So, for nearly fourteen months, I’ve offered tips, on this blog, about writing musicals. I’ve failed to emphasize, however, that there’s something that’s an essential key to success in this business of musical comedy. And it has nothing to do with writing, per se.
It’s the main thing I wish I understood when I started out. And the advice I wish I’d done a better job following over the years.
You’re going to have to meet a lot of people, cultivate connections, and have, in your expansive circle of friends, folks who will help your career. You’ve heard “It takes a village to raise a child” well, it’s going to take more than a village to mount a musical.
There’s a new musical opening on Broadway and I haven’t seen it, so I’m not going to say anything about its quality. As it happens, a little over three years ago, I saw another musical on the exact same subject, with the exact same title, and I thought it was really well-written in many of its aspects. So, how can I talk about two shows with the same title? Let’s call them Lucky and Unlucky.
So, Unlucky has a score by an award-winning songwriter. I met him once, and find much to admire in his writing. He’s a friend of a friend. The composer of Lucky is also a friend of a friend, but every time I see his shows, or hear his scores, I cringe with discomfort. Every note seems an awful overblown cliché. He’s had impressive success in the pop music world, but his musicals seem to suffer from a lack of understanding of what makes songs theatrical. Now, it could be that Lucky is a much better show than Unlucky, but I think there’s probably something else at play here.
The composer of Lucky knows people. Rich people. People who believe that the next show he writes will turn a profit. I should mention, here, that no single composer in the history of Broadway has lost more money than the composer of Lucky. If you take his half-a-dozen shows, all of which closed in the red, and add up the deficits, he’s the reigning champ of loss. The Unlucky songwriter’s never had a show on Broadway, although he’s written one of the more financially successful off-Broadway musicals of the current century. But the Unlucky songwriter’s show languishes in obscurity while the Lucky version opens on The Great White Way.
It’s who you know. Does that sound cynical and jaded? I don’t mean it to. I merely mean to suggest that you owe it to yourself to get out there and shake a lot of hands, kiss a lot of frogs. Sometimes the seeds of a new relationship take years to bear fruit.
When I was 21, the girl I was dating introduced me to two friends who’d go on to become the friends who did the most for me, in terms of getting my musicals produced. Those relationships directly led to The New U., On the Brink, The Christmas Bride and The Company of Women. But that’s not all: performers involved in various readings of The Company of Women went on to come up with the ideas for Spilt Milk and The Love Contract. An impresario who attended Spilt Milk commissioned The Pirate Captains and mounted a production of Not a Lion. But that reminds me: long before she did anything of mine, I did a lot of work for her, gigs that involved traveling great distances. I think many people, given the long hours and low pay, would have quit. But I stuck with it, and it led to two productions.
Similarly, before MK Wolfe asked me to write music and lyrics for The Christmas Bride, I’d put in many long hours volunteering, in various capacities, for The Third Step Theatre Company. I’d licked envelopes. I’d read submissions. I judged one of their festivals of new plays. And, eventually, Third Step decided to produce The Christmas Bride in New York, roughly seven years after I first met my girlfriend’s friend.
I’ve another story of this sort. When I was an 18-year-old freshman in college, I got cast in a small part in a production of The Winter’s Tale. I saw that the play’s clown sings a number of short songs and volunteered to write them. The director hadn’t previously considered where the melodies would be found, so gladly accepted my help. Four years later, I ran into someone from that cast on my street. We discovered we lived in neighboring buildings. Now, she had a friend who needed a composer to write a song for a play about nineteenth century assassins. But she didn’t have my phone number (nor was it listed) as we just weren’t that close. So, knowing my address, she sent me a postcard, mentioning she had a friend looking to collaborate. And, about two years later, that friend and I saw our musical The Heavenly Theatre produced.
Yes, the serendipity of running into someone you haven’t seen in years on the street. Makes New York sound like a small town, don’t it? I have a friend who actually lives in a rather remote small town, one that’s actually famous for its lack of culture. Many years ago, I advised him to come up with a fixed duration of time, say an hour, and see to it that at least an hour of every day was devoted to writing, and at least an hour of every day was devoted to networking. Alas, he wasn’t able to keep to that, but if you commit yourself to volunteering for things that will allow other theatrical types to get to know you and, the ultimate goal, to get to know your work, then you stand a better chance of becoming the Lucky songwriter, rather than the Unlucky one.