Beyond Broadway: Chicago Style

Last time, I spoke with writer Cheri Coons about the winding path of a busy writing career outside of New York. But I also wanted to get more of her perspective on the Chicago theater scene and whether the keys to her success there can be applied to other places as well.

“Chicago is a very lively creative community,” she says, “and Chicago’s model is the ‘theater that is generated by a collective of artists’ as opposed to ‘an institution.’ We do have several theater institutions, but we have a lot of acting companies, and that model of cross-pollinating different people from different companies is a big reason why I love living and working here. It’s a very congenial collaborative community.”

As opposed to… New York, maybe? I can’t help but notice that, with all of the work she’s done, very little of it has been in the Big Apple.

Travis Poelle and Dani Marcus in Marin Theatre Company's production of River's End, with book and lyrics by Cheryl Coons and  music by Chuck Larkin. (Photo: Ed Smith)

Travis Poelle and Dani Marcus in Marin Theatre Company’s production of River’s End, with book and lyrics by Cheryl Coons and music by Chuck Larkin. (Photo: Ed Smith)

“I’ve always visited New York at least several times a year. I enjoy going, and I feel very connected—especially now that I’m the regional representative for the Dramatists Guild. So this will be an opportunity to be there more often, and, I’m sure, will be a really important way of connecting with our industry there, too.”

For some reason, Cheryl sounds so incredibly kind, no matter what she says. That alone seems like a decent explanation for why she never put down roots in Manhattan, but it’s more than just temperament. It’s also because her Midwestern home is part of Cheryl’s artistic vision.

“I have a personal mission that I defined for myself maybe about five years ago, which was to expand the expression of musical theater in Chicago.”

Notice that that is no generic, I-want-to-make-great-theater goal. She wants to benefit musical theater as a whole, whether she’s making it herself or supporting other people. And she specifically wants to do that in Chicago.

“Musicals here have been… I’ve kind of got this vision of them tagging along, you know? The littlest one in the line? Musicals have been less cultivated. Some of this is a perception—sort of the national group-think—about musicals happening in New York.”

Which brings up an issue that has been mentioned time and time again by the people I have interviewed. The idea that work created in New York is simply better. Composer Rob Gardner in Arizona talked about feeling overlooked even by local theater companies because he was creating work in Phoenix. Publisher Steve Fendrich seemed almost giddy that a show that got reviewed in New York was interested in being carried by his Colorado company. And Alisa Belflower shared her perception of why the perceived superiority of New York writers may in fact be true:

“New York is unquestionably where the most musical theater is being done, from shows being put together in a church basement all the way up to Broadway. So when you’re there, you are exposed to all types of theater, you get to see what’s being done, and what’s possible.”

So, Cheryl, do you feel like that’s an unfair bias against us outsiders? Or are New York writers really just better?

“The people that have spoken with you about New York having so much activity, so many writers, being a real collective community of artists—it’s accurate. And that’s how musical theater was nurtured. They speak about it being taught hand to hand. You have the legacy of the BMI workshop, the legacy now of the NYU program at Tisch, in addition to all the other development programs that are East Coast-based.

“But I think that what I’ve been trying to hold a place for in my mind is that our Chicago theater community, which is such a vital theater community, that we could be a center for musical theater development.”

I love that. That optimism, and that love for one’s place. But I live in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and there is very little chance this place will ever become a hub of new musical development. Except. Why not? One thing I like about living in my city is that the scale is small enough that I can make things happen here. I could produce a musical, if I wanted to. I could even start inviting in writers to work on their shows, if that was my vision.

But I also kind of suspect I would be going it alone. The challenge of finding people to collaborate with was brought up by both Rob Gardner and Daniel Tenney and has been echoed by many other writers I know. Cheryl, on the other hand, has had many, many collaborators.

“I’m a little promiscuous, yes,” she laughs.

Ok, so how did you find them?

Blake Hammond and Kathy Santen in At Wit's End (book and lyrics by Cheryl Coons, music by Michael Duff) at Florida Stage.

Blake Hammond and Kathy Santen in At Wit’s End (book and lyrics by Cheryl Coons, music by Michael Duff) at Florida Stage.

“I think that mostly what has happened is that people whom I have worked with have led to other collaborators. My first opportunity to be a contributing writer to a musical was I was hired to be a lyric doctor on a project that had been developed by four other writers. The composer knew me, and we had actually worked on songs together, and he asked if I’d be willing to come help out with the lyrics.

“I’ve been recently working with Peter Eldridge, the jazz musician. He and I worked together judging a college choral competition a number of years ago. He saw a musical that I had had in the NYMF festival in New York, and asked if I’d ever be interested in working on a musical together. And I said yes, and so we have a piece that we just did a reading of in Chicago this past June.”

Is it possible, then, that the secret is just the fact that you’re living in Chicago and not in Paducah?

“Maybe because of the way things are changing worldwide with the arts being marketed, maybe this will open the door for people who are not in that same geographical area. But I think that there’s a sense that even the way that collaboration is happening is happening more easily, because of the way that communication has evolved.

“I can remember back in the day, when I was working with a New York-based director, that the composer and I would have to call his answering machine and sing. We couldn’t send an MP3 file—there was no such thing. Or you’d have to record a cassette, and put the cassette in the FedEx box and send it to him. Things are so different now. There are tremendous possibilities for connection and collaboration, it’s not geographically limited. I think more is happening all over the place.”

So, do you really think that there is hope for us writers, not just outside of New York, but also outside of Chicago and the other major metropolitan centers?

“There’s a wonderful interview with Jonathan Weidman in one of the Dramatists Guild’s ‘In the Room’ series that talks about how anything innovative that is going to happen [in musical theater] is probably not going to happen in the ten block square area around where he was giving the interview [in the New York theater district]. Just, financially you can’t innovate there. There have been a number of articles recently about the cost of musical development and the fact that only the blockbusters are really succeeding. It has to be an unqualified hit for it to run.

“So if we’re going to change things, it’s going to probably have to be outside.”

Are you suggesting, then, that working outside New York might actually be an advantage? That seems an unlikely conclusion, considering all the evidence.

“I don’t mean to diss New York. It’s a remarkable place. It’s the Land of Oz, you know? I also think that, in terms of opportunity, if you are determined to have a Broadway show, probably you should be working in that market. And I really believe that there’s a whole lot of interesting work that happens in New York that isn’t mainstream Broadway work. Whether it’s succeeding financially is another question.”

So, if I may summarize, I feel like Cheryl is saying two things. First, the importance of connecting with the theater community is real, but that modern communication has reduced the challenge of physical distance.

“I think that all sense of how we have a community is changing, the global sense of how we have a community is changing, and how we impact one another is changing, and so I think that musical theater can be created anywhere. There’s nothing that defines the creation of it geographically.

“But I think that we can have impact or connect with others with a musical theater work that is infinitely more satisfying if we think about it in terms of our neighbors.”

Or: while we can and should connect broadly, it is also important to focus on how we can use our art within our own communities, wherever we are.

“Theater by definition is local. Right? All theater is local. Musical theater is local. So I think interesting musical theater work can happen anywhere. Who knows?”

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