Trading up. It’s a phrase I didn’t hear until I moved to New York City. It’s the unattractive act of leaving one’s companion for someone better (i.e. sexier, smarter, more well-connected… take your pick). In a city where it’s easy to chase the illusive rainbow of being invited to the right parties and getting your name in the papers, it’s also a tempting pastime for any career-hungry individual.
It’s easy to sit back and label those who play the game as slimy, insincere, or just plain lucky. Is that true, or is it just how the machine of life works? Is it a necessary evil?
This question has come up for me multiple times in our industry. As an emerging musical theatre composer (I’m 42 and still emerging… oy!), I’m always interested in making sure my work lands in the hands of talented singing actors, who understand how to create a fully realized character through a song. Sometimes that person may not be Jeremy Jordan (I’m not knocking him. He’s great, but we’re not buds). Does that mean my songs won’t get out there? Will a performance venue not consider booking an evening of my work because I don’t have Broadway people singing my songs?
Unfortunately, with some venues that’s exactly what it means. Either that, or you’ll be performing there at 1 AM for your best friends in the world (because anyone who’s at your show at 1 AM is your best friend in the world).
Over a year ago, my collaborator and dear friend Alexandra Foucard and I were looking for a cool space to make our New York cabaret debut. We had been performing in Provincetown with great success and were looking forward to bringing our signature style home to our friends and colleagues who didn’t make it to Cape Cod during the summer months. Having both seen things at a particular well-known venue, we reached out to the director of programming to book a date. We submitted videos of ourselves performing (which were pretty smokin’ if we do say so ourselves…) and eagerly waited to hear back.
The response? Perform somewhere else first and invite us. Then we’ll talk.
So, we did. We went to a different venue, hired a killer band, and invited the programming director to one of our two sold-out shows. The response: “You’re really not our thing, but keep us posted on what you’re doing.”
Everyone wants to have their shows at one of the big-name venues (at a reasonable hour of the night). But when venues focus on star power over the quality of the act, it makes it very hard not to obsess over having names involved. Of course, venues have to make money, and no one can blame them for wanting a little insurance. But when they become that exclusive, what is one to do?
Find another venue.
I’m happy announce Alexandra and I are returning to The Triad for the third time to perform a new show this Fall. The Triad is now our venue of choice, because the staff is awesome, the piano and sound are wonderful, and we just love the space. Neither of us have attended performances at the other well-known venue since.
Of course, this conversation isn’t limited to performance venues. That’s just one example of how this issue gets played out in our industry. How many times have we heard of shows moving to Broadway with key cast members being replaced by bigger stars? Or a more high profile director? How many shows have we not seen because there wasn’t a name attached? And don’t get me started on the litany of musical theatre royalty who were cast aside when their shows became movies (Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, for example. I love Audrey Hepburn, but COME ON!).
This is just how our industry works. Or is it?
As with anything, it’s foolhardy to be reductive. Of course, there are wonderful exceptions. The first one that comes to mind is Title of Show. Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell, and Heidi Blickenstaff were not well known when they premiered their hilarious and touching meta show at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004. Now they’re all enjoying successful careers in theatre and television after a Broadway run. Good on them! And good for the folks who stood by them as they developed their show.
So what’s the answer for writers, who want to get their work out there? I think the best thing to do is to write for people who inspire you. If they’re on Broadway and you can get them to sing your songs, great. If not, that’s OK too. Collaborate with the best people for your work, regardless of their “clout”. I’m a strong believer that we all get to climb the ladder of success together. If I have success as a musical theatre writer, you can bet I have a list of colleagues I’m bringing with me, all of whom I implicitly trust. And many of those people are doing the same thing for me. I think that’s the best scenario.
There will always be people in our industry who are obsessed with celebrity. And to some extent, we all have to play the game at some point or another. But even if it requires a slower burn, I think it’s best to honor your work with the right performer, regardless of their name. And then find a venue that’s interested in what you bring to the table.
Soon, I can’t help but imagine you’ll be the person everyone will be talking about.
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