Drinks with Jen: My Conversation with Jennifer Ashley Tepper

Jennifer Ashley Tepper is a Musical Theatre Historian and curator/author of the books The Untold Stories of Broadway Volumes 1 and 2. She’s also the co-creator and writer of the Bistro Award-winning concert series "If It Only Even Runs A Minute," which celebrates underappreciated musicals, and the Director of Programming at Feinstein’s/54 Below, where she co-produced Hit List, the live concert version of the fictional musical from NBC’s Smash. Or at least that’s what her Amazon.com bio says. But who even is that? It strikes me that we know so much about the people Jen interviews, but what do we know about Jen? 

“How Did You Get To Be Here?”

Huang: So you’re from Florida?

Tepper: I’m from Florida.

Huang: Let’s start there.

Tepper: Awesome. I’m from Boca, where the average age is like 80.

Huang: OMG. And where did you go to college?

Tepper: I went to school at NYU. I went to Tisch for Dramatic Writing. 

Huang: Oh, I forgot that!

Tepper: A lot of people forget it because it’s a very weird path. It wasn’t a conventional way to go about things. I loved theater and I loved writing, but everyone in my department wanted to be a playwright or a screenwriter and I wanted to be a theater historian and work in theater so… 

Huang: So that was always part of the plan. 

Tepper: Definitely. I try to remind people who I mentor now, who are my assistants and such, that there were two years after college where I couldn’t get a job doing what I wanted and I had a million jobs – I said yes to everything I could say yes to.

Huang: What did you do?

Tepper: So many things. I was balancing SAT tutoring and babysitting with PA-ing a workshop for a week and assisting a producer for a week or getting a gig on a documentary for two weeks… It was also when I started producing my own concerts and collaborating with Joe Iconis. And it was great! But it was also crazy… I think you say yes to as much stuff as you can say yes to, early on. I’ve heard a lot of smart people who I respect say that. 

Huang: So if the Jen from ten years ago met the Jen from today, would they be surprised at where you are?

Tepper: Such a good question and I don’t think I’ve ever been asked exactly that. I think 19-year-old me would say, “You’re so lucky! I’m so glad you’re where you are” and not be shocked. But a little-farther-back-me might be surprised because I did do so much creative writing and I could have gone into something like creative writing or journalism. 

Huang: What happened there?

Tepper: I started really studying theater and cast recordings and realized that there were a lot of people out there who were not performers, directors, or producers who occupied these weird places in the theater world. Like Ted Chapin and Ira Weitzman, who are my heroes. 

Huang: So how did you get from realizing that to realizing that?

Tepper: I interned at the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization for a summer in college because I wrote Ted a letter just saying, “Please, please let me work for you, let me do anything!” …So I started learning like that. It wasn’t premeditated but I did have the idea that there were things I could do. And there were also a lot of books about theater I started reading I was obsessed with… do you know the book Not Since Carrie? It was one of my favorite books also and I was like “I wanna be Ken Mandelbaum!” 

Huang: I really appreciate people who know when they’re young that there are other ways to be in theater other than on stage. I certainly didn’t know.

Tepper: I made sure I could take a lot of diverse theater classes and take theater journalism, and take theater directing, producing, and all of that. But it was hard to be in a department where I didn’t technically want to do the thing that my major was… I think going through schooling that’s very expensive – I made my college experience what I wanted it to be.

Huang: That’s interesting, because I went to NYU undergrad as well and I used to tell people when they would ask me how the drama department is, I would always say that NYU’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness in that it never gives you anything. You have to fight for it tooth and nail, and then four years later you either know how to survive or you don’t. 

Tepper: When did you pivot? 

Huang: I graduated college and I acted professionally for about three years. And every subsequent year the stack of Backstages that I collected would get smaller and smaller, because I just wasn’t going out. Then my dad was like “I’ll send you to grad school.” Which is… we’ll get back to this in a second, but I was very fortunate in that my family was able-

Tepper: …to do that.

Huang: Yes. Which is what I want to circle back to later. 

Musical Theatre Then and Now

Huang: I feel like obscure musicals and new musicals go hand-in-hand because audience expectations are similar for both and you kinda have to sift through a lot of okay ones to find the great ones. Being part of both musical theater history and future, I’m wondering… what’s the view like from where you are? 

Tepper: Two things: so, the "Runs a Minute" series that I have been doing with Kevin Michael Murphy for awhile where we celebrate underappreciated musicals – We tell stories about them, as well as have performers sing from them, and invite people that originated the roles to tell stories, stuff like that. After a while I started realizing that studying these obscure musicals and forming them into an evening made me understand the writing process in a way that helped when I was dealing with new musicals. I would be reading about an out of town try-out and then looking at the result of that edit in the musical, then all of those things would come back when I was seeing a friend’s reading. The more I’ve studied history at the same time as I’ve worked on new stuff, the more I realize that they have more in common than they have different. 

Huang: Totally.

Tepper: And also interviewing professionals for my book(s) who were working in the sixties, and hearing a story that makes me think, “That’s just like something that happened this season!” There’s a lot of consistency in people’s experiences. The technology has changed, but theater is still people telling stories in a room and there’s a lot that you can learn if you study the history of it. 

Huang: I want to ask a leading, possibly unfair question. Given the last statement you just made, the history versus now – my experience has been that young writers are often reinventing the wheel when they don’t necessarily have to. What is the value of re-inventing the wheel to you? 

Tepper: I feel like in order to create something that does push the art form forward, or even just to create something that’s new, you have to sometimes fail. I don’t like that word exactly, but I think to write the first Concept Musical, a lot of “first concept musicals” that didn’t quite work had to be written before that. So in that same way when I see musical theater writers working on a piece that doesn’t quite work, who knows? It might work three years from now. Or it might not work at all but the next show you do you might be better equipped to write.

Huang: We are in an industry and environment where the freedom to fail, at least commercially, gets narrower and narrower. So if it’s a given that a noob can’t change the system but still wants to participate within it, doesn’t it behoove them to not make as many mistakes the first time around?

Tepper: Kind of, but “mistakes” is also tricky because we all know that there are musicals that aren’t technically very good but that run for a very long time and musicals that are really good that don’t. So I think that there’s quite a few cases where something doesn’t run for very long but the show makes money in licensing and people consider it a worthy work and those writers aren’t shunned. I think that if you stick to what you think is quality work that’s right for the piece – even if it doesn’t make its money back I don’t think that bans you, thankfully. 

Huang: Fair.

Tepper: I do think there’s a horrifying thing of – it’s really, hard for writers who spend years getting their musical on and then all it takes to kill it for a couple years is a review. That is absolutely abysmal, but I don’t think it kills your next project, is what I’m saying. 

Huang: Back in the day, collaborative teams could write together for ten years and have an entire library of work and now it’s not uncommon for one person to spend ten years on a single piece. 

Tepper: I’ve been reading a lot about the Colonial Theater in Boston lately. You used to take a musical to Boston, and get ten reviews; some might be good and some might be bad but they would all be really constructive. The major newspapers would give constructive criticism and by the time the run was over the show changed, and none of those reviews ever killed those shows. And Boston audiences felt like they knew they weren’t getting a finished product and they were excited about it! People would go to see a show evolve. There were so many – Neil Simon… and Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim and Prince and all those people. 

Huang: So what do you think changed, and (another leading question) how do you think we can change it to what it is to wherever it’s going?

Tepper: As much as it pains me to say it, I think it’s a good thing about the internet democratizing “reviews” a bit. “Word of mouth” is people. That used to mean you read 10 newspaper critics and then made a decision about seeing a show or not. Now only the New York Times holds the power those 10 papers used to have collectively, so now people also hear from 100 friends and strangers on the internet, and there are pros and cons to the way that has democratized "reviews" somewhat. Theatre criticism is a valuable profession, and there are critics who I respect very much, but in the world we live in where there just aren't as many reviews considered by as many potential audience members, I'm somewhat glad the internet has been able to magnify the average person's opinion. It has changed things.

Huang: You said just now “as much as it pains me to say it.” Why does it pain you to say that?

Tepper: The internet has also been a disservice to shows in a lot of ways, because there's now no place out of town where you can get away from New York. That died and that changed, and there will never be a way to change it back. The second the curtain goes up in Washington D.C., there's a bootleg on tumblr, there are tweets about the show.

Huang: Let’s talk about that for a second. Ken Davenport is kind of getting ahead of the curve by live streaming Daddy Long Legs for free… what do you think about that?

Tepper: I think it’s a good thing for us to be trying. And there are shows like Legally Blonde that were so much helped by that happening. I think it’s really cool that if I was in high school in Florida and couldn’t see Broadway shows and could see that, I would be so happy about it. And I also think that what’s really smart, which he knows, is that it’s not stopping people from going to the theater. But I also don’t know how much it’s helping Broadway shows. Yet. I think we just have more to learn about it. 

Huang: I saw the National Theater of London’s broadcast of Curious Incident at Skirball a year before it came to New York and loved it. But as a result I waited about two years before I saw it on Broadway. On the one hand, hey I still went to see it… but on the other, it took two years. What if it had closed early? So I’m not sure about it either but I agree that it’s a question of “what do we have to lose at this point?”

Is Broadway Too “Commercial”?

Tepper: This is a thing with society: I think about this a lot and it makes me sad. When Richard Rodgers was writing everyone was like “the theater’s dead.” And then when Sondheim’s writing everyone’s like “the theater’s dead.” Everyone’s always like “It was better yesterday. It was better in yesteryear. Things are dead.” And I don’t want to be that person. I think certain things are better now, certain things are better then. 

Huang: My personal philosophy, my feeling, is that the reason theater is always perpetually dying but never dead is because human beings recognize that there’s a fundamental innate need to share stories live, together. I think that’s the reason why theater still exists. My feeling is that if we could somehow advertise- instead of saying “so-and-so from this TV show that you know” or whatever, if we just said, “you need to come because you need to be in this room.” I mean, that would never ever work but like, I fancy what that world would be if we could.

Tepper: It would be different- I mean that’s kind of why the not for profits exist although it doesn’t always work that way. If you stand at the TKTS booth and you listen to people, they’re all like “Oh! George Takei from the internet!” or “Is anyone from American Idol in this?” Because they do want that. 

Huang: True.

Tepper: And sometimes you can do what you’re suggesting. School of Rock doesn’t have a star, and that’s smart. School of Rock is the star.

Huang: He’s gonna be… 

Tepper: He’s totally becoming a star now, as the show is taking off. But sometimes you try to sell it on the title of the show, and sometimes there’s the musical that doesn’t have to have any of it. It doesn’t have anyone famous in it. It isn’t based on a brand. There’s one show like this every year. It’s Fun Home. Spring Awakening. Next to Normal. All of those? That’s what that is. And we get to have one. Which is more than we got for a lot of years. It’s an unbelievable time for theater these past three years, and what it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. It’s an incredibly healthy time for new musicals. 

Huang: I loved all those shows you just listed. For the last decade I’ve always been arguing that just the economics of commercial theater is super real and as a result, the ratio between commercial and art is like, 90/10 and my argument has always been “can’t it be 80/20? Can’t it be 70/30?”

Tepper: I feel like interviewing people has helped me a lot with this. You might think that something is the most commercial property ever, but the people who are writing it just grew up obsessed with that [genre] of music, or grew up obsessed with that book and care so deeply about it. Like On Your Feet – the bookwriter of that, Alex Dinelaris, co-wrote Birdman and he just LOVES Gloria Estefan and believes in her story. And it’s not cynical. Once you talk to a couple people about it like that you just go “Oh!” And when I talk to my friends who are trying to get jobs writing these movies and some of them they say “Yeah, I could write that” but then some of them they say “I would die to write that!” Just because it’s a movie that’s Universal or Fox or Warner Bros., it doesn’t mean you can’t really want to write it. And I think that dismissing something because it feels commercial – it’s just not what my experience has been after talking to people. 

Advice for Actors (and Writers)

Huang: Whenever I get to sit behind the table and watch people audition for me, I always have a million things I want to tell them but it’s not my place. Do you have anything to impart on the next generation of musical theater performers

Tepper: I think there’s three things. Well, four. Christian Borle said, “Be the most prepared person in the room.” And I think that applies to everyone. Even if you’re doing a 29-hour reading and it’s not a lot of money. If you’re the most prepared person, you’re going to get a job with that writer or that director again. 

Huang: That’s one. What’s two?

Tepper: I think we all know how important Youtube is for writers, but it’s amazing to me how many performers that are starting out say “I don’t have videos yet. I haven’t really done anything.” Listen. I’ve been in an office where casting is going on for a Broadway show and everyone says, “We love this person’s audition, let’s see what they have on Youtube.” I have also been in situations where someone has said, “I need a singer to sing a couple lines in a song. Who would you recommend?” And I think, “who could really benefit from that opportunity that is talented but just starting out? Let me send you some clips of – oh, they don’t have anything on Youtube.” 

Huang: That is inconceivable to me.

Tepper: Even if your first Youtube video is you doing something you’re proud of but at an open mic or going to a random concert or something, you have to be aware of your internet presence. I think that’s super important actor advice.

Huang: Okay, that’s two, what’s three?

Tepper: You don’t just have to know about acting, you also have to know what’s going on in the business. When I meet young actors who I think are talented but have no idea who anyone is who’s making theater, or they don’t know anything about theater history, I just think… “that’s also a big part of it.” So you have to do that. 

Huang: Okay, that’s three, what’s the last one?

Tepper: It’s that in college, somewhat out of necessity, a little bit of the special gets beaten out of you. And I think that the reason why people end up getting hired- the way to create a distinctive you is to embrace weird things and embrace the weird thing that voice does or that you do as an actor.

Huang: Stay weird.

Tepper: It sometimes takes a lot of years for people that are distinctive and singular to gain success as performers. Sometimes it’s because they have to re-develop the “special.” And then on the flip side, some of the most talented people I know, the Molly Hagers of the world, never lose that distinctiveness and individuality, but it means that they don't fit a mold and so they don't get to come into their own until later, and they're not booking Broadway at 22. 

Huang: What about advice for writers? Notwithstanding the universality of what you’ve already said.

Tepper: Just being a musical theater writer is so hard. Both things. Doing it, but also being it. But this is what I can say: from studying history you start to see that everyone had years where they weren’t getting produced and everyone struggled through times when everyone was telling them bad things about their work. Just keep on going. Be indefatigable and persistent because if you are talented and keep doing it you’re going to get places. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were in their forties when they got to Broadway as writers and Bill Finn was forty when he got to Broadway with his own musical. It just takes time. And also know that it’s not about your work, it’s about the coincidences of the system and what’s getting produced where. 

Huang: Note to self…

Tepper: As much as I hate to say the word networking, because I don’t even think of it like that but –

Huang: Community building. Bridge building. 

Tepper: Community building! I’m gonna use that from now on, that’s smart. You don’t have to think about it as a gross thing, just as getting to know a lot of people. The ways that musical theater writers get produced is that some director who they’ve admired who they’ve worked with for years gets in a position of power and they say “I wanna work with that guy.” 

Huang: So true. The key to staying power is… staying power.

Tepper: When I see the luminaries of right now who are in their 70s and 80s and they (I’m sure) have things that they don’t like about one another, had times that they were competitive, but overall they’re very supportive. It’s great to be overall supportive and wanting to be part of a community while at the same time feeling like “I deserved that job and you didn’t.” Both things are allowed. And that’s another thing. When you used to write spec songs for a project, some producer would say, “I got the rights to this property, let’s try to do it together and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” It wasn’t, “hey I got the rights to this property, ten teams please work on it and I’ll pick the one I like the best.” That creates a different environment. I would like to study this. I don’t know when it started. I was thinking about this because Ragtime was one of the first ones I can remember, where Jason Robert Brown and Maltby and Shire and Ahrens and Flaherty and Michael John LaChiusa were all writing Ragtime! It’s like we’re in a color war sometimes. 

Exclusivity – and How to Fight It

Huang: So we’re gonna circle back to my generous family for a minute. A lot of the advice and experience that you’re sharing sort of hinges upon a person’s ability to maintain while they wait for attrition or timing or whatever. I’m not sure if this is true, but I have noticed that a pretty large portion of our community, the outlier notwithstanding, are really benefitting from the privilege that comes with an upper middle class upbringing. Which – I have concerns about the state of theater when it is…what’s the word I’m looking for?

Tepper: Exclusionary? 

Huang: Yeah! Institutionalized exclusion. Has that been your experience too?

Tepper: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Because I think that it’s that thing – it’s not the same thing but it’s similar to the Women in Theater conversation and it’s similar to the Diversity conversation.

Huang: It’s exactly the same conversation. It’s thinly veiled.

Tepper: I can’t speak for the gay community or the Asian community or a lot of things, but I can speak for women. I think that people forget that it’s gotten so much better. The way that, you look at the people that could write musicals in the 1950s: Stephen Sondheim grew up going to fancy Manhattan parties and learning about lyrics in Oscar Hammerstein’s backyard. And if you look at it, such a huge percentage of musical theater writers then were Manhattan-born white Jews. Someone said to me the other day, and I hadn’t heard this quote and I don’t know who it’s attributed to, but “the history of musical theater for a long time was the history of short Jewish men yelling at each other.” And a lot of those people are brilliant, obviously, but it’s gotten so much better as far as different kinds of writers on Broadway. The class thing has gotten better. It still has so far to go, but there are so many grants, there are residencies. It’s so much better than what it was fifty years ago. I think it’s the reason that people are asking “why aren’t we getting more musicals about X or Y?”

Huang: Yes!

Tepper: And when the intern culture in theater is what it is, and it’s not just theater, it’s a lot of things – you read so many articles about people taking advantage of interns and that whole generation and the like – you can only afford to work in theater a lot of the time if you can afford to do an unpaid internship for a while. I worked in a lot of places where we’ve had interns and whenever I’ve had the ability to make that a worthy educational experience, I have. But even if they are being paid they’re never being paid as much as they should be.

Huang:  Not a living wage, certainly.

Tepper: Right and every time I have an intern that’s even slightly worthwhile, I say, “If we don’t have a job here let me recommend you. Let me call people. Let me get you a job.” But what about those five people who couldn’t do that internship? How do they get behind a desk so that maybe in ten, fifteen years you’re working on making those stories happen? I think the intern culture is a huge part of it.

Huang: So if someone wanted to “solve” this problem, a good place to start is look at the culture of internships?

Tepper: I think there’s little that can make a dent except the government. If things were structured differently so that – ‘cause for a musical theater writer to be making their living writing musicals it takes how long on average? I’d like to measure that.

Huang: I’ll let you know when I get there.

Tepper: Exactly. But I feel like it would probably be, on average, twenty years or something like that. And so, yeah, people can have other jobs, but how fast you get there a lot of the times has to do with how much time you have to dedicate to your writing, so…

Huang: It’s interesting that you say twenty years because Malcolm Gladwell says ten years or ten thousand hours or whatever that is, right? For most things? And it is commonly understood that the culture of theater is about ten years behind the mainstream.

Tepper: Yeah.

Huang: And there’s so many different factors that contribute to why that is, but I see specifically now that those two numbers make for a twenty-year-

Tepper: Gap. Well… “You can make a killing on Broadway but you can’t make a living.” The musical theater writers that are making their living are doing great. You know, and there are people in every generation doing so well – Stephen Schwartz, Bobby Lopez, Pasek and Paul. Even people who just start out, all it takes is getting in and then that’s it. It takes one hit on Broadway to be able to get tons of jobs.

Huang: And just for the record, everybody that you mentioned is great about sharing the wealth, which we’re all grateful for.

Tepper: Totally. Ed Kleban is one of my heroes, and I love him. And to think that he said “let me establish this foundation that gives a big chunk of money to musical theater writers…” I don’t expect them to but if every theater writer that was a millionaire set up something like that it would make a huge dent. 

Huang: I’m not allowed to say that but I kind of agree.

Tepper: But also if the government found some way to subsidize musical theater writers doing work with inner city kids in exchange for like, free tuition – structured so that it gave back…

Huang: …Works Progress…

Tepper: There are ways to create programs that would help people to write musicals and to be part of musical theater that aren’t in the upper middle class or higher. Do I think that’s very likely? No, there’s a lot of problems in the world. But, I think we’re moving in the right direction, which at least is promising

Huang: And I’m not trying to lead you in any direction, I’m just constantly trying to solve the world’s problems. 

Tepper: Which is a great way to be.

Solving the World’s Problems

Huang: I have one last question for you. So you’ve been there, you’re here. Where you going?

Tepper: I have to preface it by saying that I love my job at 54 Below, I don’t plan to quit tomorrow, I’m not doing that. I don’t have as much power as I would like to change the world, but I do have a little, and to use it at 54 to make new musicals happen in concert and get people to hear writers and actors they haven’t heard yet has been awesome. In the long term I would really love to work at a not-for-profit to make new and/or under-appreciated musicals happen. I’m so ready to do that in a way that also has a foot in the “educational” realm. I appreciate what City Center does and what Encores! does is unbelievable. I’m on their Off-Center Young Artists board so I’ve gotten to be part of that in a little way… But I’m also open to so many things. 

Huang: Like…?

Tepper: I always say that if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would buy the Edison, which was a Broadway theater for twenty years. It’s a ballroom now but when it was a theater it was a 500-seat, “could be immersive” theater. I want to run that theater and do new musicals and older underappreciated musicals in it. And down the line, if there does end up being another TV show that’s about Broadway, maybe even one that doesn't take place in present day, I would want to be part of that. 

This last bit, she says with her arms open and her eyes heavenward: Like she’s talking to a Patron Saint of TV shows that Love Broadway. (Who would that be? Theresa Rebeck, Aaron Sorkin?) And it occurs to me then, if that show even ran a minute, she’d already be at the top of everyone’s list. I’d tell her that myself but she’s already moved on, gathering her coat and getting ready to make her mark on 2016.

The post Drinks with Jen: My Conversation with Jennifer Ashley Tepper appeared first on The NewMusicalTheatre.com Green Room.