While in London, I had the great pleasure of seeing opening night (or as they call it in London, First Night) of Terence McNally’s Master Class. I know, it’s a play and not a musical but I saw it and loved it anyway. It actually had lots of singing since it’s about opera diva Maria Callas.
During the show, Maria Callas (played brilliantly in this production by Tyne Daly) tells us that “Art is Domination.” By this she means: don’t try to please your audience, give them something incredible and they will be dominated by what they see. Win them over, with a literal emphasis on WIN.
There’s a lesson in this for all of us who create musicals. While it’s key to have your audience front of mind while you’re creating a show, it’s not always appropriate to give them what they are already expecting or think they want. Instead, give them something so incredible that they are won over even if it’s not what they expected or even knew they wanted.
I’m not suggesting that you have to be excessively avant garde (that’s torture), just excessively good (that’s domination)! There have been numerous examples of fantastic shows that, by Maria Callas’s standards, have dominated Broadway audiences with unexpected subject matter or unlikely performances over the years.
Look at shows like In The Heights, Spring Awakening, The Color Purple, Sweeney Todd, and many, many others. If you consider only traditional audience demographics as well as the other Broadway offerings at the time, shows like these raised some eyebrows on first glance. However, creative writers and producers made these shows so good and produced them so well, that they not only won over and dominated the traditional Broadway audiences but brought new ages, ethnicities and non-traditional theater goers to the table.
So, while I’m not suggesting resorting to whips and chains, a little domination in the form of an exceptional new musical, may be just what audiences are begging for.
P.S. Congrats to my friends and producing colleagues Van Dean and Scott & Brian Zeilinger who are on the Master Class producing team and invited me to be there in London for their big night!