Tis the season for pre-Tony Spring openings on Broadway. The opening nights are coming fast and furiously and the theater district street corners and watering holes are echoing with that all important question, “So, what did you think of the show?”
The default response is usually something like, “I liked it.” Or, “I didn’t like it.”
However, I no longer find that to be an acceptable response. It assumes too much and isn’t very useful to the person posing the question. Here’s why…
“I liked it!” could actually mean a million things such as:
“It was the best show I’ve ever seen.”
“My best friend wrote it.”
“It exceeded my expectations.”
“I didn’t like it.” could actually mean:
“The show was good but I don’t like musicals/plays/farces/avante garde/etc.”
“The theater was too hot/cold/uncomfortable.”
“The show was actually bad.”
As industry insiders (and if you read this blog I can assume you are one), we attend more theater than most people . Our friends and colleagues count on us to inform their theater going activities.
We owe it both to the people who put their efforts into the shows we’ve seen as well as our advice-seeking friends to be conscientious, informed representatives of our theater community. That means, not copping out with a useless, non-descript: “I liked it or didn’t like it” response, but actually giving them information that they can use.
In other words, next time someone asks you, “What did you THINK of the show?” Please put some actual THOUGHT into your answer.
These days, we’re all very familiar with the multi-million dollar sticker shock that comes with mounting a musical. We’re even well aware that every musical will need to go through months and years of costly development before it fully comes to life. But before any of that can happen, the musical has to be written.
And if you, the writer thinks that your only expenses will be your lucky pen and a ream of staff paper, think again.
Those of you who have written musicals are probably nodding your heads. You already know where this is going.
Here are just a few things to keep in mind when budgeting for writing a musical…
Many shows are based on an underlying property. Nailing down the rights often involves an entertainment lawyer to grease the wheels with the rights owners and then draft a solid option that will ensure that you have time to write the musical before the rights lapse. Then, if you are granted the rights, you’ll likely have to pay an option fee on the property. These two expenses together can range all across the board depending on how hot the property is and which lawyers you use, but this part of the process can easily start in the tens of thousands.
We all know it takes reading after reading to hone your new musical. Before you can ever even dream of roping in a producer to shoulder some of these costs, you will undoubtedly be footing the bill. Sure, you will be calling in a lot of favors from friends and colleagues, but the inevitable costs may include photocopies, binders, pizza (!), rehearsal space, accompanists, all the way up through equity stipends and more. These expenses, especially after two or three readings can add up fast.
I highly recommend new works festivals as they are a great way to see/hear your show, and festivals often shoulder the majority of the costs. However, you will often have a submission fee, postage, and if you are onsite for a workshop or residency, you may be taking time off from a day job. So while these will save you money out of one pocket, it may still cost you.
These days you have to have a good demo recorded in order to pitch your show to producers, festivals, even cast members. You don’t need to shell out for a recording studio but prepping your music, using strong singers and clean recording technology is rarely free.
And this only gets us through early development. Once you get to a workshop and productions the expenses get more expensive. I’ve also left out the basic requirements like education, a piano/keyboard, theater tickets for show research, travel, books, classes, etc.
I’m not saying all this to be discouraging. It is simply to remind you that no one gets off for free in musical theater. Better to be prepared going in than have a brilliant musical and no rights nor opportunities to hear it out loud.
Luckily, these costs often are spread over years of development so you can budget for them along the way. In fact, preparing a basic budget is a great idea. That way you can stay within what you are willing to spend for (invest in!) your musical, and save the sticker shock for Broadway.
As a theater producer, a lot of contracts come across my desk. Option agreements, employment deals, production contracts. These are epic documents that lay out the deal and then proceed to outline every imaginable way that things could go wrong and try to protect each party’s interests should any of the worst case scenarios come to pass.
But we all know, you can’t predict every imaginable outcome in anything in life, much less the nebulous world of musical theater. Inevitably, every contract I see these days is peppered with the words “in good faith.” You generally see it after you’ve nailed down all the expected outcomes in any given section and then you’ll see something like,
“In addition to everything we’ve just outlined, here are all the things we can’t predict but when they come up, both parties will negotiate them IN GOOD FAITH.”
But my question is? What the hell does that mean? It’s ambiguous, arbitrary, and in my experience, doesn’t hold the contracting parties to any binding moral obligation. In fact, I asked a lawyer and he confirmed that the “in good faith” clause is extremely difficult to enforce since it’s so amorphous.
In reality, I’ve seen far too many people who, when finding themselves in contractual gray areas, find it awfully convenient to ignore this clause. Instead, they hide behind their lawyers and use their contracts as an excuse to get away with self-serving behavior that tramples on their collaborators. I’ve heard things like, “My lawyer says I don’t have to do xyz for my lyricist/producer/star/co-conceiver/etc.” And that lawyer is probably correct. Often in these cases, your contract doesn’t force you to do something, but let’s be crystal clear – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still do the right thing.
Your lawyer’s job is to tell you your legal obligation in any given situation. YOUR job to determine your moral obligation. Any time you’re faced with a scenario where a contractual loophole lets you off easy, gives you a bigger piece of the pie, or as I often see, allows you to leave a key player in the dust, I entreat you to take a step back and remember that no contract can mandate morality and humanity.
In fact, I wish we could replace the phrase “to be negotiated in good faith” in every contract with the phrase, “to be negotiated in the manner of caring humans.” Or if that’s too much to ask, at least replace the phrase with something like, “to be negotiated in a manner whereby both parties, while keeping their best interests in mind, will not act entirely selfishly.”
Until that happens, when you find yourself in a contractual gray area, which happens frequently in any given deal, you have to ask yourself, what’s the right thing to do? Or if you have a faulty moral compass, instead ask yourself, if the roles were reversed, what would you like the outcome to be?
And if a moral obligation isn’t enough to convince you to do the right thing, remember this: At the end of the day, only you, your collaborators and your lawyer know the letter of the law. You may be well within your rights every step of the way. But the only thing the rest of us can see is your behavior. And if you treat people badly, we’re not going to blame your lawyer, we’re going to blame you.
If you want a career in musical theater, you better embrace your inner Harold Hill. Because to make it in the business, we all have to be salesmen (sales people?) peddling our wares. If you aren’t willing to make the pitch, as Harold Hill would say, “Ya Got Trouble.”
This came up recently because I was talking to a writer friend who said, “I’m so tired of constantly pitching producers. You producers have it lucky.” I stopped him right there… just as writers are pitching to get their work produced, producers are constantly pitching investors and theater companies, not to mention ticket buyers!
Up and down the musical theater food chain, we are all pitching – and being pitched to – all the time. Actors, directors, writers, designers, producers. You can’t avoid it, and you can’t grow out of it. There’s a common myth floating around that if you “get a producer,” “land that big gig,” or “make it to Broadway,” that suddenly you get a free pass to never have to sell yourself or your work again. Wrong!
The reality is that if you want to stay in the game and succeed in this business, you had better embrace the pitch.
The good news is, there are a few things that can make the exhausting (and sometimes discouraging) pitching process a little more manageable:
Remember that you love what you do.
And if you read that sentence and disagree then quit now. Musical theater people work tirelessly, gamble big, pitch hard, and put themselves out there day after day because they are passionate about theater. Expect a bad day or even a bad year, but if you truly love this business, stick with it and remember that things will turn around.
Recognize that pitching is a huge part of your job description.
I learned this trick from my actor friends: They are auditioning (aka pitching) all day every day and the ones who have the best attitude think of the audition process as an equal part of their work as the performing jobs for which they get hired. The rest of us would be smart to borrow their perspective.
Set reasonable benchmarks.
If you limit yourself to only one lofty goal like “be on Broadway” nothing you do leading up to that will feel like a win. Instead, I recommend setting intermediate goals. For example, say to yourself this week my goal is to meet three new producers or send out five demos or get so-and-so to record my song, etc. It’s helpful and satisfying to feel like you are meeting your goals. Not to mention, that it’s only through these kinds of incremental steps (and successes) that you can achieve your ultimate goals.
Remember that we’re all in the same boat.
If you are sick of pitching your show as a writer, becoming a producer isn’t going to help. If you’re tired of auditioning, becoming a director isn’t going to get you hired any more often. Focus on what you do best and surround yourself with supportive people who can give you pep talks when you get discouraged.
So, stop wasting time trying to avoid the pitch. If you hate it that much, this business isn’t for you. But if you can find a way to make it palatable or even fun, then there’s no business like show business.