FIRST STEPS, Part 4: Avoiding The Sophomore Slump

Over the course of the first three parts of this series, new musical theatre writers have offered advice on everything from finding directors to getting your songs sung and into voices as soon as possible. Sometimes the SECOND step is the hardest. Too many musicals collect dust after a first reading – so I asked writers to share where THEY look for when seeking NEXT step opportunities.

How can writers be proactive about the all-important second reading/staging? Many shows collect dust after initial workshops. How can writers avoid the “sophomore slump”?

Initial readings should inspire a great deal of re-writing. As Sondheim famously mused, a musical isn’t so much written as re-written. This continues to be true.

Musical Theatre writer Alexander Sage Oyen (Moment By Moment, Outlaws) offers some thoughts to avoid a quick death to your show:

I think your first stop is to try to find your team. Find your director and writing collaborators and rely on each other for strength. I really can’t stress asking other artists for advice enough. If I can be completely blunt- not everybody’s going to be kind. Not everybody is going to let you buy them that sandwich. But the ones that do are usually the ones you want to be talking to anyway. Buy the sandwich. Hear them out. And research what they’ve told you and start applying for things. It’s the only real way I think.

Oyen’s advice here is spot-on because it requires two VERY important things for new writers: (1) Never be too precious about your material – it will change, often significantly. And (2) Develop a thick skin – the earlier the better. All of this means being willing to put your material into the world.

Ryan Cunningham agrees:

Unfortunately, a big part of being a writer is being willing to constantly expose yourself. You do it once when you write the piece, and you do it again as you try to get it produced. Once that initial reading happens, continue to perform songs from the show wherever anyone will let you. This is exactly how we got I Love You Because produced. We did a song at a new musical theatre concert. We were asked to come back and do two songs. And then again to come back and do an evening of songs. We instead did a concert version of the show, and it was there that we made the connection to the producer who would eventually take the Off-Broadway option. 

Ryan brings up an important point about this aspect of exposing yourself and your work: writers in the modern age can no longer just be writers – they must also be the show’s primary marketing champion and negotiator. Remember – no one can talk about the intricacies of your work better than you. Although a producer is great, the writers are always the ones in the trenches ultimately.

Kait Kerrigan shares how this sentiment on producers is true from a writing, rather than marketing, perspective:

We don’t assume that a producer is going to shepherd a project for us, but that’s an unfortunate thing. When you have producers, one of the most valuable things they can give you is a rolling series of deadlines with specific goal posts (like second readings, like workshops). When you don’t have producers attached to a project, it’s your job (and your agent’s) to look for places that might be the right fit. Nine times out of ten, that’s going to be easier to do if you have relationships with artistic staff at theaters. Going to a literary manager or an artistic director directly is going to be more effective than sending something through an open submission. So it comes down to relationships and asking for what you want. People might say no but you only ever need one of them to say yes.  

Relationships are certainly key to the process – but also, as Kait points out, keeping yourself motivated with deadlines and goal posts helps keep things moving forward. Being savvy and aware of opportunities is a writer’s job first and foremost – EVEN if the slump feels like it’s beyond your control.

Sammy Buck agrees:

lometimes the slump is out of our control, but you can be proactive in other media, like YouTube videos or concerts. Also, I am an advocate of applying for every opportunity, because something can always lead to the next step.

The next step ultimately can be something you never imagined – so view every opportunity as a forward movement. The trajectory still remains in the hands of the writers, and the business of marketing and pushing your work should hold the same energy as the writing did. THIS will ensure that the show sees the light of day as often as possible.

As this is the end of the series, I want to thank the brilliant and kind writers who contributed to this series and encourage you to check out their exciting bodies of work. For me, these writers represent all that is good in the industry and are keeping alive the art form we all love.

Keep writing. Keep selling. Musical theatre is alive and well – and your contributions are part of the new movement.

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