On one of December's seemingly inexhaustible supply of bitterly cold evenings, an overflow crowd of people wedged into a small, overheated basement room at the Blue Heron Arts Center on East 24th St., straining capacity at more than double the expected attendance. These eager folks were lured into the wintry night by the promise of a panel of professional experts dispensing battle-tested wisdom on how to develop new musicals for the theatre. The mass cultural hegemony of the American musical theatre may be long gone; yet, as Christine Baranski sang briefly but brilliantly on Broadway (in "Nick and Nora"), it still seems that "everybody wants to do a musical."
The panel, called "Harmonic Changes: Developing New Musicals from First Reading to Opening Night," offered as its big guns Ira Weitzman (musical theatre maven for Lincoln Center Theater and Playwrights Horizons) and Sue Frost (associate producer for the Goodspeed Opera House), which might help explain the overflow crowd. Unfortunately, both were absent. Weitzman had ankled three weeks previous (though after the printing of the brochures). Frost was fighting a more recent case of the flu. In their places were Tim Jerome (actor and head of NMTN—the National Music Theatre Network) and Tom Viertel (Broadway producer of such fare as "The Secret Garden," "Smokey Joe's Café," "Swing!" and the upcoming "The Producers," and recently-appointed chairman of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, replacing the outgoing George C. White). Present as promised were Walter Edgar (Skip) Kennon (composer of "Herringbone"; composer/lyricist of "Blanco," "Feathertop," and the upcoming "Time and Again" at Manhattan Theatre Club; and staff teacher at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop) and Evan Pappas (actor and creator of numerous roles in original musicals, including Broad-way's "Parade" and "My Favorite Year" and Off-Broadway's "The Immigrant").
The panel was sponsored by Theatre Resources Unlimited (TRU), a professional networking organization, whose founder, Bob Ost, said that the organization tries to "propagate the myth of the theatre community," bringing together writers, producers, designers, directors, etc. "at all levels of theatre from beginners to legends," to gain/share wisdom and "let people know about the work you're doing."
Each of the four panelists had wisdom to spare and share. Tim Jerome talked of all he had learned over the 17 years he has been running NMTN, which has led to the organization's current focus on the promotion and evaluation of musicals, leaving the development process to others. Jerome feels that development opportunities are widely available, but that there is a dearth of opportunities for regional theatres and authors to connect. Only interested in receiving already completed works (they get about 200 submissions a year and pick six of them), NMTN tries "to make these musicals that we have discovered known to regional producers." They produce private staged readings in New York for a network of representatives of regional organizations across the country, and offer detailed critical post-mortems to the authors of the works in question. Then, in the next year, organizations affiliated with NMTN do their own staged readings of the same works (hopefully revised and improved) in various cities across the country.
Evan Pappas spoke about the dangers of too much rewriting as embodied in the changes made in his role in the musical "Parade" from the first reading in Philadelphia to the workshop in Toronto to the Broadway production. "The role was like Che in 'Evita.' I was the audience's eyes and ears and I had a wonderful throughline. In rewriting and restructuring, they started to cut things, cut character work. By the time we got to the workshop, there was not much of a second act left for my particular role. One of the biggest comments from many, many people—[invited] producers, directors, composers and lyricists—was consistently about that. But they were trying to find a way to get more quickly to the love story between the two principals." Aware of the problem, the authors tried to add individual, small moments in for him wherever they could, but it wasn't enough, and the public critics ultimately echoed the complaints of the private ones.
Pappas denied that it was just his "actor's ego," and said, "After awhile, if you've been there from the beginning, you have a real interest in the artistic growth of the show. You try to fight for the artistic integrity of the whole piece. But everybody asks everybody, 'What did you think? What should we fix? Where do we need to go?' And it can be dangerous. Very dangerous."
Skip Kennon and Tom Viertel, respective author and producer of the upcoming "Time and Again," echoed Pappas' concerns about excessive feedback, and spoke of the importance of all feedback being channeled through one source. For an author, that should be his director. For a director, it should be one—and only one—of what are usually the many producers necessary to put on a commercial musical.
The developmental path of a new musical today is much more complicated than the time-honored practice of simply going to New Haven, Philadelphia or Boston and then coming to Broadway. Viertel thinks it very important to start with readings, and not to progress beyond that initial stage too early. "Readings are script-in-hand, a piano, little if any blocking, no choreography, no sets or costumes. Picture the reading as your best friend, because until you are absolutely sure that you have something that is going to work on stage—and believe me, when you're absolutely sure, you're wrong—it's an inexpensive way to focus on the material."
Kennon says there are three types of readings: "The 'living room' reading, the 'artistic team' reading, and the 'selling it' reading." The first takes place very informally, is done without rehearsal, and is meant only for the authors to have a chance to hear their work. The second is minimally rehearsed, but the audience is limited to the creative team and their guests, and is intended for the team to learn about the work and coordinate their artistic approaches. The third is intended to raise money, and is the most elaborate and polished of the three.
A Producer's Best Friend
After the reading comes the workshop. Said Viertel, "You don't want to be doing that more than once. It costs $300,000 to $400,000 and is fully staged and fully rehearsed for four or five weeks. Frequently the best moment in any show's history is the workshop. I think it's a product of the audience having to use its imagination and of low expectations. A producer's best friend is always low expectations. Things look great in workshop that ultimately won't really work on stage. Sometimes it's the space, sometimes just the circumstances of the workshop, the special magic that provides, which none of us can explain in any useful way. Just accept that it's so. Keep a much more critical eye than you would in other circumstances. You can get fooled and it's no fun. 'The Secret Garden' workshop was stunning. The show on stage worked decently and no better than that. Somehow or other the magic of the workshop, once it was up there and all real, wasn't nearly as effective."
The final step, of course, is full production. "You can open in New York cold. You can go out-of-town in a non-commercial venue, a regional theatre like the La Jolla Playhouse, where 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' just played. That's probably $500,000 to $800,000 to 'enhance' a production and, normally, the theatre wants a piece of the action. The last possibility is the old-fashioned, commercial out-of-town production. A paying audience, not a subcription audience, is going to pay their money and see what they think. You get an audience that's highly critical. It's not an audience that comes five times a year and thinks, 'Oh, that was very nice.' This is an extremely expensive event, costing a couple of million dollars or more."
Viertel thinks that last price tag is too high, with one exception: "A comedy. 'The Producers' is going to play three and one-half weeks in front of an entirely paying audience in Chicago and we're going to find out whether they're going to laugh or not."
It seems, after all, that despite this brave new world, some showbiz laws are, indeed, immutable.