project and why we think it’s a valuable tool.

If you’re a regular follower of the blog, you know this project started because of a conversation I had with Lorene a year ago last January. As a voice teacher at Marymount Manhattan College, I am often frustrated by the lack of published contemporary musical theatre songs, especially since, as a member of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, I know great new songs are out there. We created a resource to help teachers connect directly to writers and their songs, hoping to build a new network of artists. Simple, right?

Yes and no. We had to make several important decisions about how we would do this. Would we actually sell the music? What would be the criteria for song submissions? How could we create a website that was more than just a database, but a tool to connect and empower communities (to see how we answered these questions, read this previous blog). Even with these questions, we knew The Directory was a good idea and worthy of people’s time. As the website continues to grow with a whole new media center (launched last week), we believe this to be even more true.

As we began to build the resource – first as a hard copy poster paper presentation for the NATS Conference last summer and then as a website – we had to convince writers it was a good idea. For most, it wasn’t a hard sell. We provide for them a very inexpensive way of having their music heard by a specific audience with an opportunity to make money on their songs (we don’t take a cent from their sales). I have found that, on the whole, writers see great value in what we offer. As of this writing, we get three to five inquiries from new writers a week. Our write-up in American Theatre magazine and The Dramatists Guild publication have really made people take notice.

To us, there are very practical reasons why The Directory is a useful tool to the musical theatre community. Sadly, many smart, invested voice teachers don’t know a lot of contemporary repertoire. I don’t wish to make a gross generalization, but outside major metropolitan areas, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and AVENUE Q are still considered new. There are certainly exceptions, but in our experience many teachers don’t know where to look for new work – their students often bring in contemporary songs to their lessons. Now, I absolutely adore my students, don’t get me wrong, but often times what they bring in is what they want to sing rather than what they should sing. I have to have enough knowledge of contemporary musical theatre to suggest something more appropriate.

Also, it’s no surprise there are people out there illegally sharing sheet music. This is wrong on so many levels. The most important issue to me is that it hurts the writers. As glamorous as it sounds, many of us are not exactly raking in the dough on our sheet music sales, especially if we’ve gone through a publisher or digital sheet music site that takes a large percentage of our sales. Still, we rely on people buying and performing our songs. It helps us continue our craft. It gives us the knowledge that what we create is of value and encourages us to keep writing.

The Directory makes a lot of scores (about 380 to date) much more available to interested buyers. And these aren’t just any scores – they’ve been fully curated, chosen by a cross-section of industry professionals.  By making these songs more accessible, we hope The Directory will help lower the probability of this music being pirated.

It’s true that most everyone specializing in musical theatre knows Pasek & Paul and Kerrigan & Lowdermilk. They get good press. They’re smart writers and, in our limited interactions with them, we can tell you they’re also really stellar folks. But to assume they sum up all of contemporary musical theatre, especially when the genre has branched out in so many ways, is like saying if you know Rodgers & Hanmerstein you understand the Golden Age of musical theatre. What about Frank Loesser? Burton Lane? Jule Styne? Each had their own distinct voice and deserve our study.

And this may seem like an obvious point, but many contemporary writers have intensively studied musical theatre song form by looking at Golden Age shows. We know how to write AABA songs (think “Someone to Watch Over Me”), charm songs, “I am” songs, “I want” songs and musical scenes. While the styles might have changed, listen to a song by Barry Wyner or Jenny Giering next to a Golden Age song and you’ll see how well they hold up when it comes to craft. We believe in supporting writers who carry on that tradition and bring their own voices to it.

The Golden Age of musical theatre has had the benefit of time and perspective to put it into context. We don’t have that gift at our disposal. In time, I’m sure history will decide who the major players were in what we consider contemporary musical theatre (at one point everything was contemporary, right?). In the meantime, we plan on leveling the playing field, making sure a wide range of writers have every chance to be heard.

Some might argue that teachers and students already know most of the writers in The Directory. Does that also mean they know all their songs? Or how to purchase their music? Or get their e-mail address and ask them for a different key?  The Directory makes all of that information available in one place.

I can’t think of a time when building community is a bad thing. Lorene and I have had the immense joy of getting to know the writers and their work. We’ve attended their shows, made connections for them where we could. In our opinion, it lifts everyone up, inspires us (and a future generation) and makes us all feel pretty darn good. Anything that’s affirming and supportive, that engages and encourages a community to grow is alright in my book.

I was at a new Broadway musical the other night. It was good. Not lift-me-out-of-my-seat good, but it had some lovely moments. I couldn’t help but think what a miracle it was that this show – or any show for that matter – got to Broadway. While I know it isn’t quite true, I swear some of us would have a better chance at winning the lottery than getting a show up on Broadway. We all have to be a little off our rocker to be in this business.

The next couple blogs will outline in further detail the challenges of writing and producing contemporary musical theatre. We hope they will further clarify why contemporary writers need our support and why resources like The Directory can be a useful tool to teachers, students and musical theatre professionals alike.

So, keep discovering and buying music from new writers. Oh, and don’t forget to (re)discover Rodgers & Hart, Comden & Green and Lerner & Lowe. That’s where we all began.

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 550+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.

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One thought on “Contemporary Musical Theatre (or Theater): I Mean, Why Bother??

  1. David & Lorene,

    Thank you so much for creating the Directory. It is a valuable resource, especially for those of us outside of the major US musical theatre hotspots! Here in British Columbia, there are a number of small, independent companies that mount proven successful contemporary shows, but very few who are risking and producing original material. Students are thrilled when assigned a new piece that I’ve discovered here and colleagues and classmates are excited to hear something entirely new.

    Looking forward to many more exciting discoveries,

    Cheers,
    Craig Tompkins
    NW Regional Governor
    National Association of Teachers of Singing

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