Why New Musicals Matter to Regional Theaters
As a very young theatre artist/director/librettist-lyricist, I received the best piece of advice from a wonderful mentor. The problem was, at 20 years old, I didn’t yet know how profound this advice would be.
Some history is necessary here. I had just written my first musical to moderate success and was launching a new theater company with a focus on developing new and rarely produced works for the American Musical Theatre. For those of you who have done this or been part of new companies, you know that advice is never in short supply. Indeed, everyone from artists, actors, designers, bankers, donors, lawyers, friends, parents, and teachers had a little something to offer in terms of my proposed enterprise. I was obsessed with doing all I could to support new writers. After all, I WAS one – I knew the struggle and the longing for getting songs sung, scenes read, directors interested, audiences taking notice – I was PART of a community of writers that wanted to tell the stories of a new generation in their own way. So, armed with my cast recordings of R&H, Porter, Sondheim, Flaherty & Ahrens, and Jason Robert Brown, I set about seeking out who this new generation of writers would be. To be fair, I had no idea what I was doing, but wanted to try nonetheless.
Many of the writers who now populate NMT were among the writers I first heard as part of this Second Golden Age of Musical Theatre and I continue to marvel at their work and be proud every day of the career I chose and the people with whom I chose to surround myself. Having said that, I was concerned about audiences. How do I sell tickets to something that isn’t part of the pantheon of musical theatre legend? How do I balance a season of shows that makes sense to my mission and my bottom line? And how do I pay for all of this??
This leads me back to my mentor. Over a quiet lunch in a small downtown restaurant in Dayton, Ohio, he said to me, “Stop choosing material and start choosing people. If you have the right people, the smart people, the talented, engaged, committed people, then the material will come.” At lunch, I said “thank you,” and went on my way. However, without knowing it, I began to operate under that principle. Every show I directed, produced, wrote, arranged, marketed, designed, and altogether got myself involved with stood on the idea that if the PEOPLE were passionate, committed, and engaged, then the audience would be as well. I am happy to see in retrospect that this was largely true. This is not to say that every new musical that I participated in was a roaring success or even that it made any money at all. What DID happen is that I learned several vital things about new musicals and regional theater:
- Audiences DO want something new – but they want to be PART of it, not merely an observer of it. They want to be engaged in the process AND the product.
- The world of new musicals is not defined by Broadway just as animation is not defined by Orlando, Florida. Broadway is a special, beautiful place that often feels like another home to me, but once I learned in my 20s that Broadway and the American Musical are two separate entities, the walls that had once confined the artform came crumbling down. And this was a very good thing.
- Regional theaters are beautiful communities of artists that have committed themselves to a community and a region and want nothing more than to provide superior productions of superior work for their loyal audiences (and yes, even during a recession). There is simply no better environment for developing new work. And their salary is the same whether it’s a new musical or The Sound Of Music.
- College campuses are the new Tin Pan Alley. Use them. Encourage them. Foster them. Support them. Engage them.
- Great songs are great songs. Great scripts are great scripts. Great stories are great stories. Everything is relative. We can decry the onslaught of movies-turned-musicals all we want (and I have), but when a story works, it works. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t. (I will admit I was among the first to say THE LION KING on stage was a terrible idea. Shows how much I knew!)
- Don’t be afraid to let people see the process. Like most artists, I worried that if people saw the wires, the flying would be less impressive. What I hadn’t counted on is that audiences who knew how things ticked would become your biggest supporters – largely because they felt that had an insider’s view. (Isn’t this why we all can’t wait for DVD extras on our favorite film?) So in that light, I say social media is our best friend. You never know what an audience’s entry point is on a new show. The story? The songs? The director? An actor? Make use of all the tools at your disposal.
I have an incredible amount to learn. I hope that I also have an incredible amount to do yet in my career. Most importantly, I will continue to champion the regional theaters that risk new work and the new writers (like those on NMT) that write new work. And of all the ways I can support them, perhaps none is more powerful than just buying a ticket.