Versatility – the key to success for musical theatre composers?

In many creative aspects we are taught from a young age that versatility is key to success. Actors and performers spend half of their life worrying about finding their niche, and later worry about being typecast and stuck in a particular casting bracket. There is great debate to be had in this topic – some would easily argue that being versatile and open to new ways of working, new styles and new performances is the key to success, especially when starting out in a chosen career. There are others however that would prefer to master one distinct or specific style and become an expert in that field and the authority on one particular style or genre.

Many performers find out the hard way that they are a particular ‘type’ and many manage to forge extremely successful careers from it. Knowing your casting ‘type’ is half the battle of auditions. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to see young actors striving for roles they will just never be cast in for a variety of reasons. Self-awareness and knowledge of your own limitations and strengths is perhaps the biggest key to success. Obviously there are many who develop throughout their careers and are able to embrace roles from different ages and stages of their career, but there are many others who are able to find success always delivering excellence in very similar roles.

Composers and writers can sometimes fall foul of the same problem. Writers are shaped and influenced by multiple factors, including their mentors, what they listen to and styles in which they find themselves most comfortable writing. Cultural factors, upbringing and even family influences can shape a composer’s style, which of course continues to develop and evolve throughout their careers. Everyone learns from experience, be it positive or negative. Often as a writer it is ironically much more beneficial to be part of a ‘failure’ or unsuccessful show, as it is the evaluation of that ‘failure’ that allows you to learn and develop.

Sondheim and Hammerstein, 1946.

Sondheim and Hammerstein, 1946.

Take any contemporary musical theatre composer – each one has their own unique story about their work and inspirations. From the more publicly known relationships such as Sondheim’s relationship with Oscar Hammerstein, or Adam Guettel’s family ties to Richard Rodgers – each composer’s individual styles are both influenced by their backgrounds and evolve throughout each project they work on.

But how far does versatility play in managing to achieve success on Broadway? Many composers are considered ‘darlings’ of both reviewers and Awards committees, but some are automatically discounted based on their track record and almost pre-judged based on their previous work. I’ve already considered the seemingly ill-fated Broadway career of Frank Wildhorn, but last week’s Tony Nominations have had me considering once again how versatility seems to be a composer’s best friend.

I, like many, was heartbroken to hear that Jason Robert Brown’s magnificent Bridges of Madison County was grievously overlooked by the Tony Awards committee for Best Musical. So much so that I was hoping for another iconic Julie-Andrews-Snubbing-gate (see this Youtube video if you’re unsure what I’m on about), but the divine Kelli O’Hara thoroughly deserves her nomination and with any luck and a silent prayer from all of us will take home the honour. In my opinion, this was the most mature, developed and exciting ORIGINAL scores of the season, which was thankfully recognized in another highly competitive category. Sadly, the plug has been pulled on the show and it will now close on 18 May, showing that the Tony Nominations, particularly those for Best Musical, do affect marketing and ticket sales.

2014 Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara in The Bridges of Madison County.

2014 Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara in The Bridges of Madison County.

I’m sure many will write to discuss the closure, and it’s something that many are passionate about. From the most objective perspective, the show just didn’t have the commercial potential needed in order to survive in what is an extremely cutthroat season. Jason Robert Brown’s work is consistently of a different standard to many other composers – but does this sometimes reduce his commercial prospects or wide ranging appeal? What can be described as ‘genius’ by those with an particularly refined musical ear, singers and musicians who find his work so rewarding to perform or musical theatre enthusiasts who are looking for something meaty and intelligent, may be passed off as too ‘high-brow’ by the casual theatre goer or tourist – and that’s where the bulk of the money is. Even straw polls amongst my friends reveal that those who listen and are familiar with modern musical theatre adore JRB’s works, but more casual theatre fans I know have yet to be won over.

Unlike other ‘snubbed’ show of the season If/Then (which I sadly haven’t yet heard and so can’t fully comment), Bridges wasn’t a thoroughly original and therefore unmarketable idea. The book was an international bestseller, the film is extremely well known, and unlike If/Then, it did have a base on which it could build on.

Despite the ‘cult’ success of works such as Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years that are constantly performed on the fringe on both sides of the Atlantic, neither have the potential (or indeed were designed to be) large commercial Broadway hits. Parade (1998) ran for just 85 performances, and Bridges will have totted up 137.

So what am I trying to get at exactly? My open question, I guess, is how versatile do musical theatre composers have to be in order to succeed? Very few people have their career mapped out in front of them, and anyone within the theatre industry clearly understands the fickle transient future which it presents. Is it possible to appeal to the widest range of audience possible, whilst maintaining your creative dignity and not changing what your creative vision in order to benefit commercially?

The episode of ‘Friends’ springs to mind, where Phoebe refuses to let her song ‘Smelly Cat’ be used in a commercial, as she doesn’t want to ‘sell out’. Thankfully guest star Elizabeth Daily pitches it to the ads team and it becomes a hit.

Whilst many musical theatre writers don’t have to exactly ‘sell out’ in order to get ahead, there are many cases perhaps where they have to take on different types of projects and contribute to a wider range of musicals in order to branch out creatively.

Take for example the incomparable Jeanine Tesori. Her work could not be more celebrated at the moment, with a revival of Violet finally on Broadway and critical hit Fun Home sparking debate and raising important questions all over the country. As a composer, her work is particularly far-reaching, and incredibly successful in both the commercial sector, critically, and with musical theatre lovies the world over. This success is primarily down to her versatility as a writer and her impressive choices and opportunities she has managed to get throughout her career.

Whilst building her name as an impressive music arranger her first Broadway hit with the 2002 production of Thoroughly Modern Millie saw her nominated for a Tony Award for Best Score, as well as the show itself taking home the main prize. This was met with commercial success, running for 903 performances, as well as an eight-month run in London’s West End.

Her next score was the intelligent, heartbreaking and powerful Caroline or Change, which was met with critical praise, six Tony Nominations (including Best Musical), a London transfer at the National Theatre and an Olivier Award for Best Musical. Despite these accolades it didn’t achieve the same level of commercial success, but cemented Tesori’s name in modern musical theatre.

Her next full Broadway score couldn’t have been more different, as Shrek the Musical adapted the much-loved Dreamworks film franchise to a mega budget Broadway show. Running on Broadway for 441 performances, the show enjoyed even greater commercial success in London, running at the colossal Theatre Royal Drury Lane for over 750 performances. Despite being a mass market musical appealing to families, children and tourists alike, Tesori’s musical wit was still firmly in tact, and she was able to create a score that thoroughly reflected her musical personality, whilst simultaneously fulfilling a very specific purpose.

Sutton Foster in the Broadway revival of Violet.

Sutton Foster in the Broadway revival of Violet.

Though Violet, Fun Home and Shrek clearly appeal to different audiences, Tesori has successfully managed to write critically successful shows and adapt her style accordingly. She has proved herself to be one of the most versatile musical theatre composers currently working on Broadway, and by gaining experience within the public and commercial sector, different production companies and collaborators, she has been able to create the most diverse range of musicals that have all been successful in different ways.

Everyone measures success differently. Awards, nominations, box office receipts etc may prove a crude way of externally judging the success of particular projects, but often success is a much more personal accolade. Levels of success can often be found in the biggest failures – and we each draw our own barometers of how to know, or at least feel like, we’re on the right professional track.

I’m not suggesting that Jeanine Tesori’s career path would be perfect for everyone – but surely she shows that versatility is rewarded, both musically and in the projects she undertakes. There are many composers who seem ‘trapped’ in a particular vein for one reason or another, and would benefit from branching out and taking on new ideas and tackling subjects/styles that may not automatically be in their comfort zone.

British composer Howard Goodall is another example of intricate musical excellence. Despite wonderful musicals such as The Hired Man, Days of Hope and Love Story, he is yet to break into the commercial sector as a musical theatre composer (his work on TV themes however is a different story). I am extremely excited to see him take on a whole new challenge in the screen to stage adaptation of Bend it Like Beckham which is set to open in the West End imminently. Goodall, like Tesori, will no doubt use his stunning musical imagination to create a different style of musical to what he has come to be associated with, and entering the commercial West End with a ‘safer’ film musical, his outstanding work will with any luck reach a wider audience and have the same affect that Shrek had with Tesori.

Versatility often challenges us in a variety of ways, and I for one am delighted to hear composers turning their attentions to a wide range of projects. Whilst no one wants to become a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’, variety is, as they say, the spice of life and something that more musical theatre composers should aspire for.

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