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Making a Broadway Musical

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)

Backer's Auditions: Finding the Money

That's right, kids – in the end it all comes down to money. The best script and most exciting score won't get very far until someone raises the bucks required to make a show happen. As Max Bialystock puts it in The Producers, "Can't produce play without checkee." For better or worse, Bialystock's hoards of wealthy, amorous little old ladies don't exist (and never really did), so most producers have to work like hell to raise a few million.

Thanks to the ever-increasing costs of union requirements, stage technology and multi-media advertising, even a relatively modest Broadway musical costs several million dollars to produce – elaborate productions have cost over twelve million. In order to raise these sums, it now takes teams of producers combining their efforts. The lavish Broadway version of The Producers (2001) had eight individually named producers plus two multi-producer groups. Urinetown (2001) required three production groups and one individual, representing a total of thirteen producers for one relatively low-budget show.

Each producer agrees to raise a certain percentage of the necessary cash, and then stages one or more gala events where potential investors can hear highlights of the new musical performed by the composers and/or probable cast members. This process can take months or even years, and there is no guarantee sufficient funds will ever be raised.

This process is far from new. When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein teamed up for Oklahoma in 1943, their producer – the esteemed Theater Guild – had just sold off its theatre to cover some old debts. Despite their reputations, the composers had to endure dozens of backers auditions before they had enough money to go into production.

One Broadway production I worked on required several backer's auditions, one in particular held at a suburban mansion. The host (a major investor) threw a dinner party for about a hundred close friends, and the backer's audition was the main entertainment. Two limos came from Manhattan carrying several Tony-winning stars, a well-known musical director, the producers, and a small tech staff. We presented key songs from the show (narrated by one of the potential stars) in the reception hall, with professional sound and lighting. Afterwards, several guests indicated that they were interested in investing. In the days that followed, the producers kept in touch until checks were received and the show had enough funding to go into production. Most backers events are not quite so lavish, but all have "life and death" importance for those involved – after all, no show can get to Broadway without money.

Why don't producers use their own money? Simple -- no producer wants to risk personal ruin. Most Broadway shows are now produced as separate "limited partnerships," a form of legal corporation. If a show fails, the producers are not personally wiped out, and any other productions they may be involved in are unaffected. A costly revival of Candide sent the Canadian group Livent spiraling into bankruptcy , but Livent's Tony-winning hit Fosse was able to keep running even without its parent company.

Many shows now have major corporate sponsors with the economic resources needed to keep a show running until it (hopefully) finds an audience. For example, Disney and Hallmark Cards have produced shows in recent seasons. Even these corporations use the "limited partnership" system, so even a costly flop won't wilt Mickey's ears.

Actor's Auditions: Finding the Cast

All actors must audition at one time or another. I have seen some of the most famous faces in show business audition with all the nervousness and uncertainty of newcomers. Like it or not, no one has found a better system. Most producers begin casting with some major stars lined up for key roles, and the director may want to use some actors from the workshop. However, Actors Equity Association (the powerful stage actors union) requires that open auditions be held for all roles – and that's how open call auditions (also known as "cattle calls") were born. The opening scene of A Chorus Line accurately depicts an open chorus audition, where lesser talents are quickly winnowed out.

Those new to the business are usually urged by coaches and friends to go to as many open calls as possible. While this certainly provides valuable experience, it also disillusions those who think the business is all about glamour. (Ha!) Auditions are sweaty, grueling work for everyone involved – especially the auditors! Imagine the pressure of knowing that the fate of a multi-million dollar production rests on who you select? It is nerve-wracking. This is why auditors have been known to recall the same actors several times before making their final casting decisions.

Every actor who appears in a Broadway or Off-Broadway show must be a member of the Actors Equity Association, which usually referred to as Equity. Although many producers complain that the union is too demanding, the fact is that they provide actors with crucial protection. Producers had long abused the rights of actors, forcing them to rehearse without pay, charging them for their costume costs, and firing them without explanation or any kind of severance pay. In 1919, Equity called the first-ever actors strike, and after a prolonged walk out forced the producers to come to terms. It took several more years and countless court battles to get every producer in the business to really abide by those terms.

Notices for open auditions are posted at Equity headquarters and in publications like Backstage, announcing the time, location and role requirements (appearance, age range, special talents needed, etc.). On the appointed day, hundreds of actors show up at a theatre or rehearsal hall to sign up and wait their turn. In some cases the director will be on hand, but more often the casting director's staff handles cattle calls. Once called on, a few lines or a few bars of music is all they get to offer, so a performer must make an immediate impression. Most are dismissed with a simple "thank you!" In fact, most open auditions end up with no one being hired. But every now and then, someone beats the odds and gets cast or asked to re-audition at a callback.

Callbacks involve any number of the best candidates for a role. It is not unusual for producers to re-audition people a half-dozen times. Having the right person in the right role can drastically improve the chemistry of show – having the wrong person can open the way to disaster. Producers decide how many people are involved in the decision making process, and it is customary for the director, choreographer and the authors to have a say. After the creative team has settled on a cast, it is time to get rehearsals started.

Next: Rehearsals