Making a Broadway Musical
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)
Getting the Idea
The initial idea for a musical can come from all sorts of sources. In the past, Broadway musicals began in one of two ways. Either a producer got an idea for a show and hired a creative team, or a creative team got an idea and talked a producer into backing it. Either way, nothing was actually written until there was a serious commitment from a producer. Cole Porter said that the best source of creative inspiration for a new show was a signed contract.
Some classic musicals got their start when a producer found a story idea and guided the project to Broadway
- The inspiration for Broadway's first musical hit came out of sheer desperation. The manager of a 3,000 seat theatre needed something to fill his stage for the fall. He threw together a stranded ballet troupe, a clunky melodrama and a stack of forgettable songs. Strange as that mix may seem, it clicked. At a time when most hits ran a month or two, The Black Crook (1866) became the first production in world history to run for more than a year. It toured for decades and eventually returned to Broadway fifteen times.
- All of Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies (1907-1932) began as his own personal inspirations. He would ask a small army of writers to submit songs and skits, far many more than he could possibly use. He went to masters like Irving Berlin, as well as low-paid hacks he kept on his fulltime staff. Ziegfeld chose the best of the lot and opened the Follies out of town. He invariably started with more material than he needed, with opening nights running four hours or more. Audience reaction determined what was kept and what was cut.
- In the early 1940s, the prestigious Theatre Guild had a run of bad luck and found itself deep in debt. They asked Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to adapt the unsuccessful play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical. Rodgers was interested, but Hart felt that no one would be interested in a musical about a farm girl deciding who would take her to a country dance. Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II, and Oklahoma (1943) opened a new era in musical theatre.
- David Merrick hired composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, librettist Michael Stewart, and director Gower Champion to turn Thornton Wilder's comedy The Matchmaker into a musical for Ethel Merman. When Merman (still recovering from two exhausting years in Gypsy) turned down the project, Carol Channing took the lead. The mercurial Merrick terrorized everyone during the show's turbulent pre-Broadway tour, but Hello Dolly! (1964) wound up a record-setting hit, with Merman eventually taking over the lead at the end of its seven year run.
Other musicals got their start in the imaginations of writers, composers or directors
- William S. Gilbert supposedly got the idea for his most lasting hit when a Japanese sword fell off the wall of his study. This set him to thinking of Japanese culture, royal executioners . . . and in moments, The Mikado was born.
- Jerome Kern and his frequent collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II realized that Enda Ferber's epic novel Show Boat could be turned into a musical, one with unusual dramatic potential. They discussed the idea with Ziegfeld, who had serious reservations but was not about to turn down the chance to produce a show by these proven hit makers. Show Boat became the biggest hit of Ziegfeld's career.
- Director/playwright Joshua Logan approached Rodgers and Hammerstein with the idea of turning two short stories by James Michener into a musical. By this time, Rodgers and Hammerstein were so successful that they acted as their own producers. Logan co-authored the libretto and directed and South Pacific (1949) became the second musical to win the Pulitzer Prize.
In a few cases, performers initiated a project.
- Gertrude Lawrence convinced Rodgers and Hammerstein to turn the semi-fictional novel (and hit 1946 film) Anna and the King of Siam into The King and I (1951).
- In the mid-1970s, two dancers approached choreographer Michael Bennett with the idea of creating a musical based on the experiences of dancers. Bennett had toyed with the idea of a musical about dancers for several years. Freshly inspired, he organized a series of private workshops where dancers shared their memories which became the basis for A Chorus Line (1975).
Today, composers, lyricists and librettists spend years writing a project without any guarantee that it will ever be produced. In fact, the odds are overwhelmingly against any new musical reaching Broadway.
Established talents like John Kander and Fred Ebb may have an easier time getting producers to pay attention to their new projects, but they still have to struggle to get those projects staged. They have been developing a musical version of The Skin of Our Teeth for well over a decade, and have spent years trying to get The Visit to Broadway. Despite Kander and Ebb's credentials, few producers are willing to gamble millions on a new show.
For new, unknown writers, the process can be even more frustrating. As an assistant to several Broadway producers, I previewed hundreds of fledgling projects, and wrote hundreds of gently worded rejection letters to the authors. The overwhelming majority of these submissions get nowhere which is only fair, since most of them are awful. Remember that scene in The Producers where Bialystock and Bloom go through a pile of horrible scripts in search of a flop? Well, Mel Brooks was not exaggerating every established Broadway producer has a similar "slush pile" of scripts and demo tapes sent in by aspiring talents.
The plain fact is no one on Broadway ever pays serious attention to these unrequested submissions. Why should they? No producer in their right mind would risk their reputation on an unproven project by an unproven talent. Sensible authors realize that the best way to get a professional producer's attention is by getting a show on its feet. This means getting a show into a workshop production.
Workshops vary in style and size. Some are almost full-scale productions done at well-equipped regional theatres. Other workshops are produced by the writers themselves in dusty rehearsal halls using minimal sets, props and costumes. They may involve major stars or unknowns. Some cast workshops with actors they know saving the time and expense of extensive auditioning. The creative team gets to see the show in its feet, and potential producers and investors are invited to see the results. While workshops only give a rough idea of what a full production will be like, they must look good enough to inspire people to lay dollars and reputations on the line.
Many Broadway producers team up with non-profit theatre companies that can stage a workshop in a relatively cost efficient manner. If the show is a hit, the theatre company gets a small percentage of any future profits and a nice dose of prestige. The producers of Rent had such an agreement with off-Broadway's small but prestigious New York Theatre Workshop, which gave Jonathan Larson's musical two workshops and a full Off-Broadway production. The show's phenomenal success was a publicity coup for NYTW, and the commercial producers moved a fully developed project to Broadway at one fourth of what most new musicals cost in 1996.
Composers and authors can put together their own workshop stagings, booking a cabaret room or small theatre and sending out invitations to producers, casting agents and anyone they think might be interested in the show. Composer Danny Goggin launched the international hit Nunsense as a one-act cabaret show at The Duplex when a producer optioned the project, it went on to thousands of performances in an expanded Off-Broadway production. Anyone interested in pursuing this option should read Producing Your Own Showcase (Allworth Press, 2001) by playwright Paul Harris. This route involves a lot of work, but it beats sending off scripts to languis in slush piles.
Composers far from New York can stage workshops and raise a fuss right where they are and I mean anywhere in the world. Les Miserables was developed in France. A lavish staging in 1980 attracted international attention, but New York producers rejected the idea. After all, no hit musical had ever originated in France, and wasn't this one "too French" to appeal to American audiences? Then the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a 1985 London production which became an immediate sell-out. New York producers suddenly wanted a piece of Les Miz, but by then Britain's own Cameron Macintosh had shrewdly taken all the pieces for himself.
Many shows never get beyond the workshop stage, either because the material is weak or producers cannot raise the necessary funds. In 1999, Nathan Lane and Victor Garber were set to appear in a new Stephen Sondheim musical called Wiseguys. After a heavily publicized workshop drew a mixed reaction, the production was indefinitely postponed. Renamed Bounce, the show had a full-scale regional production in 2003, but the critical response made a New York run impractical.
Producers use workshops to build a show's creative team, starting with the director and choreographer. Aside from the artistic considerations, a team with distinguished credits can make fundraising easier. In many cases, directors have favorite colleagues who work with them on a regular basis. As a musical evolves, there may be changes in its creative staff. Such changes can be rocky, and can even earn press coverage if the names involved are prominent. The often heard excuse of leaving a show due to "artistic differences" can be quite legitimate. After all, a creative team must be in reasonable harmony if a show is to have a fighting chance. Backstage politics can make office politics look like kids stuff.