Richard Rodgers Was A New Musical Theatre Writer
I spend a lot of time with musical theatre writers. A LOT.
And nothing could make me happier. To paraphrase Mary Flynn, “That’s what I wanna do, write! Oh, how does anybody write songs though? To me, that’s the gift of gifts.”
As Director of Programming at 54 Below and as a Musical Theatre Historian, I feel very lucky that many of my days are spent with those magical writers of shows, both young and old— discussing our art form, putting together concerts of their work, engaging in interviews about shows they’ve done…
You know what? It’s hard out there for a musical theatre writer. (That was sort of a popular music reference- please note, because it might be the only one I ever make.)
No matter how many years you’ve been around and how established you are, it is a challenging (and of course, also rewarding) field. But there is a special kind of struggle reserved for the new generation of writers who are just breaking through.
You can be hailed as “the next best thing” and be treated like a celebrity but not be able to make a living writing… you can work in the business for 20 years and still be called “emerging” and “promising”… you can get your first Broadway show after years of struggling only to have it be cancelled…
BUT contrary to what some think… this isn’t exclusive to now! Current New Musical Theatre Writers: to paraphrase Lynn Ahrens, you are descended from a long strong line of writers.
Richard Rodgers was once a “new musical theatre writer.” Alan Jay Lerner was once called a “promising emerging voice.” Frank Loesser was once told to “keep working at it.”
It’s a long road and as I watch talented new voices try to break through, try to get their shows seen and heard, try to make a name for themselves in the Broadway history books… I just try to champion them and support them in any way I can. I have recently figured out that one helpful way to do this is to remind them: Even the most legendary writers of Broadway musicals were once in your shoes.
So many of the luminaries of this field were turned down time after time and kept going. So many of them played their songs in nightclubs and cabarets to acclaim and couldn’t get a show on Broadway. So many of them got their big break only after years of struggle.
Their Wikipedia pages might read: “Wrote this hit and then that hit and then won this Tony.” But their true life stories tell a different tale. So here are the stories of yore that I now tell to the new generation of writers over drinks at 54 Below.
Don’t panic, musical theatre writers. Don’t quit. Keep going. Here’s why:
Cole Porter’s first musical to get to Broadway was called See America First. It was a huge flop and closed after 15 performances. Variety wrote, “It is badly in need of tuneful numbers. The costumes are a revelation!”
JOHN KANDER & FRED EBB
The first musical that Kander and Ebb wrote together was called Golden Gate. It was never produced. The show was about San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906. They played several backers auditions for Golden Gate, but the money to put it on never materialized. However, the score to Golden Gate is what John and Fred played when they auditioned for various producers. It was Golden Gate that got them their job writing Flora The Red Menace for George Abbott–which then led to the rest of their careers.
Jerry Herman’s first professional show in New York City was an off-Broadway revue of his material called I Feel Wonderful. Variety did not feel wonderful about it, and said, “Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics, is okay in the former category but fails in the latter.” The reviewer wrote that the material was amateurish and belonged in a “hideaway spot” rather than an established off-Broadway house. The show closed after 48 performances.
“[Changing my] name did nothing to land me a job in the theater. There was a long period of humiliating and futile storming of producers’ and agents’ offices, during which, on more than one occasion, my medical student brother had to hurl my flailing body on the bed and sit heavily on me until the hysteria abated. “If the producers could only see you now,” he would say, holding my arms still and trying not to smile, “what a passion!”
(from Betty Comden’s memoir “Off Stage”)
Frank wanted to write musicals, but could only seem to land jobs writing a number here and there for vaudeville. In 1935, he was playing some of his vaudeville standalones at a club on 52nd Street called the Back Drop when a Broadway press agent named Tom Weatherly discovered him and his then-collaborator Irving Actman. He hired them to write songs for a Broadway revue called The Illustrator’s Show that closed after 5 performances. Frank and Irving went back to playing at the Back Drop.
RICHARD RODGERS & LORENZ HART
When successful Broadway producer Lew Fields fired the writing team he’d hired to write his latest show, Poor Little Ritz Girl, he decided to hire up-and-comers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in their stead, since they were inexperienced enough to take a reduced fee for their work. Poor Little Ritz Girl had a mediocre out of town tryout, and when Rodgers and Hart weren’t around, Fields replaced half of their songs with the songs of another writing team. Richard and Larry didn’t find out until they got to the theater a few nights before opening that their first real Broadway musical would be opening without half of the score they intended it to have. Richard was so humiliated that he tried to prevent his parents from coming to opening night.
As has been well-documented, Sondheim’s early career was beset by false starts and disappointments. One was his musical, Saturday Night. The show was announced for Broadway during the 1955 season, but when producer Lemuel Ayers died unexpectedly, the project, with music and lyrics by Sondheim, was scrapped completely.
Bill Finn made his Broadway debut as a lyricist when he was 37 years old, and made his Broadway debut as a composer and lyricist when he was 40. He wrote musicals for almost two full decades before making it to the Great White Way.
Before he got his musicals on, Buddy Strouse made his living as a rehearsal and audition pianist. He was playing for his friend Fay DeWitt at an audition when the powers that be in the audience complimented her song choice. She told them the song was written by her pianist, and with that, Strouse had his first job composing music. He was to write music to lyrics that were handed to him, although Irving Caesar, Jack Yellen, and George White made it clear that 1) they would change his music however they liked, 2) they hadn’t determined what the plot would be about yet, and 3) they didn’t know who would sing any of the songs he was being asked to compose. Charles tried to be agreeable, as he was getting his big break, but the night before the first performance, the men finally got around to creating a bare bones plot, which Charles found embarrassing and awful. Of course he had no say in it. Charles asked for his name to be taken off the show, but Caesar refused. The next day the show was hailed as a hit and Charles’ career had begun.
Maury Yeston’s big break was going to be the commercial Broadway smash The Queen of Basin Street. Never heard of it? Oh, well maybe you’ve heard of La Cage Aux Folles, which was the new title used for the show when producers fired the old creative team and brought in a new one. Not to worry though- Yeston did get his big break with the smaller passion project he was working on at the time, called Nine.
Like many composers, Cy Coleman kept food on his table by playing piano at any place that would hire him. One place he worked was the Mermaid Room, a cabaret venue in the Hotel Park Sheraton. He received his first legit review there, when Variety said this future Broadway legend was: “competent”.
Stay tuned for more stories featuring the early struggles of Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Mary Rodgers, Alan Jay Lerner, and many others! Because every legend was once… a new musical theatre writer.