Creating New Musical Theatre Works: A Conversation in Process

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

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By: Lorene Phillips, Contributing Editor

After spending the better part of a year birthing The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers and co-producing my first off-Broadway event, THE CONCERT (watch the trailer here), I thought it time to reflect on why I took on this project back in January 2012 under Maestro David Sisco’s baton.  Probably for the reason we all sing, dance, act, write music, plays or TV shows:  it’s creative, challenging and engages our entire being rather than from just the neck up.

The most amazing thing about working on The Directory and THE CONCERT (read a review) has been the sheer bounty of diverse creative talent that has been attracted to it. The Directory is a “new work” in its own right, one that is without the traditional trajectory of a production, published book or media event.  It’s a web-platform that connects various people in the musical theatre industry, from teachers to writers and producers (seriously?).

Is that what it was in January of 2012 on the back of the napkin?  Not exactly.

Originally a poster paper presented at the NATS (National Association of Teacher’s of Singing) bi-annual conference, The Directory was built to give university and private voice teachers information and access to well-written, self-published contemporary musical theatre songs not available or known to them.  With new writers and subscribers joining regularly, a new media page and exposure at the upcoming International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT) this summer in Brisbane, Australia, The Directory continues to morph as we diversify our offerings and expand our audience, creating a valuable network for a new online community.

Having said that, it’s important to note we’re a work in progress, just like any play or musical.   It’s no coincidence to me that, after working so hard for a year, I recently received an e-mail prompting me to attend Singing a New Tune, Let’s Revise the Musical Theatre Development Process! an event hosted by TRU (Theatre Resources Unlimited) by a voice teacher subscriber ofThe Directory.

TRU is a networking, promotional and membership think-tank serving the NYC theatre community.   The organization produces a well-respected play and musical reading series, TRU Voices, an annual audition event for actors, ongoing panel discussions, producer boot camp, a top industry resource directory, membership referral and discount services.  It’s a sensible investment to become a member for working actors, producers, coaches and theatre professionals on the ground here in NYC.

BOB OST, Founder and Executive Director of TRU, assembled and moderated a rich panel of industry people, including ERIC GOLDMAN (Entertainment Attorney/Producer), JAMIBETH MARGOLIS (Independent Casting Director/Stage Director) JOE CALARCO (Co-Artistic Director Breaking Bread Theatre) FRANK & ELIZA VENTURA (CAP21 Theatre and Conservatory), JOHN CHATTERTON (Executive Director, Midtown International Theatre Festival and Off-Off Broadway Review creator) and TIFFANI GAVIN (Producer and General Manager). The audience was 36 strong including writers, producers and performers from the US and London.

After introducing ourselves and our projects, we launched into an in-depth and lively discussion about the challenges of producing new works.  We didn’t arrive at any conclusions or solutions, but a handful of important points cut through the evening.

“We, as an industry, are in a crisis and we are not investing in supporting new work or new authors.  We are only ‘musicalizing’ properties with built-in audience appeal” – Eric Goldman

This was echoed by regional theatre director Joe Calarco.  It seems to be caused by the increasing barriers, set up initially to protect creative artists, which have now cut off oxygen to the process of developing new work.  These include: showcase and contract rules, collaboration agreements and the astronomical costs of producing commercial theater .

This is a trend we’ve been reporting for quite a while now in our blog and explains why so few contemporary writers are getting their songs published.  Simply put, the expense is too great.   What if the show doesn’t have broad appeal?  How much of a risk are we willing to take on a new writer?  These are the questions producers and publishers have to ask given the investments involved in mounting productions and publishing sheet music.

We know The Directory will continue to open up avenues of direct connection for our writers and bring new musical theatre songs directly to the people who want to perform or produce them.  Our risk is minimal compared to that of a producer.  Because we don’t rely on sheet music sales to support our business model, we have the ability to make well-crafted songs more accessible without worrying if they will sell.  That’s not to say we’re a perfectly oiled machine, but we’re fortunate that we have more flexibility than those producing on and off Broadway.

The group and panelists discussed new work and how to protect it.  If you’re a writer, you already know the dangers of exposing your work at too early a stage of development.  Still, there are clever tricks producers can employ to protect a budding piece.  Producer Tiffani Gavin related that the producers of ONCE, the musical never sold tickets in the workshop phase in order to insulate the work and allow it to develop.Gavin also explained that the cast never changed from the show’s developmentto its opening, which is incredibly rare.  

Other shows, like BARE, the musical, gained an audience over a long period of time.  Originally developed in 2002 in Los Angeles, BARE, the musical didn’t initially make it to New York.  The show went directly into a catalogue (TRW) and  slowly built a national following in advance of its commercial run. BARE opened at New World Stages this past January (2013).  Cast recording forthcoming.

As an ever-changing online resource, we acknowledge the growing pains of developing in front of everyone’s eyes.  And yet, this is also a great gift because of the valuable input  we receive from the writers and subscribers.  We have a built in mechanism for feedback and use it to increase our success in the marketplace.

“It’s hard for young writers, performers and directors to have a [collaborative] dialogue because they are so anxious to garner resume credits.”   – Jamibeth Margolis

Well said and very true.  To this point, Eric Goldman mentioned a book he was currently reading entitled Group Genius, by Keith Sawyer, which points out that great creativity is often the result of many small creative sparks over a long period of time.  Sawyer relates current research and anecdotal stories to this end.  Collaborating for the good of the group over the individual, while a trend in urban classroom education, is not necessarily a trend in the theatre at the moment.  I believe this is a symptom of the “me-centric urban grind” in which we live.  This may be why Goldman, who recently joined the board of The League of Independent Theatre NY, wants to restore New York City to being the “Silicon Valley of indie theatre.”  This re-branding of off-Broadway could shake-off the uber-commercialization that has crept in the last 15 years.

Similarly, The Directory bucks the traditional model of internet sheet music sales.  While we ask a small administrative fee from writers listed on the site, we do not take a cut of the profits of writers’ individual song sales.  The Directory aims to be a curated resource that hopes to remain independent from the commercialization of theatre songs and theatrical properties.  We hope to elevate the conversation above the “commerciality” of songs and shows.  We want to be a gathering place of  information on the art and craft of well-written musical theatre songs and cultivate exposure and nurture song writing talent within our ranks.

John Chatterton, Executive Director of Midtown International Theatre Festival shared that the New York theatre festival circuit is a ‘must do’ for those wanting to get their shows on the radar of the producers and directors in New York.  MITF is possibly the only festival of note that does not take a financial stake in the future revenues of the shows they produce.

Frank Ventura of CAP21 Theatre/Conservatory mentioned that, “resources are examined when it comes to new works.”  CAP 21 has relationships with various theatres around the country and tries to match new projects with an appropriate theatre that can take it on.

Toward the end of the evening moderator Bob Ost brought up the conversation we didn’t have, “What are the markets for new works that aren’t commercially viable? How do we define success?” We tabled these for another panel.

It is still quite expensive to get a show noticed in an off-off theatre venue – the investment is often times too big for the artist to undertake.  Off-Broadway used to be the incubator for challenging new works but in recent years it has become commercialized and unaffordable.  Joe Calarco is right in noting, “The full commercialization of Off-Broadway is hurting development of new work.

Off-Broadway’s commercialization is probably what made it impossible for BARE, the musical to make it here in 2002 when it had such critical acclaim in LA at that time.  But, like any great story and compelling craft, it cut through.  It made it to NY, NY.  Let’s hope we attract more of the same and that The Directory can help level the playing field.

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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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