While on vacation in Florida, I naturally think of previous trips here. And one, about twenty years ago, was for this business of show. I’d heard rumors that the state contained a number of forward-thinking theatres that, more often than most, took a chance on a new or not-famous show. I had this wacky idea – now it seems so naive! – that I could travel around the state, meet artistic directors in person, and pitch my latest musical. Why I believed this hare-brained scheme might work, I do not know, but it seemed worth a try, a way of being proactive about my career.
The Company of Women was a musical that you would have thought would be catnip to theatre companies. It was about the bonds of friendship between six diverse females. There were also two men in the cast, with decidedly smaller parts. Original and contemporary, and, to my mind, containing my best music and lyrics. What’s not to love?
Plus, the show had an unusual development process: in face-to-face conversation, this might prove intriguing. Somewhat like A Chorus Line, The Company of Women was developed through a series of rap sessions. In the famous hit of forty years ago, Michael Bennett asked Broadway choristers to talk honestly about their lives. For my project, actresses were cast for a creative workshop involving improvisations. They wrote down, on index cards, little scenarios of things that had happened to them, things that had something to do with being a woman, could only happen to a female, or merely touched the subject of the war between the sexes. The cards were then used as the basis for an improvised scene, the one rule being that nobody was acting out their own card. I and a librettist watched and took notes. And these were used as an inspirational spark for songs, characters, and plot points.
Did this unusual crucible bear extraordinary fruit? Yes and no. Certainly, the regard I have for the songs is a positive, and I wouldn’t have been able to write with so much verisimilitude if the distaff dozen hadn’t been so open with their lives. My book writer and I, it must be admitted, were wholly unable to get on the same page. We’d started with a clearly articulated goal of presenting contemporary ladies as they actually live; my collaborator wanted to send them into outer space, literally. And those of you reading this who are the daughters of Sally Ride are now nodding, saying “Yes, that’s my life.” But that ain’t a lot of you.
There was also a triple abandonment: A brilliant and inspirational director decided to move to California a few months in. The replacement librettist also relocated, and the producing organization, that had sponsored the workshops, eventually folded up shop. It was left to me to write the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh drafts of the script – I may have also written the second – and, disreputably, a piece about feminine friendships eventually bore the credit of a single man.
Encouragingly, every woman who read the thing told me that it was remarkably true, and bore no traces of a male point of view. One of the developing dozen was so impressed, she decided to produce a revue of my songs, Spilt Milk. This is an example of the career connection I often talk about: You do good work on one production and it plants seeds for another to grow.
In the Sunshine State, I thought of myself as a distant relative of Willy Loman, a sampler case under my arm, going from town to town, trying to interest strangers in The Company of Women. Gainesville, Orlando, Lake County and Sarasota: The artistic directors seemed fairly intrigued. But were they intrigued by the prospect of doing the show itself, or just amused that a New York writer had come a-calling down there?
The idea of musical-writer as traveling-salesman was noteworthy enough for one of the state’s biggest newspapers, The Orlando Sentinel to devote a whole article to me and my unusual exploit. So, I can’t say I walked away with nothing, exactly. But the artistic directors I met with could only go so far. They had an audience to please, and ultimately all felt they couldn’t sell enough tickets to a show-of-no-repute on this subject matter. My notion of what might be commercial, what the powers-that-be of Florida theatre might by, was proven wrong.
So my Florida fishing trip produced some nibbles but no bites. The Company of Women remains my only musical to never get produced for a paying audience. One reason might be, it’s just not very good. It’s gentler than most shows; no larger-than-life characters. But, some iota of ego in me compels me to offer an alternative theory. Each Sunshine State honcho had the same question in mind: Why hasn’t this show been produced in New York? To their way of thinking, a show needs the imprimatur of a Gotham production before they can sell it to their audiences, “Direct from Broadway” or even off-Broadway.
A question often posed is “Do you need to be in New York in order to write musicals?” My experience down south would seem to indicate you do. Of course, good musical theatre can be created anywhere, and it’s foolish prejudice to think a show’s not good merely because it hasn’t played The Big Apple. Unfortunately, there are regional artistic directors who take to heart Fred Ebb’s line if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. They’re putting way too much faith in Manhattan’s powers-that-be; they’re not always wise, either.
The Company of Women failed to catch fire in New York and in Florida. While that could likely be my failing, I did succeed in trying something new. New in the way the show was created. New in the method of marketing. Being proactive in getting work out there: always worth doing.