Beyond Broadway: Publisher Blues, Part 2

Let’s start with another flashback from Steve Fendrich:

“In 1985, I visited this gentlemen who was a teacher in Longmont, Colorado, and his name was Bill Francoeur. He was the music teacher there, and he had written a musical that a friend and I had gone to see, just to check things out. And when I went there, I got to know him and I said, you know, you should write some musicals, and we’ll pair you up with someone by the name of Tim Kelly. If you look in every single catalog, everything from Samuel French to Dramatics and such, if you look up the name Tim Kelly—he’ll be there. He has published well over 200 plays, and is probably the most prolific writer in North America. That would be my estimation. And so we paired Bill up to adapt one of Tim’s plays into a musical.”

Steve Fendrich is currently the head of Pioneer Play Service, one of America’s biggest publishers of plays and musicals for young performers. And that little story summarizes the two major takeaways from Part 1 of my conversation with him:

  1. Pioneer Drama Service almost always bases their musicals on existing material in their catalog. “If there’s a script that comes in, and we put in the catalog and we find that it gets a certain amount of popularity, then we look at it and say that this show has been very, very successful as a play. Let’s turn it into a musical.” They often carry both the musical and play versions of the same show.
  2. Bill Francoeur has been Pioneer’s primary composer for the past thirty years.

That second point is awfully frustrating when you’re a new writer hoping to find an opening. But it turns out that there are reasons why they have chosen to be so conservative about sticking with what has worked in the past.

“One of the challenges about publishing a musical is that it’s expensive. Because for a regular play, all you need is the script. But on a musical, you’re talking you script, vocal score, piano score, you put together a director’s book, and then you need to put together a CD, which can cost thousands of dollars. And then you put it out there on the market. And so publishing a musical is a huge decision for a lot of the small publishers—it’s a very difficult market right now because Music Theatre International has their Broadway Junior Series, and that’s pretty much taken up a lot of the market space.”

So is there no room at all for new writers in the theater for young performers market?

“We’re always looking for new writers. We’re always looking for fresh material. But so much of it starts with the script itself. Let’s say that you’re going to submit a script for just a play. There’s less than a 1% chance of it being accepted. But then, if you’re looking at a musical, the script needs to be strong, the score needs to be strong, and it has to have huge chorus numbers, which makes it more difficult.”

Golly Gee Whiz. (Photo: Pioneer Drama Service)

Golly Gee Whiz. (Photo: Pioneer Drama Service)

For right now, I’m just going to hold onto the fact that “less than 1%” still isn’t zero. And the truth is, things have begun to change.

“What’s happened recently is that we’re looking more at musicals that are from the outside, that were written as musicals. And if we get a DVD and can hear the music, and feel that it is marketable, then we will accept it.” (Lesson: In this field, the material you are submitting probably needs to have been previously produced.) “For example, we received a script called Golly Gee Whiz, and this particular script was written by somebody who’s from New York City.” (Sigh.)

Ok, so, what about someone like Daniel Tenney, with whom I spoke previously? He has been writing and producing a new musical every year, most of which were written specifically for young performers.

“With somebody who has produced that many musicals, they would be great to look at. The very first thing to do would be to send a query letter saying, ‘Hello. I’ve written a musical. Here are the basics: it has this many characters, this many songs. Would you like to see the script and hear a CD of the music? Or else you could go online and look at some of the material on YouTube.’ And we would do it.”

Alright, you get that packet in the mail. What are you looking for?

“What I always do is think about these smaller communities where the science teacher has been assigned to put on the musical. They want the large cast, more girls than boys, because in your typical drama club, you’ll have 39 girls and 6 boys. We make it so there’s no single star. And the plot needs to be clean and safe, because communities have certain standards where they don’t want you to get risky.

“Some people just don’t understand how to get published in this market. If you go to our website, and you go to the Tim Kelly page, at the very bottom there’s an article called ‘How to Publish Your Way, Way, Way Off-Broadway Play,’ or something like that.”

Can you tell, just by looking at the script and score, whether it’s going to be a hit?

Golly Gee Whiz. (Photo: Pioneer Drama Service)

Golly Gee Whiz. (Photo: Pioneer Drama Service)

“There are always trends in the market. Right now the big trend happens to be—and we do get a little bit tired of it—happens to be fractured fairy tales. I can almost say, sure, I know this is going to do well. But then, let’s take Golly Gee Whiz. It has fantastic music, but it’s one of these things where I just don’t know. It’s getting done, but because it’s new, it’s hard to say if it’s going to really take off. And then there are other shows that have social awareness kinds of messages—they’re not going to do fantastic, but they are wanted and needed.”

The large cast with plenty of roles for women, and fairy tale source material—that all makes me think of Rob Gardner, the composer with whom I spoke about winning the Amazon pitch contest with his adaptation of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

“Yeah, no kidding. That’s great. Is his show not being done?”

He says it’s still in development with Amazon. They have it under contract, though he’s not sure if it will ever actually be made.

“I’d say that’s one of the more frustrating things, is that when we publish something, if it does not get produced, it’s really tough because the writer wants people to see it. That’s the motivation—sharing their material. When you get shows in a catalog, when you market them, there’s always 10% that are going to do fantastic—with us, if something gets 25-30 productions, that’s doing fantastic.” (Anyone else out there longing to have their show produced just twice, let alone 30 times?) “But then there are others that just don’t catch on, and don’t do that well.”

To sum up: This is a tough field to get into, and once you’re there, your chances of success are still pretty slim. Is it worth trying for, anyway?

“What makes this job so wonderful is that when you go to a show—I don’t know how many high school shows you go to—but when you go to a show, you see all these kids involved, and the parents are so proud and happy. It’s just wonderful.”

Also, getting paid is nice. Whatever floats your boat.


What is your favorite musical?

My favorite musical is definitely Wicked. Denver’s big on bringing Broadway musicals through, and I’ve seen the show like three or four times. I love it.

What is a dream project of yours?

A dream project would be to have people to recognize that a smaller company like ours, that it’s not Broadway, but it has quality musicals that are definitely worth producing. I’ll see musicals opening up at Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and they’re fantastic musicals, but I always wonder—how come they didn’t take a look at our musicals. Because they’re just as fantastic.

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

Success for me is being able to continue to provide the material that our market is asking for, and for people to keep on doing our shows. And that I go home every night, and can kick back and be happy and spend time with my family, because the most important thing is what you do outside of work. That’s what I want. And to be healthy. Just like my grandma always used to tell me.

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