The characters played by Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and the rest of the gang in those old MGM movie musicals had it easy. They'd sit around glumly trying to figure out how to raise a few bucks to save the orphanage, and someone would cry, "Hey, kids, let's put on a musical!" By the end of the film, the kids had a barn with a vast revolving stage, endless flyspace, dazzling costumes, intricate choreography, and a passel of Broadway producers driving up from Manhattan to attend their opening night.
As any aspiring composer, lyricist, or librettist can attest, mounting musicals has never been that easy, and over the last 50 years, it's only gotten harder. At least for a couple of decades after Rodgers and Hammerstein reinvented the musical form with "Oklahoma!," writers who aspired to Broadway careers could work on their craft by writing for smallish revues like Julius Monk's series of shows (or even, as several writers did, for Catskills-area resorts). However, those kinds of shows fell out of favor in the 1960s and no longer served as training grounds.
In the 1970s, as many established names were conspicuous by their absence from Broadway (Jerry Bock, Arthur Schwartz, Carolyn Leigh, Harold Arlen, Mary Rodgers, and Harold Rome, to mention a few), soaring costs made producers skittish about taking chances on unproved writers. In the 1980s, a few new names were able to venture into the field, but most abandoned thoughts of making a career of it when they learned how humiliating critics can be. Always a place where, to quote playwright Robert Anderson, "you can make a killing, but you can't make a living," Broadway turned even less welcoming: like something out of a nasty fairy tale, it became a land where rare successes prompted rejoicing throughout the kingdom—but failure led to being devoured by large, ugly beasts.
The resulting lack of new writers was embarrassingly exposed to the world in 1989, when no Tony Awards were presented for best score and best book because the nominating committee believed no musicals of the season deserved the honors. Shortly thereafter, people who cared about the American musical began forming (or reinvigorating) groups specifically devoted to replenishing the talent pool. Some of those organizations have crashed and burned in the last decade, but several remain committed to fostering new musicals.
So, although taking a show from concept to opening night on Broadway is still like working through a complicated maze—dozens of possible winning routes, and millions of potentially disastrous wrong turns—there are at least some tour guides now who can lead newcomers through the process.
This article discusses some of the possible routes and some of the things those tour guides have to offer. It is by no means exhaustive—listing every option would require a very large book—but it is an introduction to some of the places where musicals, and careers, might be developed.
The first task for anyone with a dream of writing a musical is to put together an audition portfolio. It isn't necessary to have a completed script, score, and demo tape, but if you don't have any examples of your writing abilities, put this paper down now and start writing until you have at least four songs you're willing to show to others. Work as hard as you can, but don't be so much of a perfectionist you can't consider anything "finished." Also, remember to be yourself. The preeminent talents in virtually every field, from Broadway's most-honored composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim to home run slugger Mark McGwire, stress that imitating them (or anyone else) is almost guaranteed to lead to failure.
After assembling the songs (and putting together a decent audiotape of them, if possible), some beginners may want to start with regimented instruction. If college is an option for you, New York University (NYU) offers the country's only Master of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre, through the Tisch School of the Arts. Open to just 22 writers per course, the two-year program has recruited some of the greatest musical theatre professionals of our time as master teachers and guest artists, including producer-director Harold Prince and librettist-director Arthur Laurents. Current core and adjunct faculty members include lyricist Lee Adams ("Bye, Bye Birdie"), lyricist-librettist Sarah Schlesinger ("The Ballad of Little Jo"), librettist-director Tina Landau ("Floyd Collins"), and composer-lyricist William Finn ("Falsettoland").
First year writing labs teach students about collaboration, storytelling, character development, and different styles of songwriting (and introduce them to the realities of criticism, which will be their constant companion if they pursue this field as their life's work). When they are not in labs, pupils attend lectures and seminars that teach them about the history of the art form, as well as different kinds of performances in all stages of development, from rehearsals through previews to openings and beyond.
Students end the first year by drafting out and completing a one-act musical. They spend their second year writing a full-length musical or opera.
To be considered, applicants must supply the kinds of things that should be expected in a graduate course—transcripts and application forms, for example—as well as detailed resumes, portfolios of their work, and reviews of their work, if possible. The application deadline is Jan. 15.
For contact information (for this and other programs discussed in this article), please see the sidebar, "Best Musical Contacts."
Another option for writers who are still learning, but can't devote themselves to full-time class schedules or afford the tuition, is the BMI Music Theatre Workshop. Now in its 48th year, it is the longest-running musical training program in existence, and has a long and distinguished list of alumni. Most famously, it is where "A Chorus Line" lyricist Edward Kleban polished the lyrics for that show; other attendees include Maury Yeston ("Nine"), Alan Menken and Howard Ashman ("Little Shop of Horrors"), Judd Woldin ("Raisin"), Gerard Allessandrini ("Forbidden Broadway"), and Michel John LaChiusa ("The Wild Party" on Broadway).
Each year, the workshop accepts around 35 new members. Interested writers may call for an application or download one from www.bmi.org. Composers and lyricists must return the application form with three songs, preferably showing a range of styles. The submission deadline is Aug. 1.
According to Jean Banks, senior director of the workshop, "We work with people of all ages and all levels of experience," and "just talent" is the only prerequisite for admission. Attendees do not have to be a member of BMI, the worldwide music-licensing group, and the two-hour weekly workshops carry no fee. As Banks says, "Dedication is all we ask.
"For the first couple of years we train people, with a traditional training—what a song does, how to do a song," Banks says. "We provide a safe harbor where people all have the same goal."
Many of the participants "only leave the group because they're successful," she says, although even writers who have successful careers are still welcome to come back if they think it will help what they're working on.
ASCAP, the music publishing clearinghouse that is BMI's main competitor, also has a workshop for musical theatre writers, but with some notable differences, according to composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin"). Schwartz, who leads some of the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshops, says, "We do projects rather than assignments." Specifically, it does four projects at a time. And because teams usually apply, rather than individuals, and since applicants submit projects that they are already developing, with a minimum of four songs already completed, the workshops move along at a comparative sprint.
"It is very brief, because we're not starting from scratch," Schwartz says. "We meet seven times in two months, and each project has two presentations. First, excerpts of two of the four projects are presented per night for two nights. Those are usually about 25 minutes long, and we require the excerpts to be consecutive, not highlights, because highlights can be so misleading.
"The presentations are critiqued by a panel, usually myself and two or three other musical theatre professionals—people who are articulate when they comment. Then there's a break of a few weeks where writers can work on their projects based on those comments. After the break, we present 50-60 minute consecutive excerpts of each musical, one per night, and those are followed by additional panel critiques." The seventh workshop deals with many prosaic aspects of musical theatre songwriting, such as information about copyrights and licensing, and devotes the second half of the evening to writing for cabaret.
Some of the projects that have moved into production from the ASCAP workshop are "The Rhythm Club," which is slated for a Broadway production this year, and "Lucky Stiff," an early musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Earlier this year, two of the promising projects were workshopped at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, as part of a new program called "In the Works," which Schwartz hopes to see continued.
Workshop applicants should submit brief synopses of their projects, with a minimum of four songs on tape, and "they will be filtered through Michael Kerker, who is basically the head of musical theatre at ASCAP," Schwartz says. The four projects chosen will be selected with an eye toward diversity of approaches and subject matter. "I look for variety, and multiculturalism, not necessarily as a specific goal, but I try to get four shows that are quite different."
None of the programs discussed so far require writers to share future profits, unlike many others that require "financial participation" to recoup their overhead costs. Writers should make sure they know what they're giving up before entering into any agreement.
Hey, Mr. Producers
Aspiring writers and directors who have achieved the level of competency (or chutzpah) necessary to approach Broadway producers for guidance may want to look to the Harold Prince Musical Theatre Program, under the auspices of the Directors Company.
Prince, who as a producer and director has won more Tony Awards than anyone else in history, launched the program in 1992 to find emerging musical theatre artists and provide them with the artistic, production, and administrative support they need. Working with a pool of up to 50 composers, lyricists, librettists, and directors, the program helps them complete existing projects, and also assembles new teams to work on new projects.
"Creating musicals from scratch is one of our fortes," according to Artistic/Producing Director Michael Parva. "Other programs solicit fully written musicals, and there's a need for that, of course. But what we do best is put teams together."
Interested writers may apply individually or in teams, with a letter of interest, a resume, one copy of a work to be considered (which can be anything from a proposal to a completed script), a synopsis of the project, a cassette tape of at least six songs, and a self-addressed stamped envelope. Aspiring directors must send the letter and resume, as well as a proposal, two letters of reference from theatre professionals, a one-page description of past and present involvement in musical theatre and a vision for the future, and other support materials that the applicant considers relevant. Prince, Parva, and Co-Artistic/Producing Director Arthur Masella review the submissions and invite some applicants to join the group.
"We're very interested in new talent," Parva says. "We like to meet people and get them into the loop."
Once in the loop of the program, participants are encouraged to generate new ideas for musicals. Creative teams are assembled when an idea is considered exciting enough to proceed, and that team meets with Prince, Parva, and Masella to begin the development process.
The development generally takes a couple of years, until it culminates in workshops performed by professional actor-singers. After that, Parva says, the program will "consider producing [a project] with one of the theatres around the country that we have alliances with. They would pick up on them with an eye toward bringing them back to New York."
Not all the projects have to be commercially viable to be considered worthy of exploration, however. "We like to push the boundaries," Parva says. "Musical theatre has to go forward, to keep in step with—or ahead of—the audience." Parva points out that Prince's career has been built on expanding the limits of musical theatre, and says, "the program reflects him."
Musicals that have been developed in the program include Stephen Schwartz's "Children of Eden," "The Ballad of Little Jo," by Sarah Schlesinger and former pro football player/Grammy-winning composer Mike Reid, and "Eliot Ness...in Cleveland" by Lindsey Nassif and Peter Ullian. "Little Jo" is currently playing at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, while "Eliot Ness" is, indeed, in Cleveland as of this writing. The program's most recent project is "3hree," an evening of three one-act musicals, one of which Prince directed. It plays in Philadelphia until Nov. 19.
Another Broadway producer, Harve Brosten, also feels the theatre needs to replenish its stock of professionals. Brosten, who produced "Romance/Romance" on Broadway, is producing director of the new Overture Theatre Company, which is dedicated to providing more opportunities for new and established musical theatre artists. Under the guidance of Managing Director Robert R. Blume, Artistic Director Barry Harman, and Brosten, Overture plans to introduce writers to the joys of collaboration. "It's exciting when a multitude of people work together with a like mind," Brosten says. "Musicals are not just written, they are developed, and that's where we want to come in."
Overture will launch its first season with the debut of "Long Road Home" at the Hudson Guild Theatre Nov. 11. Brosten says the show, with words by Harman and music by Kathy Sommer, has been in development "for three or four years," which may or may not be typical of projects the company undertakes as it establishes itself and its processes. "The process is different for each show," he says.
Brosten won't speculate where the company's projects might be produced next. "I'm not projecting at this point," he says. "As the Overture Theatre Company's first project for a paying audience, 'Long Road Home' will make a quantitative leap because it establishes what the theatre can do." If the shows do move on, the company will enjoy "a small [financial] participation."
Composers, lyricists, and librettists can call or write if they are interested in joining the group, says Brosten, adding that directors are also welcome, and for that matter, "it could be designers who bring in a project. I'm open to all different ideas."
Of course, most of the groups that help shepherd musicals to fruition are not headed by established Broadway producers. More typical are groups that began as writers' gatherings, where authors form the core, make the decisions, and find themselves learning all about producing by necessity. The five-year-old boulevard arts is one example: Currently seeking to get a home for "Gene Kelly," a multimedia "live documentary" written by Artistic Producer Maryann Lombardi, who says she "became a producer because I wanted to direct." The group is also developing four other musical theatre projects at present, and looking for more, because "it's good to have a lot of things percolating," Lombardi says.
boulevard arts welcomes submissions of scripts and tapes, but Lombardi has little patience for bad recordings. "Perhaps it would be better not to send a tape than send a bad one," she suggests. It helps if the writer is recommended by a company member or someone either Lombardi or Managing Producer SaraJane Fleming knows, but it isn't necessary. Similarly, although the company is interested in writers who have already established themselves to some extent, it isn't a requirement. "From the point of view of producing, it's always better if you have credits," Lombardi says, "but everyone has to start somewhere."
The group is willing to work on worthwhile projects until they are produced, as long as they don't need massive rewrites. "The hardest part is finding the theatre and the money," says Lombardi, adding, "Even if you have a relationship with a regional theatre, they usually plan their seasons from one year in advance to five years in advance, so it requires patience."
CAP 21 is another group that only recently ventured into producing, after a long history of guiding musicals and their writers. Artistic Director Frank Ventura says the group is "still in the process of developing relationships, and that there may be five or six musicals in development there. It hosts Monday night readings of developing works (which are not open to the public) and a semi-annual Blackjacks Festival of staged readings of new plays, musicals, and screenplays (where the public is welcome). From there, 25 musicals have been workshopped at CAP 21 so far. In October, CAP 21 produced its first offering, the homegrown musical "The Immigrant," based on a play that was also developed there.
Composers, lyricists, and librettists may send their developing musicals, with a libretto and "any recorded music in any condition," says Ventura. A committee made up of "members of the board, staff, and creative artists we've worked with over the last seven years" reads the submissions, looking for projects with "something to say—something worthwhile to say."
The Genesius Guild is "looking for something to produce on an Off-Broadway level," according to Artistic Director Thomas Morrissey. The Guild hosts two staged readings of musicals each year, as well as "in-house round table meetings and informal sit-down readings," and is particularly proud of its cabaret program, which has nurtured "lots of new composers," Morrissey says.
The group would like to be a matchmaker to potential collaborators, but that is "still in the discussion phase." Meanwhile, it is looking for completed (or nearly completed) projects for future productions. "We have a number of producers on our board," he says. "Beyond that, we've recommended shows to other theatres."
Applicants should send a synopsis and a tape of approximately four songs, plus a resume, a production history of the project, and production requirements.
Musical Writers Playground also aims to help writers get their projects completed and seen by theatre producers, either from regional theatres or New York venues. Currently 17 writers—including Artistic Director D.J. Salisbury, Executive Director Leslie Becker, and Producing Director V. Paul Boyle—are working on projects there. Last November the group presented Boyle's musical "Walk Away" (with music by Mary-Mitchell Campbell), which has since been optioned for an Off-Broadway run.
The Playground, despite its somewhat merry-sounding name, is a place where participants are expected to work diligently. "You have to be able to meet deadlines here," says Becker. "In the creative process, deadlines are very important.
"We're looking for 'make-it-happen' kind of people."
Writers pay $400 per year to join the Playground, and sign a contract giving the group future financial participation.
The deadline for applying is Nov. 30. Interested writers can write or e-mail for the application procedure, which generally requires a completed work rather than one in progress.
Let's Get This Show on the Road
These days the path to Broadway is more circuitous than ever before, and most tuners that reach the Main Stem have already been produced in regional theatres elsewhere in the country. Three musicals to open this season, "Jane Eyre," "The Rhythm Club," and "The Full Monty," are examples of that trend. However, because most people who write musicals live in New York, there is a demand for institutions that introduce the theatres to authors.
Roger Hendricks Simon says that when he founded The Simon Studio 22 years ago, "regionals wouldn't touch new musicals, but, fortunately, that's changed. Now producers can't [afford to] try musicals out in New Haven before bringing them to Broadway, so the testing grounds are in labs and regional theatre." His goal is to provide the former, as a springboard to the latter. "Our projects are done here, then sent out with the Simon Studio name and my recommendation to regional theatres, in hopes of getting Equity productions there.
"There is so much talent, but without the high powered agents and connections that you need. It's a Mafia, as are most businesses. What takes up the time isn't the creative things; it's getting it [shopped] around. Fortunately, more work can be done in the time you spend sitting around waiting for responses."
Simon says the studio has existed for 22 years, but only started working on musical projects about five years ago. Four musicals are currently in development.
Any person with a prospective musical theatre project may call, write, or log on to the website to make initial contact with the studio, after which they will be invited to attend some sessions. If they are still interested in joining, they will be asked to submit "some of what they want to work on."
Writers are charged a payment ("it varies") for the services they get, which Simon says includes "space, actors, and attention." Although future financial participation is also possible, he says, "It isn't required and it doesn't happen often."
The name Theatre Resources Unlimited (TRU) may sound overly broad, but the group does all it can to live up to it. In addition to putting together readings of three new musicals each January, says TRU President Bob Ost, "We provide space, mailing, and a database of almost 1,500 theatre professionals, and we put together panels of producers and general managers and other panels to discuss 'produceability.' " Not bad for a group that's only two years old.
Putting together the musical readings is "a quick process—about four weeks," Ost says. The readings are as short as 45 minutes long and as long as 90 minutes, although the shows themselves may be any length. TRU also uses its database to find producers who are likely to be interested in the projects. The group currently limits its involvement to completed pieces that require fewer than 12 actors and that have never been performed for paying audiences.
The cost to the creative team for the readings is minimal—$10 to non-members and free to those who have paid the $40 annual TRU membership fee—and the group does not "at this point" maintain a financial participation.
TRU welcomes submissions from any member of a creative team working on a new musical, but places particular emphasis on producers. "Not to discourage writers," Ost says, "but we like developing producers." The submission requirements are different for writers and directors, and the guidelines are available by writing or calling the office.
The largest and most influential group that pitches emerging musicals to regional theatres is the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT). Founded in 1985, it has actually outgrown its name, and is now an international organization of more than 110 theatres that produce and, to varying degrees, nurture new musicals.
In 1989, NAMT created the Festival of New Musicals, an annual gathering where member theatres could show off tuners that they have presented or otherwise supported. At the most recent festival, in September, excerpts of 10 musicals were performed in extremely limited staged readings for audiences almost totally composed of member theatres' staff.
Nearly 150 musicals were submitted for consideration, and were winnowed down to the final group by a committee over the previous winter and spring. The final selections included adaptations of classic literature ("Glimmerglass" and "Far From the Madding Crowd"), religious parables ("The Ark" and "Cupid & Psyche"), biography ("Lizzie Borden" and "Mandela") original stories ("Joe!" and "Convenience"), and American history ("Hot and Sweet" and "Liberty Smith"). The committee also determined which shows received hour-long readings and which got half-hour readings. Daniela Topol of NAMT says that decision isn't based on the musicals' merits, but on which format could best convey what each was like.
After the readings, the creators and sponsoring theatres distributed scripts and recordings of the scores to NAMT members who expressed interest. Member theatres range from 200-seat venues to 3,000-seat theatres; cumulatively, they represent more than 700,000 subscribers and more than $430 million in operating revenue.
Some of the musicals presented in previous festivals have gone on to success in London ("The Three Musketeers") and Off-Broadway ("The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin"), so the festival has become an important part of regional theatres' selection process. It is also, as The New York Times wrote, "Great fun—like being handed a tasting menu of the musical of tomorrow." So, although each show was given two readings to accommodate all the NAMT members who wanted to attend, there were still some cases where people had to be turned away for lack of space.
According to Topol, any musical can be submitted for consideration to NAMT, not only those that have already been presented by member theatres. "If they're submitted by an Alliance member, the producing theatre stays with the project," she says. "If not, we attach an executive from the Alliance, someone who knows our procedure inside and out." After the final selections have been made, the presenting theatres spend an average of $3,000 to get the readings on their feet.
There is no cost to the authors of the musicals, and NAMT does not share in future profits (although financial arrangements with individual theatres may vary). The object, Topol says, is not to make money, but to nurture, invigorate, and celebrate new musical development.
Applicants are asked to provide one copy of the script and tape clearly marked with the authors' names, and three copies of each without names (to allow for "blind" screenings by the committee). The next deadline for submissions is January 29 for non-members and April 2 for members. Applications will be available on the NAMT website by the end of this month.
The Money Starts Rolling In
Most New York City-based theatre companies, from the famously established to the newly emerging, welcome submissions of new musicals. Some, like the following examples, even pay writers to develop musicals for them!
After holding writers festivals for the last 10 years, the New Professional Theatre presented its first musical offering, "The In-Gathering," as a showcase at the new Duke Theatre on 42nd St. this season. The company is the brainchild of Sheila Kaye Davis, whose title is artistic director, but who laughs that she is really "chief cook and bottle washer and the person who does the legal stuff and play selection, and writes every check—and after 10 years is just starting to get paid."
An original cast member of "Little Shop of Horrors," Davis loves, and wants to bring new voices to, musical theatre. She is particularly interested in including playwrights who have historically been underrepresented. "The In-Gathering," as a project written by African-Americans, is an example of what she hopes to do.
"I want the New Professional Theatre to be a space where those writers can receive help and access," she says. "Some writers with great exciting ideas have to learn structure, which takes time to learn."
Her solution is to offer dramaturgy and a stipend of $2,000 to an author "and say, 'Sit down, all you're going to do for eight hours a day is work on your show.'
"I love writers when they're newly pregnant with ideas, but they need to know that what works on your computer screen does not necessarily work on stage."
Writers who are interested in the offer may send a complete script of a project—"a good first draft"—and a full tape, which Davis says does not have to be expensively produced. Beyond that, and a bio, she says the only requirement is talent.
Perhaps the busiest hotbed of new musical creation is Theatreworks/USA, a 40-year-old group that sends out six-month tours of shows geared toward school-age audiences. Although it receives many submissions of completed works from composers and lyricists, Theatreworks frequently commissions new works from those writers it finds promising.
"We have three or four original musicals in production at any time," says Artistic Director Barbara Pasternak, "and many more under commission." That pace may pick up soon, as the company branches out into the high school market.
The experience of writing for Theatreworks teaches writers about some aspects of music theatre creation that most people don't think much about, like time constraints and cast limitations. Because the entire cast has to travel to venues in no more than two vans, writers must keep the number of characters to six or less, or else structure the show carefully so actors can play multiple roles.
The process takes about two years from the initial request of "Why don't you work on…" to its first performance in front of its intended audiences. Each show is workshopped.
The authors are paid an advance when they begin the project, paid again when the show is workshopped, and then share in a 6% royalty pool (divided as they see fit, and minus the advance) during its run.
No discussion of musical development would be complete without an examination of the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. The annual gathering of composers, lyricists, and librettists has been meeting at the Waterford, CT, facility since 1978, and has nurtured such tuners as Maury Yeston's "Nine," which won the Best Musical Tony Award in 1982; Kirsten Childs' "The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin," produced earlier this year at Playwrights Horizons; and Andrew Lippa's "The Wild Party," presented this year by Manhattan Theatre Club.
At least 75 theatre professionals, including actors, directors, musical directors, center staff, and, of course, writers, attend the two-week conference. (The possibility of expanding it to three weeks is a topic of continuing discussion.) Writers whose work is selected get a $1,000 honorarium to attend, and the center does not retain financial participation.
Each year the program changes, but on average, five or six shows are selected for workshops. This summer, the center chose the new musical "The Screams of Kitty Genovese" by David Simpatico and Will Todd, based on a horrific true story, and "The Highwayman," Childs' new work-in-progress based on the Alfred Noyes poem. In addition, O'Neill Center President George C. White and Artistic Director Paulette Haupt invited eight other composers and lyricists to take part in an unprecedented project, where they were divided into new teams each day and given less than eight hours to produce new songs on supplied topics. The program exposed the writers to different collaborative styles and processes, and submerged them in the kind of pressurized situations they are likely to face when creating future musical projects. The overwhelming consensus of the writers who spoke with Back Stage during the week was that they found it useful, if stressful.
Musical writers are encouraged to call or send a self-addressed stamped envelope for guidelines, and to submit their works to the O'Neill Center from November through the first of February. No experience is necessary, according to Associate Director Michael Nasser, and projects are accepted on "a rolling basis, meaning rejection one year doesn't mean you won't be accepted next year."
Feature Design by Greg Kennell
For a list of Musical Theatre Development Programs, see page TO COME.