Beyond Broadway: Publisher Blues, Part 1
Let’s start with a flashback. This is Steve Fendrich:
“So one time Bill Francoeur came to me and he said, I have this idea. He said, you know, we ought to put out a musical with a cassette tape, and on one side have the lyrics and music to it, and on the other side just the music, so that schools can get their kids to sing along with it. This was in 1985. So I said, hey, that sounds like a nifty idea. I was working for my dad, so I said, hey dad, Bill has this idea. Let’s give it a try. So my dad threw in a little bit of money, and Bill and I went to a small studio. Bill was still teaching, so he had his students sing the vocal side. On the instrumental side we had piano, bass, percussion. And so, to my knowledge we were the very first company to come out with that type of format for musicals. But now it’s everywhere. Pretty nifty, huh?”
Bill and Steve’s excellent adventure is more than just and origin story for something that has become so familiar that it’s hard to imagine it didn’t always exist. It’s also the story of how taking action (sharing an idea, making a recording) can have a lasting impact.
Steve was not some New York-based theater guy. He lives in Colorado, and he kind of wasn’t even a theater guy, per se—his background was in education. His one (big) advantage in this case was that his dad, Schubert Fendrich, happened to be the founder of Pioneer Drama Service. Now Steve himself is the head of that company, which has grown to become one of the country’s leading providers of plays for young performers.
I got in touch with Steve hoping to get the skinny on how aspiring writers can break into the word of writing musicals for kids. You know, for money. (In case it’s unfamiliar, “money” is a substance some people are given in exchange for writing things.)
What I found, however, was not a ravenous publishing schedule, hungry for new material. Instead, our conversation revealed a man who straddles the worlds of both established, institutional theater and the earnest optimism of an aspiring artist.
Whereas I had imagined a licensing company to be essentially a pipeline through which writers can gain access to productions, Steve’s role at Pioneer sounds much more like what you might call a creative producer. He gets the idea, and then brings together the personnel and the money to make it happen.
“There’s one day when I was trying to think of a unique Christmas show. I was contemplating it, and somewhere along the line—whether I was driving or taking a shower—I thought, huh, what would happen if A Christmas Carol had fairy tale characters in it? Scrooge would be the big bad wolf, and then we could bring in other characters. I’m not sure I could write it, so I’m going to call a writer who I know could write it. So, I laid out the idea, and I called a writer by the name of Flip Kobler, who used to write for Disney. I said, hey Flip, can you get me a script? And so he wrote a show called A Fairy Tale Christmas Carol. We looked at it, read it, liked it. And we said, let’s put it out as a non-musical, but then let’s also make it into a musical. So I called up Bill Francoeur. I said, Bill, can you write the music? And so I brought them together, and now our top-selling Christmas musical is A Fairy Tale Christmas Carol.”
I think that’s a pretty clever idea, actually, and it was cool to hear about how their development process works. But one thing began to bother me as we spoke. And that was Bill Francoeur. His unmistakable name kept coming up in conversation a little too often to be coincidental.
And then the other shoe dropped: “Bill Francoeur—you know, the person from way back when—he’s an excellent composer, and a lot of times we will go to him and say, we have this magical script. Can you adapt it into a musical? If you look at our catalog, the primary writer of our musicals, actually, is Bill Francoeur.”
Ah. There it is. Pioneer Drama Service has been using the same composer for most of its musicals for the past 30 years.
But every time I wanted to feel outraged on behalf of all of the talented new writers he is not employing, he would open his heart and say something like this:
“I used to dream about hitting it big with a show. Having a television network come and pick up a show, or having someone recognize that it’s just an incredible show that maybe we should try to build it into something bigger.”
Ok, sure, I guess I can relate to that.
“It’s a very difficult market right now, because Music Theatre International has their Broadway Junior Series. In schools, there’s a feeling that if you put on Annie Jr. you’re going to get a different reaction than if you’d put on one of our shows. But you still draw the same audience, the kids are still involved, and ours is less expensive.”
Exactly! That’s what I’ve been saying for years about the theaters that have turned down my shows—just because another show is better known doesn’t mean audiences won’t enjoy my work just as much… but… the guy I’m empathizing with is the “establishment” guy I was frustrated with just a moment ago for not opening up to new writers, so… I feel conflicted.
Suffice it to say, Steve is not a “bad guy.” Yes he is one of the many gatekeepers whose job involves keeping the doors locked in the name of fiscal responsibility. But he, like us, is also a dreamer who is trying to make a living in a challenging market.
So did I gain any helpful (or hopeful) information from my conversation with Steve? Yes. And I will be sharing it in Part 2.