Beyond Broadway: Life and Death

“I’ve averaged about one show per year that I’ve written and produced. Plus one or two, here and there.”

Let’s go ahead and stop there a moment.

We all know that New York is the capital of American theater, and that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. But of all the New York-based writers that you know, how many can make this claim?

Let’s rewind and hear it again:

“I’ve averaged about one show per year that I’ve written and produced. Plus one or two, here and there.”

That’s Daniel Tenney. Like most of the writing success stories outside New York (or inside New York), his achievements come through hard work and a drive to create his own opportunities.

Daniel Tenney.

Daniel Tenney.

For several years, Daniel taught school in a small town in southern Arizona. “I was music, and band and theater, and I had a couple of musical theater classes.” That’s where he started his prolific output—writing plays and musicals for the kids to perform.

“You know, it’s just been out of necessity. But I like to think that it makes me better—that actually doing it is good practice.”

He has since moved his family to the Phoenix area, and now teaches at a much larger school. He conducts the choir but found an early ally in the drama teacher, who was excited for her students to perform original work. “I could write a huge musical for 20 or 30 people, with a 10-person backup band.”

Ok, let’s pause the tape again and think about that.

How many original musicals are produced these days with a cast of 20 or 30 people? On Broadway, a small handful each year. Elsewhere, almost never. I have been told by a producer at a major regional theater that a cast of 12 was impossibly large. Sure, teenagers are not going to perform like an Equity touring company, but:

  1. it gets your work in front of an audience,
  2. it’s a cast of 30!, and
  3. entire careers have been made by writing for young performers.

Press play. (It appears that I imagine listening to my interviews on a clunky, old cassette tape recorder.)

“I could write a huge musical for 20 or 30 people, with a 10-person backup band.” However. “The drama teacher who I worked with very closely on my last two shows—she left and got replaced by someone who is less interested in new works, and wants to do something else. She wants to do Disney.”

So, Daniel went to work finding another opportunity.

That’s where I bring in the voice of Cody Dull. In fact, I’m going to plop a second cassette tape player down next to the first.

“I am the artistic director of Ghostlight Theatre. Just last year, in 2013, we got our own space in Sun City West (Arizona). The theater seats 75 people, so it’s a very intimate space.”

And this October, Ghostlight Theatre premiered The Red Death, a new musical by a certain up-and-coming writer named Daniel Tenney.

The Red Death (photo: Daniel Tenney)

The cast of The Red Death (photo: Daniel Tenney)

Let’s play Daniel’s and Cody’s tapes at the same time and see what happens.

CD: This is our first original musical that we have put on stage. We mostly do comedies. We rarely do originals.

DT: This year they’re doing two Neil Simon plays, and one play that feels very much like Neil Simon.

CD: Neil Simon, of course, is very popular with our patrons.

DT: So they already had this season in place when I started to get involved, and started to get to know people.

(It should be mentioned that “getting involved” is not just lip service. Daniel played the lead in their production of Barefoot in the Park—which Cody directed—and his wife has acted for them and is currently serving on their board.)

DT: I didn’t want to wait until fall of 2015 to write for them, so I decided to pitch something as a “second stage” sort of deal.

CD: We mostly do comedies, but we’re trying now to expand our audience. That’s why we brought in The Red Death. Daniel Tenney came to us and said, “Hey! Let’s do a musical.”

DT: I sat down and I wrote three or four pages worth of “this is what I want to do,” “this is how much it costs,” “this is why it’s a good idea.” I chose to adapt short stories because it’s easier and quicker to write.

CD: I have to commend him for writing a musical based on Edgar Allen Poe, because if you’ve ever read Edgar Allen Poe, he’s very descriptive, he doesn’t have a lot of dialogue.

DT: I chose Poe because I thought that was kind of a brand name, and I wanted people to recognize it. I saw that the theater had a chunk of time that was more or less open in October, so I pitched this as a way to capitalize on Halloween a little bit, and make some money at a time when they would normally be dark. I had story one written and composed, and I sent them the script and a little demo.

CD: So he wrote us a demo, and the music is amazing. I was like, let’s do it!

DT: I also made sure that it was financially palatable to them. Normally they pay their directors a certain amount and I asked for less than that. I said, for this time around, I won’t even ask for any royalties—with the expectation that if we do this again, I would ask for that.

CD: I was like, you should really charge us something a little more. But he said, “I’m only going to ask for $200 to direct it, and then $100 for props and costumes.”

Pause. I just want to point out that Daniel is not just writing book, lyrics and music for a new, full-length musical, but is also orchestrating, directing, music directing and apparently buying props for it.

While you nurse your new inferiority complex: According to Cody, the licensing fees for a musical can cost their theater $4,000-6,000 for a production, while a play is more like $75-100 per performance. While it’s unlikely that Daniel is going to get top dollar from Ghostlight, there is certainly room for negotiation somewhere between those figures. Also, if Daniel is able to make his musicals available for other theaters beyond this first production, then that equals additional income over time without any additional work.


CD: The big surprise was the script, because no one saw it until the first rehearsal. He wanted us all to experience the script for the first time. And that was amazing, because we got to experience it the way the audience was going to experience it.

DT: It was the first show that I’ve ever done where the score was completely finished before starting rehearsal. This time it wasn’t students who just have to trust me; it was actual actors, so I felt pressured to have a finished version before we began. I’m kind of surprised at how fast I wrote it. I think from the initial idea to completion was four months, but for the first couple months I didn’t write much.

Okay, okay. So you wrote (composed, orchestrated, etc.) a musical in four months, and it’s being performed by a small community theater. How good could it be?

CD: We just finished our opening weekend, and we doubled what we thought we’d do. The expenses are covered, so everything above that goes back to Ghostlight.

DT: We opened on Friday and audiences have really liked it. Those Sunday matinee audiences are rough, but we did a Sunday matinee and they really enjoyed it.

CD: It’s gotten great reactions. I had a friend who came in from out of state who had never seen a musical before, and he loved it.

DT: And after this opening weekend, the sense is, yes, we want to work together again. Which is fantastic.

CD: Now that we know that a musical works, we’re definitely probably going to do more of Daniel Tenney’s stuff next season. It’s been a great experience overall. A wonderful experience.

And that, my friends, is how you make a life in the theatre happen.


What is your favorite musical?

DT: The Last Five Years. It is stirring and heart-wrenching. Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe that music. It gets inside of you.

CD: Right now, my favorite would be Bullets over Broadway. But then, it’s right up there with Phantom of the Opera, too.

What is a dream project of yours?

CD: I am currently reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and would love to do a production of it at our theater. It’s something edgy, and it would be a directing challenge.

DT: I would love to see some billionaire fund a theater right in the middle of Manhattan, right there with all the big boys, and all it does is just new works. Every week you get a different show in there. You just put it together, you rehearse it, and you just do it. And the next week you have somebody else come in and you do the same thing.

As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?

DT: Not to be corny, but success is making people feel things. If somebody walks out of my show, and they say that it made them happy, or made them cry, or made them laugh—that’s success.

CD: Success is what you make it. Yeah, people dream about performing in New York. Would I want to direct a Broadway show? Absolutely. That’s not going to happen, but I think wherever you are—whether you’re in a small theater in Whitefish, Montana, or you’re in a bit theater in Phoenix, Arizona—as long as you’re happy doing what you love, that’s all that matters.

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