Beyond Broadway: Meet The Giver
In the last installment of this series, I got to talk with representatives from community theaters. Community theaters are a topic that has been particularly on my mind of late because my adaptation of the novel The Giver just got authorized by author Lois Lowry for production in community theaters. And it occurred to me that, while this is a show that is very much “mid-journey,” there is probably some value in sharing my experiences from the road so far.
And so, I present a Q&A… with myself.
So. I understand you have written a musical of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Prize-winning novel, The Giver. That’s a pretty major book to be adapting. How did you get the rights for that?
I didn’t, actually.
Oh! You wrote it on spec, then.
No! No, that’s a terrible idea. Don’t ever adapt something without getting the rights, first—you put too much of yourself into writing a musical to risk it never being seen. No, what happened was that someone else got the rights.
See, initially composer Scott Murphy and I were commissioned to write this adaptation by Theatreworks USA. They’re a company based in New York that produces musicals and plays that they tour to schools all over the country. They’re always creating new content, and they have a well-established development pipeline as well as a built-in (captive) audience. I highly recommend building a relationship with them or similar educational theater companies.
Understand, though, that such companies do have specific needs. They’re not interested in adapting the obscure vintage picture book that you have discovered. And they have particular restraints on the production: For The Giver, the show could be no more than 90 minutes long (but preferably closer to an hour), with a cast of 5 (which was a little awkward, considering Jonas’s mom and the girl he’s attracted to were the same actress), and could not require any lighting or sound effects. Also, it was explained to us that older actors are not interested in this kind of tour, so to indicate that the Giver is older than the other characters, he would either be tall or fat. The restrictions felt frustrating at times for a story as complex as The Giver, but we gave it our best.
Theatreworks USA does extensive research before deciding on work to adapt, but things did not play out as planned, in our case. Plenty of schools had expressed interest in the material, but those numbers were not carrying through for schools actually committing to bring in the show. There were various theories on why, from controversial content to the increasing time demands of test prep, but the result was that not enough schools signed on to move forward and production was halted.
That was bad news. It was so hard at the time. And yet, since Theatreworks USA wasn’t using the adaptation rights that they had paid for, they essentially passed them on to us as compensation for all of our effort in writing their show. Which was both extremely kind of them and an incredible blessing for us, because then we could expand The Giver into the musical it needed to become.
So then, what was this “recently authorized to be performed by community theaters” thing? Did you not have the rights this whole time?
Kinda sorta. The original term of the rights acquired by Theatreworks USA came to an end. I’m guessing that they had paid quite a bit for those, but Scott and I, as aspiring writers, couldn’t afford that kind of up-front payment. Amazingly—generously!—Lois Lowry, the author of the book, allowed us to have non-exclusive theatrical rights for a larger portion of royalties instead of a lump payment.
(FYI: Since then, our agent has repeatedly advised us to work with original material rather than adapting from existing material. Most rights are pretty expensive to acquire, and something like a movie comes with so many potential rights holders that it takes a large legal team to untangle it all. But those ideas from your own imagination? Priceless. And also, free.)
So we went our merry way, revising and expanding the script and score to be a full, two-hour, general audience musical. We basically took it on the “festival circuit” and got some great exposure for the show. And then, for reasons I may never understand, we simply never got a production. Anywhere. And years passed. And show basically lost momentum and went to sleep.
Recently, with the movie being released, The Giver has greater public awareness than ever, and community theaters have begun approaching us about producing the show. But we hadn’t been in touch with Lois Lowry in at least five years! And who knows how a Hollywood movie affects the rights?!
Well, it turns out that one of the film’s producing partners holds the first class (i.e. Broadway) rights, but the amateur rights were still in the author’s hands. And she has once again graciously allowed us to use them.
Has The Giver never actually been performed?
There was a period of a couple years where it was performed a lot, though mostly behind music stands. That’s what I meant by the “festival circuit.” There are festivals of new musicals all over the place, and they are an amazing opportunity to get your work seen (and to enjoy the experience of actually having an audience).
Our first big festival was in New York. That was the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s 2010 Festival of New Musicals, where we had Terrence Mann in the title role. And I will be bragging about that for the rest of my life. Then, within a year’s period, we were showcased in festivals across the country. We had a week’s residency and multiple performances at Penn State as part of their NU. Musical Theatre Festival. We had a workshop production performed by students at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, CA, as part of the Festival of New American Musicals, which is based in LA. We were part of the new musical festival at the Village Theatre—an extraordinary company in Issaquah, WA, that produces new musicals on its main stage season every year. And we had two glorious weeks in Palo Alto, CA, intensively workshopping the show as part of the new works festival at TheatreWorks (not to be confused with Theatreworks USA, where we started out).
That was a lot of performances, and a lot of audiences. But the show has yet to be produced in a fully realized production, and I hope we get to see it in that form someday soon.
How do I get my musical in… [eh-hem] I mean… Objectively speaking, how does one who writes musicals happen to get one’s musicals into such festivals?
Look up the information and apply. If you don’t get in, apply somewhere else and work on something new in the meantime. Don’t keep reapplying with the same show—it’s the same people working in the office each year, and they know who you are. The two pieces that may tip things in your favor are to have a connection with someone at the festival who can go to bat for you, and to already have had your show in a festival elsewhere first. We applied to NAMT, but we were invited to participate in the others because they saw us there first.
Are there any general lessons you’ve taken away from your experiences so far?
Why, yes. Thanks for asking.
First is to always be working on something new. Scott and I have spent a lot of years working on the same two musicals. As soon as we were about to start a new project, something would come along that required our attention for one of our existing shows. I’m extraordinarily proud of the work we’ve done, but we don’t have a lot of content to show for all our years of work. I’ve learned from that experience, and now I try to keep several projects going at once.
Second is to approach audience feedback and comment cards with appropriate frame of mind. These seem to be a staple of the festival experience. The two most helpful things for me have been to look for trends in the response rather than individual comments, and to remember that audiences can generally identify a problem but are not a reliable source for the solution. Also, if you are particularly sensitive to the opinions of others, ask your director or a trusted advisor to read them for you and summarize.
Lastly, how has living outside of New York City affected the development of The Giver?
Ooh. Good question.
By the time we were in all of those festivals, I had already moved out of the city. My location had no effect on those opportunities, other than the fact that sometimes I had to pay my own airfare. But most often transportation was covered or at least subsidized, and housing was always provided for us. In fact, my experience was that most festivals outside of the Northeast simply assumed that writers would have to be brought in from elsewhere.
But when Theatreworks USA called, Scott and I were able to go meet with them in person because we both lived in the city at that time. Would that opportunity have come to us if we lived elsewhere? I’m not sure.
Also, we were living in the city when we did most of the writing on The Giver. In that case, it wasn’t the specific location that was an advantage, but our proximity to each other. Now I’m in Oklahoma and Scott’s in Massachusetts, and yes, it’s a lot harder to get things done.
But. While this has proven to be an amazing opportunity, it was just one opportunity. There are plenty of others out there to be found. And while living away from my collaborator has its challenges, we live in an age where technology makes remote collaboration easier than at any time in history. So I think it comes down to taking advantage of the opportunities that are specific to you, your experience, and your location.
I like it. Thank you for your time today.
You’re welcome. Now please stop calling me.
What is your favorite musical?
The show that has probably made the most impact on me is Into the Woods. I remember watching it when it was Broadcast on PBS in 1991. My mom turned the TV off at intermission, thinking that it was over, and I had to frantically convince her to turn it back on. Fortunately she did, because what’s in the second act—from realizing that characters you care about can still die, to learning that “nice is different than good”—really affected me as a person and as a writer.
What is a dream project of yours?
I want to start a theater company that does one extraordinary production of each of Sondheim’s musicals. These would be one-of-a-kind experiences, like a production of Follies where the audience is part of the cocktail party and the action moves around them, Pacific Overtures using Asian puppetry, Sweeny Todd as dinner theater, and a Sleep No More-style environmental staging of Into the Woods where you could follow any character even as their journey departs from the main story line. (If you have your own crazy Sondheim production idea, feel free to leave it in the comments.)
As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?
As a writer, anything that gets my work off the page and in front of an audience feels like a major win.