Beyond Broadway: How To Get Lucky
Meet Rob Gardner. He’s thirty-six. He lives in Phoenix, AZ. And he makes a living as a composer. “I just took a leap of faith about ten years ago, quit my day job, and it’s worked out. I’ve gotten a few really lucky spots, too, and that doesn’t hurt.”
It’s tempting to focus on that last point—the luck. Composers with a self-sustaining career like Rob’s may seem rare, but if you focus on the element of chance, then you miss seeing what makes it happen:
- “I started a non-profit company to do sacred music when I was in college studying business. That’s not necessarily the money maker, but it has led to connections.”
- “Some of the money I earn is from royalties, which isn’t huge, but then I do other projects: orchestrate, or arrange. I’ll do some stuff for film, some stuff for people’s solo albums.”
- “[Having a song used in a film] definitely increases visibility, but between you and me, it doesn’t pay very much.”
Takeaway 1: He’s not supporting himself with the income from any single project. Takeaway 2: He’s doing a million different things! I know we’re all theater people here, but if you do the math (awkwardly, probably using crayons), a lot of projects times a few bucks each can equal a real living.
“I’ve always told people if you write, and then sit around hoping someone will discover you and produce it for you, good luck. It’s not going to happen for very many people. If you really want to get something done, you have to do it yourself, and then your chances of other people ‘discovering you’ are better because it’s already out there.”
There is one thing about Rob that makes it difficult to focus on hard work instead of luck. That’s the fact that, in 2012, he entered a film contest from Amazon Studios and won $1,000,000 and a film option.
After your seething wave of writer-envy passes, let’s talk about this. Doesn’t winning a contest refute the argument of work over luck? And couldn’t anyone (finger quotes) make a living as a composer if they had a million bucks?
Well, yes, that would make it a heckuva lot easier.
The thing is, you may not be able to duplicate Rob’s luck, but anyone working anywhere can duplicate the actions that made him ready at the right place and time.
“It goes back to 2004, when I was commissioned by a local community college to write a musical piece for their summer theater production.” Note the time frame here—not an overnight success. Also, he was actively working with his local resources.
“So I pitched to them several ideas, and one was based on ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses.’ They loved that idea, because they usually had a lot of girls audition, and they wanted dancing.” He tailored his work specifically to meet the needs of his local opportunity.
“So, I wrote that, and it was a very big success.” He didn’t just have a great idea. He got it done, and did so on time. And because of that, he got to enjoy something we all crave: audience approval.
What was the step after that? Nothing. “I kind of sat on that for a little while, knowing I needed to tweak a few things.” He had gotten to see his work on stage, and knew it needed some polishing, but he had come to the end of his opportunities. That can happen to any project, no matter how good it is. But keep busy, because that’s not necessarily the end of the story.
Bounce forward a few years, and Rob heard that Amazon Studios was holding a film contest. It would have been so easy to think, Oh, that’s cool, and then go on his merry way. Or to say, Film isn’t my medium.
Instead, he did research: “I went on the website and saw what the competition was.” Rather than imitating what was there, he chose to innovate: “I thought, I could do something very different than this.” He was able to draw upon the work he had already established: “I had been thinking previously that [“The Twelve Princesses”] would make a great animated film.” He took action and went outside his comfort zone: “I taught myself how to use this animation software, built a storyboard, recorded friends doing all the voices. I submitted it and, lo and behold, I won the contest about a year later.”
A million dollar windfall thanks to years of hustle. But keep in mind: that list of things he’s keeping busy with? That’s what he’s doing right now, working toward his next “lucky” break.
“In LA—and I feel this when I go to New York too—it feels like any minute something could happen. You could run into the right person, you could make this right connection, get the right gig. And it doesn’t feel that way in Phoenix. You don’t ever just happen to stumble upon a great connection.”
What is your favorite musical?
Whenever people ask me what my favorite thing that I’ve written, it’s always the most recent thing. But I would probably say the most influential musical for me would be Les Miserables. It was the first one I ever saw. I would say for me, in musical theater, that that and Sweeney Todd are the most brilliant scores.
What is a dream project of yours?
For a while I debated if, in my lifetime, I could either write a musical for film or for Broadway, which would I choose? Most recently I would prefer, on my deathbed, to have written a live show than a film. So I would say that’s my dream project, to write something that ends up on Broadway.
As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?
Success for me is having a lot of people really excited for what you’re going to do next.