How Musicals are Made
Getting Your Musical Produced
by John Kenrick
- Seven Rules
- 1 - Give Up
- 2 - A Business
- 3 - Unsolicited Scripts
- 4 - Get It Staged
- 5 - Income
- 6 - Resurrection
- 7 - Go For It
Every few weeks, I get another e-mail that goes something like this
I've written a new musical that (in my humble opinion) is really sensational! So what do I do now? Which producers should I send it to, and how do I find an agent? Can you give me a list of prospects? Your suggestions would be much appreciated!
Ah, there is nothing like the enthusiasm of someone who has just finished writing a musical. As a sometime lyricist/librettist and former assistant to several Broadway producers, I have seen the production process from various perspectives. So I would like to offer anyone who wants to seven bits of valuable, blunt advice to anyone who wants to see their musical produced. First and foremost . . .
1. Give up!
If there is anything else you can possibly do with your life, drop this show biz stupidity right now. I mean it! There are so many alternative ways to spend your brief time on this planet. Find enlightenment as a monk, settle on a jungle hillside to observe gorillas, seek intelligent life forms in Florida whatever floats your boat. But please, run the hell away from any mad plan to write musicals.
No matter how much talent or spunk you've got, you have a better chance of winning a multi-state lottery than you do of succeeding in musical theatre. Frank Wildhorn is the only new American composer to establish himself on Broadway in the last two decades, and none of his three shows (Jekyll & Hyde, Scarlet Pimpernel, Civil War) turned a profit. Frustrating as that sounds, it is even worse when you consider that each of those shows required five years or more of epic effort before they made it to Broadway.
Those few writers, composers and performers who achieve any degree of acclaim on Broadway rarely manage to make a living in the musical theatre. If you don't believe me, I'll introduce you several friends who have won raves in the New York Times but still tend bars or work in offices to make ends meet. So if you know what's good for you, burn your manuscripts and demo tapes!However, if you know in your deepest heart that there is no conceivable way you can live without pursuing this hopeless dream, read on. Just don't say I didn't warn you!
2. Remember, musical theatre (or film) is a business
Most people in show business don't give a hoot in hell about developing an art form or making history. They just want to be part of hits that makes money. Hits pay the bills flops do not. You think such a materialistic attitude is awful? Well get over it! The need to make money is a fact of life in every business, including charities, politics, medicine and organized religion. So don't get angry when people refuse to put their careers and fortunes on the line for your untried masterpiece. Until a project shows signs of being commercially viable, it is not going to be of much interest to anyone.
3. Never send unsolicited scripts/tapes to producers
A sad fact established producers look on unrequested scripts as junk mail. If your submission is not tossed directly in the trash, it is either thrown onto a pile of unread scripts (and trashed later) or handed over to an assistant for review. Then, whether the assistant likes it or not, it will be trashed anyway. No Broadway producer has ever launched a multimillion dollar production based on an assistant's opinion.
Ah, but you say it will be different with your show because it is truly sensational? Wake up, kiddo! Broadway producers are not artists! They are business people who must find projects with enough verifiable profit potential to attract investors. Be honest if you had major bucks, would you put them on the line for a new, unproven musical written by someone no one had ever heard of?
You may find some cold comfort in knowing that it isn't any easier for living legends. Consider John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composers of Cabaret and Chicago. When they send out the script and demo for a new musical, you can bet it gets serious attention. But producers and investors know that this team has not had a new hit show in over twenty years. As a result, few will invest in a new Kander and Ebb project. Their musical version of Skin of Our Teeth has been bouncing around since the mid 1990's, and The Visit disappeared after a regional production. If Kander and Ebb get such a tough reception, what do you think unknowns are in for?
So, how do you get commercial producers to notice you?
4. To get your show noticed, get it staged!
The first rule of all good writing is to show, not tell, right? Well, instead of telling producers that your new musical is a winner, show them! Once a musical is on its feet, it can be reviewed and (with luck) start a buzz, attracting professional attention. There are several ways do this.
- Find a theatre company (regional, college, off-Broadway, etc.) interested in experimenting with new musicals. Such companies exist all across the United States. They get numerous solicitations, so your stuff will have to be outstanding to get noticed. Rent got its start by winning a Richard Rodgers Award for new composers. The NY Theatre Workshop then showcased it in a small East Village theatre. A team of fledgling producers were captivated by it, and the rest is history.
- Produce a simple showcase yourself. Smaller musicals like Nunsense, Forever Plaid and Forbidden Broadway started with acclaimed New York cabaret runs, and many new composers are attempting the same route today. This can be done for far less money than you might imagine. You assemble a cast and crew of friends that agree to work "pro bono" (ie - for no pay). Keep sets and costumes minimal, do your own publicity, and focus whatever cash you have on selective advertising. Its not easy, but it can be done. If you are nowhere near New York . . .
- Make your show a hit right where you are. Stage it in the suburbs of Topeka or a small town in Scotland. Use professionals, school kids, ambitious amateurs whoever is available and enthusiastic. If your show is really good, it will get a fuss started. And a fuss is just what professional producers and theater groups notice when looking for their next great idea. This is not just a "Hey kids let's put on a show" fantasy giving your show a track record can make a genuine difference.
By any route, it takes years (yes, years) to bring a new musical to New York, so you had better have tons of patience and tenacity. Wildhorn shepherded his Jekyll and Hyde through two professional studio recordings, several regional stagings, and a two year national tour before an entirely different production opened on Broadway. It ran for over 1500 performances, but never returned its investment. Don't be surprised if your route to professional production is just as complex.
5. Have a dependable source of income
Nothing says you have to be poor to write musicals. I, for one, do my best work when my stomach is full. If you have generous parents, a large inheritance, or a well-heeled significant other, then you are a lucky so-and-so and can skip to the next section.
However, if you are not so lucky, you will need a job that keeps the bills paid. Popular choices include waiting on tables, bartending and word processing positions that allow flexible scheduling. Some writers have a profitable full time career. Attorney Ken Ludwig has turned out several plays and librettos (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You) by getting up each day at 4:00 A.M. to write for several hours before heading to his law office. This may sound demanding, but it beats the hell out of exhausting yourself at a menial job and trudging home to write in a roach-ridden apartment. Trust me what looks idyllic in Rent quickly palls as a lifestyle.
One word of warning it is almost impossible to have a theatrical production job and still find the energy to write. If you care about the theatre enough to write for it, a heavy-duty theatre job will drain too much energy. In fact, I don't know of anyone who has written anything of consequence while working in a theatrical office. (Well, Bram Stoker did write Dracula while working such a job, but it was a novel, not a musical.) So I urge you to seek your paycheck in a separate field.
6. Don't try to raise the dead
If you are going to write for the musical theatre, you have to be realistic about where the business is today. I would give anything to bring back the Broadway of the 1950's, but that world is dead. So is vaudeville. Musical theater is a popular art form, so you have to come up with projects that will tempt today's ticket buyers to fork over $100 a seat. No producer is looking for a show that would have worked fifty, twenty or even ten years ago they want the next hot thing, whatever that may be. If you can provide that, then by all means give it your best shot.
7. If you're willing to pay the price, go for it!
If the dream lives in you, you just might achieve it . . . but you have to give it everything. And I mean everything. Things like quality of life, personal relationships, etc., invariably have to take a back seat. You will have to slog away against incredible odds with no idea of how long the struggle may last. Then, even if you do beat the overwhelming odds and have a hit musical, you have to re-live the struggle with every new show you work on! This sounds workable until you actually have to do it.
It's like a pact with the devil, but those who sacrifice everything else can make it to what remains of the top of musical theatre. I have worked with actors, composers, writers and producers who reached the summit. They seem rather happy once they get there, but there is often something a bit terrifying about them. My belief is that sacrifice has its price, and that many of these "winners" lost parts of their souls along the way. Yes, that sounds terribly cliched, but an army of heartbroken lovers, well-paid psychiatrists, scandal-hungry columnists and embittered colleagues can testify that this is one clich' loaded with truth.
If you are one of the magical few who conquer all and gaze fondly down on Central Park from a penthouse while clasping a Tony in one hand and an Oscar in the other, do yourself a favor and look me up because I have this really sensational idea for a new musical . . .