stage dive

How Can Musical Theater Be Saved? Broadway Veterans Give Their Advice

Dancers of the Szeged Contemporary Dance Company

The droning, half-century dirge for musical theater — lamenting its decline from peculiarly American art form to merely peculiar niche luxury good — reaches a shrill pitch whenever Broadway has a bad year. It so happens we’re in the middle of one now: The Tony awards couldn’t even scrounge up four new scores to nominate. I’ve already had my little say on causes and effects, so now it’s time to turn the discussion over to the people who do it for a living, often against tall odds. This is, after all, a craft that demands massive amounts of money, discouraging, roulette-like ratios of risk-to-reward, and five to ten years of development, on average, to achieve even a failed result. As you thumb through these meditations on the state of the art, consider a saying of the prophet: “What’s hard is simple / What’s natural comes hard.” Here — in many more words — are some informed ideas from four generations of composers and producers about why that is, and how what’s hard might be made (a little) easier.

On the “bastard art” and the folly of teaching what can’t be taught: “When I’m at my best, I surprise myself. And no composition teacher ever taught me that. What the best teachers taught me was, just keep writing. It’s ‘wrong-note music’! That’s what I think we do best. Gershwin: He was a street guy, he was a show-off, he used to sit down and show off and play swing piano. Everyone could see he was a real wildflower. Rodgers was at one time, too. But you can’t do that today and pay the rent … I have songs that people told me they loved, that meant a great deal to them, that I wrote to keep a curtain up! Or to fulfill a contractual obligation! It’s a bastard art, and there are those who want to make it into some kind of a lady. I think the workshops, all of the workshops — and I started one [for ASCAP] — I’m not sure they do any good. But on the other hand, I don’t know what the alternative is. Otherwise, you write a song, and who do you play it for? Everybody’s too rich and too busy.” Photo: Andy Kropa/2011 Getty Images
On the importance of the right material: “One thing I have noticed — although they’re very lovely people, and God bless them and their money — the modern version of producing has now given the title of producer to what used to be called investors or ‘angels.’ Back in the day, these people put their money in and thought they were entitled to their opinion — and now they’re very entitled to their opinion. The source material, Lord knows, is incredibly important. You have to have characters who naturally must have that kind of, something in them that makes it flow into a song with lyrics and music. So, with Hairspray, we were very lucky to have that. Catch Me If You Can was very different, and the characters were not as inclined, and, you know, that met with middling reaction.” Photo: ALEXA HOYER/?Patrick McMullan
On why workshopping matters: “If you can answer the question Does this need music? with anything other than a resounding Yes, you shouldn’t develop that material. Music is an innately abstract art. That abstraction leaves room for an audience to, in a sense, finish the musical. This is why you see attempts to get it in front of an audience as soon as possible.” Photo: Amy Sussman/2009 Getty Images
On speed, necessity, and musicals that shouldn’t exist: “There are a lot of stories that do not need to be musicalized. The great musicals had to be musicals; most of the musicals that get done now are not necessary. Not the way Clybourne Park is necessary … Why would musical theater be the only culture that resists newness? It doesn’t make sense. Bands become successes on tumblr. Where’s the tumblr of musical theater? [The problem is] older people are willing to pay for it, and they’re the same audience that’s not going to want something new. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d rather go see our future than most musicals. The theater is simply not democratized in any way, and other art forms are. And that’s even more true of musicals … If you look at what people are interested in, it’s fast! They have trouble keeping up with the pace of contemporary life, and they want art that reflects that and elucidates that. You can shoot a hip-hop video in a day. You can make a movie very, very quickly. You can make a TV show and get it on in a minute and a half. And nothing in musicals is like that. In the days when people were writing the classic musical, they got written and produced in less than a year. Imagine seeing On the Town when it was literally about what was happening in New York the year it was written!”
On dispensing with the doom and gloom: “Let me cut to the chase: The theater and, in particular, the musical theater is healthy, vital, living, growing, bursting with talent … and still able to generate immense profits. More to the point, a once-uniquely American art form has become an international vernacular of a universally practiced art form. Broadway is now a very long street running from the Kartnerstrasse in Vienna through Hamburg and Amsterdam, across to the West End, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, L.A., to the Ginza and beyond. Let’s not overreact. Every ten years or so, there’s a perceived lackluster season after which the death of Broadway is solemnly and authoritatively pronounced. I remember one such moment after Dune and Via Galactica. But I also remember the late-in-the-season openings of City of Angels and Grand Hotel, after which Walter Kerr wrote that ‘things might not be so bad after all.’” Photo: Joe Kohen/2009 Getty Images
On making stories sing: “Tom Kitt did a brilliant job on High Fidelity, but it was the underlying material that wasn’t working for critics and audiences. It took Next to Normal to really showcase his talents. The search for the right movie to turn into a musical is not my favorite thing. As [director] Lonny Price always says to me, Musicals have to be ‘north of the floor.’ The reason people sing must be larger than life. Musicals have to raise you up, there’s an emotional lift they have to bring you. You have to say, Yes, this sings. This is a musical. People give me stuff all the time and say, ‘I want to make a musical out of this.’ Most of the time, I don’t agree. I’m always saying ‘Metaphor, metaphor!’ The lyrics aren’t ‘Look how old we are,’ the lyric is ‘Send in the clowns.’ Imagery that illuminates a character in a wonderful way — imagery you can sing. It’s ‘defying gravity’ not ‘I’m hoping I can fly and can get off the ground.’ I hate the expression ‘a hook,’ but … It’s not a hook, it’s a metaphor. Something poetic that takes the emotional state of the character and lifts it into song.” Photo: Ben Hider/2010 Ben Hider
On the slow ripening of a good show — and a great career: “I grew up in the pit [orchestra], and I think it takes a while to reach your peak, and all these [composers] are in their 40s or just turning 50, and they’re just now figuring it out. I turn 50 in November, and I feel like I’m just now beginning to understand what I’m doing. ‘You’ve got kids, you’ve got movies to score: You can’t write a show a year, you just can’t do it.’ You write over a longer amount of time than has historically been true. You could start a show every year, [but] it doesn’t means the show will be done at the end of the year. There’s something beneficial to writing a show gradually: They ‘graduate,’ freshman, sophomore — and hopefully they don’t go on the plan where they’re in grad school for years and years. You have to push them out into the world. Is there any way we can do something on Broadway, short stays, three-month stays, so we’re not dependent on the long run? Because that would be one thing that would take the pressure off running forever. But I feel incredibly optimistic about the musical. Maybe it’s because I teach so much. My students take it really seriously, they still look at it with wide eyes.” Photo: Jimi Celeste/?Patrick McMullan
On years of hard work … culminating in a single, lethal pan: “The nature of developing a musical relies on readings and workshops which can take many years, until one is feeling comfortable actually going into production. This happened for us with Kinky Boots last January, when we had an incredibly successful full workshop, and we are now going to premiere Kinky Boots in Chicago in October, and hopefully we will be on Broadway in spring 2013. You have to be passionate as a producer to make the kind of commitment necessary to devote years of your life to a musical — in the case of Kinky Boots, it has been six so far. You have to take the gamble emotionally, artistically, and, of course, financially, which is why it is so sad when after all the work is put in and everyone has devoted so much of their time, talents, and resources, that a single reviewer can come, watch the show, and dismiss it out of hand.” Photo: Amber De Vos/? Patrick McMullan
On the dangers of “Internet Musical Theater Flagellation”: “Of course everyone wants to know the ‘why’ of it all. But the truth of it is that these things just go in cycles and always have. What kind of shows and scores should be produced? As a composer myself I have to yell, ‘Shows other than jukebox musicals! Shows where the music and the lyrics chart the individual, unique journeys of their own individual, unique characters.’ And yet, traditionally, musical theater has always been mostly a theater of adaptation, adapting other existing stories rather than creating its own. It has always been a dialogue with other art forms and other stories. Also, new shows need safe places in which to incubate. With the advent and explosion of the Internet, the concept of ‘safe’ is becoming more and more elusive. Our show Seussical in 2000 was maybe one of the first victims of Internet Musical Theater Flagellation, where every new lyric, note, costume, and set change was notoriously documented by anonymous Internet posters and then again by major newspapers who actually quoted these anonymous posters. Even though our previous show, Ragtime, had gone through many more changes both in its writing and its production, it was Seussical that had become the target of this strange new phenomenon.”
On the Off-Broadway: “I think, for one thing, musicals are just incredibly hard to make. They take a huge amount of time, and I guess it is perhaps on the part of producers the lack of desire to take risks and also, something Sondheim talks about, is that in the search for more dramaturgical rigor in musical comedy that sort of began with Rogers and Hammerstein and continued with Sondheim, sometimes the fun of musical comedy got lost and the form became less populist in a way. In this climate, it seems a lot of the more forward-thinking musicals that have transferred from Off-Broadway fail to find an audience. I just don’t have the answers as to what would have helped; I don’t think shorter development periods are necessarily the solution. In the case of February House, three years of writing, six months of research, we really benefited from having serious dramaturgical input over the years, and I think it really led to us having a more airtight show.” Photo: Ryan Miller/2007 Ryan Miller
On keeping up with the times: “Never blame the audience … I think people underestimate the extent to which the great question of the musical now is how it is supposed to interact with musical developments since 1950. How do you write something that sounds contemporary and relevant and real but has lyrics that are witty or interesting or character-driven or that tell a story — all the things a lot of contemporary pop music isn’t as interested in, with the huge exception of hip-hop. [But] I’m kind of sick of the word ‘storytelling,’ which sometimes just means ‘make this really clear and really dull.’…The American musical isn’t the only interesting form of music theater.” Photo: Richard Koek/? Patrick McMullan
On young composers who imitate Jason Robert Brown, composer of Parade: “Since his triumphant arrival, musical-theater writers have (knowingly or not) identified Jason Robert Brown’s sound as ‘the way people sing in the city, present day.’ So we attempt to write like him, and badly — because no one does JRB better than JRB. And even he has moved on from the person he was in 2003. So, why haven’t we? Related, there is a complete lack of range. It’s all piano-pop. Not even good pop. Where is the world music? The music of decades past? The influence of independent voices that are flooding the subculture now? The idea of the ‘hummable’ tune is ludicrous to me — the hummable tune, as identified with Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sondheim, etc. — has to be redefined. If we wrote like them, we’d be compared to them, and since we don’t write like them, and they are the ‘melodymakers,’ we, therefore, ‘don’t write melodies.’ Some of us actually don’t write good melodies — due to an inundation of bad pop tunes, lack of musical education/inspiration, and, above all, too many fucking lyrics.” Photo: Andrew H. Walker/2009 Getty Images
On young composers: “If you’re a young writer and see Spring Awakening, you think, Hey, that’s something I might want to do. But Spring Awakening was an anomaly, and it’s not been followed up really — it was five years ago. I suppose Once is of similar character. [The point is], Broadway is not the most welcoming place for young composers; it’s not a place where composers feel they want to be. A young composer writing right now is writing on his guitar or piano, he’s going to see a band at Irving Plaza or wherever, and then he goes to a Broadway show — and that part of the equation has been absented from it. It’s not particularly inspiring. But I do think it’s numerical: It’s not like there’s some glut of good new musicals, and the odds are so far against a young writer being one of the six musicals that get produced. When I was a younger schmuck trying to get into this business, I got hired to write Parade, and because I got hired, I got to exercise my chops. But it’s not like I had Parade sitting in my back pocket.” Photo: Amy Graves/2011 WireImage
On rising expectations and diminishing output: “Where my progenitors — great writers like Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, Harnick and Bock, and many others — could write a show, have it produced quickly, see it run a season and turn a profit, and then move on to the next one, my colleagues and I work in a different sweatshop. Not every show had to be Fiddler on the Roof back then. That’s changed.The demands on musical storytelling today are — and there are always exceptions — much more stringent. Songs must support story, must support character, must support theme must support … Musicals are novels — two and a half hours of story told in song, text, dance, and all the other elements that make up a show. And novels take a long time.” Photo: Jemal Countess/2010 Getty Images
On the younger generation’s troubled relationship with YouTube: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard composers of my generation say something like, ‘I’ve written this show that I love and believe in and have been working on for years. But there aren’t any stand-alone songs in it that I can put on YouTube. So how am I going to get it out there?’ It’s frustrating because, in some ways, it’s true. It’s so difficult for up-and-coming writers to get productions of their shows that YouTube hits have become a legit signifier of success — or at least a way for us to feel that someone out there is listening! — not to mention they often translate to sheet music sales and audio downloads and let young composers pay their rent. (Or at least part of it.) To me, it’s both good and bad for Broadway songwriting. All that focus on individual songs forces writers to, well, write really good songs. And they do. From where I stand, there is not a dearth of great songwriters or of great songs. But there’s the flip side: Young composers don’t work as much writing songs in the context of something bigger; they don’t get to hone their skills as musical dramatists, which is everything.” Photo: Joe Corrigan/2011 Joe Corrigan
On collaboration: “Great music theater is extremely rare because it needs such a huge degree of inspired collaboration. But even if you have inspired composers and lyricists, they can be sunk by any number of collaborators along the way. I also think a common problem is a lack of good book-writing — a thankless job, so it doesn’t attract maybe the best or most accomplished dramatic writers because of how unappreciated the work is. In a musical, even the most amazing song can fizzle without the proper set-up from the book writer. Also, the American musical has been significantly dependent of the director/choreographer as the driving force. Think Jerome Robbins, George Abbott, Hal Prince. These do not grow on trees either. I guess my short answer to the question is that this form is a rarified one, requiring unusually skilled and talented people. These special creatures do not roam the earth in huge numbers. Beyond that, I think the theater is inherently protective of tradition, which makes it not so good at adapting to changing circumstances. When popular music and theater got a divorce a generation ago, the theater tended to stick with old musical forms and idioms. Folks like Jonathan Larson came along, someone who loved the musical theater tradition but wanted it to contemporize. But he was one of the rare birds who could write his music with that elusive dramatic sense — like a Puccini, or Verdi, or Wagner.” Photo: Bruce Glikas
On the need for a strong book: “I know it sounds clichéd, but without a solid book and characters who are served well in a musical form, the show won’t work — not even with the most melodic, innovative score or inventive production. I feel like this goes for both traditional musical theatre, and even for more freewheeling, nonlinear work. And I feel like it’s always a great challenge for the composers, writers, and lyricists that I come in contact with — all are in search of an idea and a story that lends itself well to musicalization. It can be a very long and dispiriting process. And yet so gratifying when the right idea sparks a group of collaborators.” Photo: Ben Gabbe/2011 Ben Gabbe
On the difficulty of getting (re)started: “First off, you’ve got to watch this. The biggest impediment is that I am more aware of what a huge commitment it is to embark on a new musical, having now been through it, and this makes me trigger-shy. Even though I am more credentialed now, I still figure it’ll be five to ten years of submitting for workshops and grants, organizing readings, recording demos, sending stuff to producers, etc. So you want to make sure it is the perfect idea for a show—something that has a shot to succeed and something I personally won’t burn out on. That’s a lot of pressure. And then there’s the good ol’ phenomenon known as sophomore slump, or in my case just the fear of it. I still believe that something new and good can and will make it. The cream rises to the top. Recent role models are few—[title of show], Spelling Bee, Next to Normal, The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q—but enough to inspire. By the way, Bobby Lopez… there’s the ultimate role model: a talented, patient writer who has quietly made history with two original Tony-winning best musicals, both of which were fresh and new, yet somehow classic and traditional. He knows how to plug fresh content into a traditional structure. My favorite quote on music is Duke Ellington: ‘There are two kinds of music: good and bad.’ The same is true of musicals. There are just certain basics of good songwriting, storytelling, relevance that writers need to maintain, and, if so, I think there will always be room for a good new musical to emerge. And that’s why I keep going.” Photo: Ben Hider/2010 Ben Hider
On getting out of your own way: “Both [Avenue Q and Mormon] had incredibly long development processes. It tries your stamina artistically, because they say you’re a different person every three years, that your cells regenerate — well then, you’re definitely a different person by the time your show reaches the stage. The thing that made you want to bring the show to the stage in the first place is sometimes hard to see — you have to keep your eyes on true north. And pick a project you’re passionate enough about to spend the better part of a decade doing. ‘It’s more like pressure from a producer to think small. Could you do it with 14 people instead of 22? Can you get it down to … Can you cut this crazy idea?’ But people want to see crazy ideas, crazy ideas that work. So if you cut crazy ideas before you give them a chance to work, you’re limiting the art form. You try to write the song that best serves the moment, you write a song no one’s ever heard before, and you leave your ego out of it. You don’t write to show off. That’s not a reason to be in this business — to prove you should be in it. Audiences can sense that, when it’s oh-what-a-cool-chord. You don’t really build up an adeptness at writing musicals. It never gets easier. If it were easier, it wouldn’t take me so long between. [The Golden Age of Musicals] baffles me. I can’t believe how those guys wrote Gypsy in six months. It was a different time, I guess. There wasn’t so much wonderful television to watch every night.” Photo: Owen Hoffmann
On the paradox of pop/Broadway crossover: “Broadway’s attempts at pop music often feel dated or soft or corny. But then again, many people who write and produce amazing hit records aren’t used to also having to tell a story.”
On the dwindling importance of songs: “If a show has a clear and marketable concept, with enough structural integrity and production values to deliver on that concept, the quality of the songwriting is not the principal concern. Songs, although the driving force of a musical-theater piece, are perceived and commented on, based more on their style and intent, rather than their intrinsic quality. That’s not to say that quality of songwriting has actually diminished. But great songs are not an absolute necessity for a show to succeed.” Photo: Mike Coppola/2012 Getty Images
On cultural breadth: “My theory is, you have a library and you only have two books in it — say, the Bible and Harry Potter — if you introduce a Faulkner novel into it, a few people will love it, but most likely, many others who have that library will reject it if they have no place of reference other than those two books. And many shows are written by people who probably won’t go on to write another musical. I think of it as a vocation, something you want to have a body of work for. Young writers writing today should look to that and think of it as a vocation — of course you could do other things, but the vocational aspect of it all seems to elude people.” Photo: Scott Gries/2005 Getty Images
On the division of labor: “For years we had people who were dedicated to writing books [i.e., the nonmusical script portion of a musical]. Now we have playwrights, and you have to get them when they’re not working on plays. They’re doing us a favor when they write the books. It’s not slumming so much as it’s just not what they do. And when there’s a good line, we musicalize it — they have to be willing to give up some of their best material to other people. And without seasoned book writers, you just don’t get to see all the wonderful songwriters. [A good song] often won’t register because the book didn’t introduce it properly. There are a million reasons why a song doesn’t work in a show, but it’s usually attributable to the book. But people don’t know what they’re talking about, and as long as you know that, it’s fine. All you can do is go about doing your work. It’s the only thing you can control in a miserable world.”
How Can Musical Theater Be Saved?