There’s a book, Off Broadway Musicals, 1910-2007, and my Such Good Friends is in it, and the title got me thinking: That must be a sad book. If you read it from start to finish, you might see the growth of Manhattan’s less-than-500-seat houses as places where interesting work emerged. By the 1960s, the Less Great Less White Way was a laboratory for bold experiments, works that broke with tradition, such as The Fantasticks and Man of La Mancha. True, that last one migrated to Broadway, but there have been times in which such a move hasn’t been the ultimate goal. And it’s there you get some fascinating smaller shows, meant to be heard in a pint-size house. By the 1980s, The Shubert Organization joined the fray, producing Little Shop of Horrors – slight spoiler alert: the plant grew all around the walls, enveloping the audience – and Sondheim launched Sunday in the Park With George and Assassins at Playwrights Horizons.
And then – the thing I find sad – it all sort of came to a halt. A variety of financial obstacles made it less and less likely that new work would be done in that downtown incubator. New York, which had always been the city that contained the most musical theatre writers, became the locale least likely to do new or avant garde work. I’m not expert enough to know who to blame for this, but think about what happened to downtown real estate. Another likely culprit: the outrageous rates charged by The New York Times for listing space in their arts section. And as the community of producers changed, risk-averseness spread like a plague.
In time for the season, I bring you good cheer. Off-Broadway, I’m gradually noticing, has been putting on a number of new musicals in recent years. The Fortress of Solitude, Here Lies Love, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Murder For Two, the huge quantity of musicals by the amazingly prolific Michael John LaChiusa. I can’t tell you whether anybody’s making a profit, but, the fact that a show has gotten produced in New York has positive implications. You see, there are regional theatres that frequently market off-Broadway shows as if they’ve been on The Street. Yes, that’s incorrect, and may even be a deliberate lie. But, for writers, the upshot is that your show needn’t actually play on Broadway to get itself known, to have a future life. A good thing for us, as long as off-Broadway continues to do new shows.
Many times, or most often, the new musicals are being done in not-for-profit or non-commercial theatres. If a company has raised enough money to pursue a mission of presenting new musicals, then ticket sales paying for the whole production might not be as big an issue as it once was. A friend of mine is currently in Gigantic, produced by The Vineyard at The Acorn. (I know, this sounds confusing, but The Acorn is an off-Broadway house you can rent and The Vineyard, which has produced such hysterical shows as Avenue Q and Billy & Ray, has its own theatre near Union Square, but isn’t doing Gigantic there. I know: still confusing. Let’s move on.) That has a cast of fifteen and a limited run. For many years, writers have been advised to limit their cast sizes, but this one is all about going overboard in more ways than one.
Another issue comes to mind: the off-Broadway musical can be experimental, but doesn’t have to be. There’s a wide stylistic range between Far From Heaven or The Great American Trailer Park Musical, and Adding Machine or Murder Ballad. There may have been a time when you had to be noticeably different to get your show done off-Broadway, but now it takes all kinds.
One thing that hasn’t changed (yet) is that the original cast recording is an absolute necessity. The way the decision-makers at theatres around the world are going to get to know your show is not by seeing it in its little house in New York, it’s by listening, hopefully in their cars, hopefully more than once. As advances (?) in technology change the way music is delivered, it’s not clear how much longer it will be necessary to find a record company to release an album. Right now, though, the expenses of recording necessitate a large investment in that all-important element that can lead to future profit. The way I see it: record sales themselves don’t account for much income, but a large number of productions might.
I’ve a current example on my mind, Heathers. This ran roughly four months off-Broadway in 2014, and I suspect they didn’t clean up there. (Cast size: 16) Given the high cost of making an album, I’m skeptical that record sales have more than covered the price. But, will the nation see many productions of Heathers in upcoming years? Very! I think it’s a foregone conclusion. Composer Lawrence O’Keefe writes big-cast shows about young people, and that’s led to countless mountings of Bat Boy and Legally Blonde. (Perversely, perhaps, I far prefer his lesser-known Cam Jansen and The Mice.)
I lack the knack O’Keefe has, for finding stories that troupes far and wide are eager to tell. And I don’t know how big a role commercial considerations should play in the shows you choose to write. But, when it comes time to find a place to play, it’s good to know good ol’ Off-Broadway might be open to the idea.