Part 2 of my series on Expanding Musical Theatre Development.
2. The New Musical Process
Before we get into why the overall pipeline is constricted and some data, I’d like to describe the process of working as unknown musical theatre writer.
Like many artistic industries, there’s a high cost in unpaid labor for many years, followed by few opportunities for it to flourish into paid labor. I’ll describe the process, based on my experience and a hundred matching examples I’ve seen.
Much of this process is joyful, but there are administrative and artistically tedious elements, with the looming shadow of “no one asked me to make this” hanging overhead. For many of us, getting through the existential dread part of being an artist has required letting go of our need for financial security. This is great. It’s also part of the work. But, as I argue in this series, we should have systems that make connection and financing more direct.
People practice writing in a variety of ways. Spending hours alone in their bedrooms, studying composition and playwriting in college, participating in workshops, collaborating with friends, sharing with online communities. NYU Tisch has an MFA, BMI and ASCAP offer workshops. There are competitions, residencies, festivals, and online portfolio galleries. But while a fresh set of probably 100 writers collectively benefit from mentorship opportunities every year, and more from online communities, these resources almost never lead to the work being produced on Broadway. And Broadway is, by and large, the sole distributor of commercial musical theatre.
There is one way to make (some) money in this part of the process. It’s under-recommended and crucial: work on other people’s shows. You can be a director, a stage manager, an actor, music director/pianist, etc. It doesn’t get your own writing done, but you learn how musicals work, you’ll gain useful skills that inform your writing, and you’ll network with collaborators.
Every writer needs a lot of time and practice. That’s why the unnecessary delays in workshopping and producing the work are devastating to many young writing careers. You learn the skills, you start writing good stuff, and then you realize you can’t be just a writer. You also have to be a producer.
Not a full-on Broadway producer. You don’t have the resources or connections. Your job is to persuade them to lend you theirs, but they are often busy and cash-strapped. So you have to prove to them that you’re worth their time and money, without requiring too much imagination from them. The things you’re responsible for as a writer—the script and score—they won’t do it.
Up until recently, you could invite producers to concerts. It’s expensive: your time and money, and their time. I produced one a couple years ago, after a number of producers recommended it. 0/30 of the invited producers came. Fortunately, we filmed it, because now that’s what they want.
It’s now easier than ever to produce video and audio of your work. That also means you need better quality. You’ll need to learn to or find someone who can
play the music
record and mix audio
film and edit video
That said, producers get more submissions now than ever. One of them closed their submissions and started charging people a high monthly fee to participate in a producer development program. In the program, the fledglings are told how to spend more of their time and money on the show. (I’m skeptical. It seems like a fleece.)
Trying to leverage social media to get producers’ attention, you may get some likes from your friends. Absent the full narrative experience of a musical, people don’t dig in as hard, and being able to write a musical doesn’t always translate to social media savvy. A few writers have gained attention lately on TikTok, creating songs for Ratatouille and Bridgerton. They have stories people know, and engage the social network as collaborators, rather than just consumers. At first I thought, “That's a lot of time to spend on musicals that they'll probably never get the rights for." And then I realized that, these days, having a following and just enough portfolio, however incomplete the musical, is more valuable in getting future work produced than having an original musical or two fully fleshed out.
In some sense, that's a callback to what a prominent Broadway producer told me in 2013. "I just need the premise and two songs. I like to help shepherd the show through its writing, so we don't have to fix it later." On the other hand, it means more people may take the shortcut, and never practice working through the full exercise of multiple-drafting an intricate musical, until they have to do it under pressure.
Absent social media attention and producer support, writers then have to navigate a disorganized development landscape. Smaller shows get workshopped fairly easily at smaller, ambitious theatres. Larger shows might get done at a university, with the right relationships. Most workshops don’t get filmed. Even NYU Tisch’s MFA program produces small, private, piano-only readings at the end of the two years, leaving their graduates with debt and very little reel.
A show might land a spot in a festival, but the quality varies dramatically between them. For years before finally shutting down, New York Musical Festival charged $1,000 for participation while paying none of the production costs of the shows it hosted.
Workshops, while potentially useful for scoring a producer, are most often what you’d expect—a director, a music director, and actors hash it out, you rewrite, and you hope industry professionals come. You might have sponsors, you might pay for it yourself.
Concept albums are becoming more useful, in the arsenal, as well. Hadestown’s carried it through years of development, Six’s launched the show as if by lightning strike. Be More Chill got it to Broadway for a flickering moment. But quality albums are costly to produce. Time and resources.
As a related aside—piano readings are a scourge to musical theatre. Solo piano is necessary for rehearsal, but missing orchestrations are harder to imagine than sets and costumes. Six’s accompaniment on solo piano wouldn’t have gotten them to Broadway as quickly as the stellar album pop production.
The process of creating a new commercial musical theatre piece isn't devoid of hope, but we need to be honest about the odds. Pasek and Paul wrote for many years, developing shows and songs that slowly made their way into actors' audition books, before Dear Evan Hansen landed them on Broadway. For every Pasek and Paul, there's a swarm of writers trying to get their work noticed by people with the power to lift it up, as if '#HamforHam'ing on 46th St, praying that they folded their ticket just right this time, or that it'll happen soon, because at some point, they won't be able to afford to keep coming back.
Next: Part 3
To share this series, here's the link to Part 1: