Beyond Broadway: Choose Your Own Adventure
“This is just a strange sidebar story that you probably won’t ever have time to include in your written piece…”—Okay, you have to realize that I am now obligated to share this story. But what I love is that this story is a perfect example of the fairytale writing career that most of us dream about.
“I attended the Joseph Jefferson Awards ceremony in Chicago, which are the theater awards here. I was there to support a friend who was nominated, and I was sitting in the audience thinking, ‘I’m kind of out of this world now as a performer. I’m doing more cabaret. Which one of these awards would I like to win?’ I was in a bit of a change of directions in my career, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing. And they presented the award for best new work, and I thought, ‘That’s the one!’ I really had this vivid memory of sitting in the theater seat thinking, ‘That’s the one.’ And literally a year to the date, I was receiving that award for Sylvia’s Real Good Advice.”
Am I the only one who’s had this fantasy? Rehearsing my Tony acceptance speech, etc.? That seems like the way it should go—you’ve got talent, you write a show, you get produced and receive all available accolades. A year sounds like about the right timeline for all that. And here, we’ve got evidence that that’s the way it happens.
Except that it’s not, exactly.
The person I’m speaking with is Cheryl Coons, by the way. Check out her bio and you’ll see a busy career making musical theater—pretty much none of it in New York—but she would be the first to admit that her life has not followed the magical shortcut to success suggested by that story.
“My major in college was Speech Communications. I did not study writing until I was actually writing lyrics for the performing I was doing. I started here in Chicago in improv comedy—I studied at Second City—and improvised music has become part of the improv culture here. I wasn’t really thinking about musicals, but I am a singer, and so as a performer I had opportunities to perform in musicals, and that changed my direction yet again. And I was part of a vocal trio in Chicago that was kind of a fixture here for a while in the cabaret scene, and writing a lot for them and for myself as a solo performer.”
And while Cheryl is now able to support herself through her creative work, there has been no shortage of day jobs along the way: “Earlier in my career I did voiceovers for television and radio commercials, so that was income source. I was able, through that, to purchase a building, and I became a landlady, so that supplemented my income. But really, for the past fifteen years”—she is now in her 50s, for anyone trying to do the math for their own timelines—“my work has been pretty exclusively in musical theater. And that’s been just amazing.
“I have a come to a real sense of acceptance that every place that I have been in my career has been a contributing factor to a life that I really love right now. And I wish that I had known when I was in my 20s and feeling somewhat desperate about being in a musical theater performing career, or the improv performing career. I wish that I had known how well it was going to turn out, and how the importance of what we do is the impact we have on others.”
Having an impact is what Cheryl is doing a lot of lately. She’s on the board at Porchlight Music Theatre, has helped to develop a musical writing training program at Chicago Dramatists, and was recently appointed as the Chicago-area representative for the Dramatists Guild.
“The thing that is most off the beaten track is the work that I do with incarcerated kids. I work with Storycatchers Theater, and I go to facilities where kids are in prison, and we create original musicals with the kids doing the writing. It’s based on their personal stories which are often tremendously disturbing and traumatic, but really also include some wonderful humor. We help to weave them together into a musical, and then the kids perform them in front of their fellow residents at the facility and for their friends and family. That is actually a more substantial part of my life these days than almost anything else that I’m doing, and I love it. I feel a purpose around creating musical theater that in some ways has been absent from the earlier part of my career.”
Cheryl tells me that when she has new students come into her class, she gives them a survey about what would make them happiest. There are five options, and they only get to choose one:
“The first one is, ‘I created a musical with my friends, and when it was produced we had a blast, and the people who saw it had a blast, too.’ (I’m paraphrasing.) The second one is, ‘I created a musical that was a steady money-earner for me. I receive regular check from it, and when it was produced I made good money.’ The third is, ‘I’ve written a musical that pushed the corners of the envelope on the form, and was recognized in reviews as something that took the form to the next level.’ The fourth one is, ‘I wrote a musical that was about something I felt was important and I had a strong connection with, and when it was produced, others had a strong connection with it, too.’ And the last one is, ‘I wrote a musical that was on Broadway.’”
First of all, wow, that’s a tough one. I’m glad we don’t have to narrow ourselves to just one of those motivations in real life. But I was struck by how an understanding what drives you might just be the key to having a satisfying writing career wherever you live.
It would be wonderful if each of us could wish for accolades for our work, and then receive them a year later. But when you remove the outside cultural ideas and expectations of what musical theater success means—what would your most satisfying career look like? Because, while we might not all end up on Broadway, there are countless opportunities for you to find success, wherever you live.
What is your favorite musical?
I love A Little Night Music. That’s the hardest question in the world to answer—I ask my students when I teach at Chicago Dramatists what their favorite musicals are, and I get groans. So I’ve had to answer it so many times, because I ask it! But I have seen a number of productions of [Night Music] that have touched me anew. I recently saw a production of it at Writers Theatre in Chicago that was so intimate, where you’re eight feet from Desiree as she sings Send In the Clowns. And it just never fails to move me and to inspire me.
What is a dream project of yours?
My dream right now is not about something that I would write—although, I’ve got a couple of those too. I would love to have a regularly-meeting, musical theater writers’ community-slash-ensemble to develop projects together collaboratively. That’s very much the Chicago model—get a bunch of people together that want to create together.
As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?
I define success as when I’m fulfilling my personal mission, and my mission—the one that is about musical theater—is to expand the expression of musical theater in Chicago. But my personal mission is to have a fulfilling and inspirational life, and to help others experience the same thing.