Endless Development, No Payoff

During my History of Musical Theatre class in college, I was surprised by how few key players there were in New York theatre in the earlier half of the 20th century. It struck me how different it seems to be now, with a website like this thriving, populated by so many awesome, diverse writers who are all churning out new work. I ended up doing an independent study project on this shift in the industry, and I found that the biggest change is that writers now have opportunities for script development.

Decades ago, the process went something like this: Rodgers and Hammerstein (or one of their contemporaries) would write a show. This show would be produced, pretty much no questions asked. There would most likely be an out of town tryout to iron out any kinks, and then it would open on Broadway. The system is obviously different today; not even all of Sondheim’s shows end up on Broadway. And what of the new writers trying to break into the industry?

A scene from South Pacific on Broadway in 1950

A scene from South Pacific on Broadway in 1950.

Most of the shows featured on NMT have not been on Broadway, and many songs on NMT are from shows that have not had any sort of production yet. This has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, and if you’re on this website, I am going to assume you already know that. In the last twenty or so years, the industry has begun trying to accommodate young, new writers with programs geared toward training and education, and opportunities built to develop and workshop complete shows. These include NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, with alumni including NMT’s own Carner and Gregor; the BMI Workshop, attended by both Drew Gasparini and Drew Fornarola; the NAMT Conference; NYMF; and the National Musical Theater Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center. It is undeniably important that these programs exist, but now that they do, and now that writers are taking advantage of them, we have a huge stockpile of unproduced musicals that writers have dedicated years of time and energy into developing.

Before Next to Normal was on Broadway, it was in NYMF as Feeling Electric – Imagine if Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey never had the chance to workshop that script!

Before Next to Normal was on Broadway, it was in NYMF as Feeling Electric – Imagine if Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey never had the chance to workshop that script!

Programs for script development rarely offer a promise of production (unless that is its explicit purpose, like NYMF), and that’s the problem here. So what’s a writer to do? I would advocate for the musical theatre equivalent of what Signature Theatre Company does for plays: each season, they select playwrights to participate in a residency program, during which they are paid to write a new play that will be guaranteed a production slot after a handful of script development stages built into the process. Signature’s isn’t the only approach, either: 13P, the now (sadly) defunct company of thirteen playwrights (including the Pulitzer Prize-finalists Sarah Ruhl and Madeleine George) who were tired of “the trend of endless readings and new play development programs,” produced one play by each writer in the group. The development problem is by no means specific to musical theatre, and the way things are now, writers are rarely able to see their work come to fruition. And that’s no fun.

Ultimately, I think this structure would centralize the process. It’s already been proven that developing a show with one program or company, then bringing it to a full production elsewhere, is nearly impossible. This is hardly simple, but I don’t believe that financial concerns, like the fact that musicals cost significantly more to produce than plays, are necessarily prohibitive. As we’ve proven time and time again, we’re a pretty adaptive and resilient industry; what other art form has been declared “dead” as many times as theatre only to not die (despite whatever this Hollywood Reporter article claims)?

What do you think? It’s clear that it is a problem for writers to get stuck in an endless script development cycle, and that people have been trying to solve that problem, but NYMF, Signature and 13P are very different ways of approaching a solution. Is the root of the problem simply that producers need to take more risks in producing new work? Does the industry lack production opportunities in general? Is there something more that writers could do to remedy the situation, other than producing their own work?

As with most pervasive industry-wide issues, there is no single answer. How can we create more opportunities for writers to see their work in full productions?

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