Musical theatre workshops and productions

BLOG – Million Dollar Musicals on their way to BROADWAY??



Over the past year or so I have been to a lot of musicals.  Some old and some new, original musicals. – a lot of them.  Why?  Because I love them and because I, myself, am producing an original musical.  So, I have seen shows that have cost millions of dollars (no kidding!) and shows that have played in theatre spaces that have less seats than a Chicago Trolley.

I have also taken several classes with very experienced theatre professionals and interviewed dozens of producers, writers, directors and composers.  I have read blogs, white papers and have listened to so many podcasts my cats sit with me as I listen to them.  (They think it is all about them of course.) I have learned about the ins and outs of Facebook, web design and audio editing. This has been my year of exploration, growing and learning.  Here is what I am wrapping my brain around now…….How do these shows get produced before a paying audience when……they are not really ready?  When there are some significant issues with the plot, music or other essential element.

First, I have to tell you that I love almost everything I see…..I really do.  Why?  I am not sure but I think it has to do with an experience I had in college with one of my acting teachers, who was also an artistic director of a very important off-loop theatre company.  He told us that he really disliked going to the theatre – for him it was all work.  This stuck with me and at some point I made the decision, that I did not want that point of view….I wanted to enjoy the theatre and so I found things that made me love each show – I also knew that on every show there were many, many people who worked extremely hard for almost no money – and I wanted to honor them.

Now, over the past year or so I saw three musicals that had combined budgets in the millions and all were “on its way to Broadway”. FIRST WIVES CLUB, BEACHES and OCTOBER SKY.  All three had excellent production values, very talented actors and music that was largely very good….but none of them will make it to Broadway soon –  or if they get to Broadway in their present condition they won’t last.

FIRST WIVE’S CLUB (with a book by the immensely talented Linda Bloodworth-Thompson) was part of the BROADWAY IN CHICAGO series and played in a huge downtown Chicago theatre. When I saw the show the theatre was probably 20-25% full.  The book of the show was sluggish, slow and really not very funny (except the end of the first act). The music …so-so…BUT the sets were amazing and the talent – superior.

BEACHES, was another story.  Everyone knew the show was a work in progress.  It had played the Signature Theatre in Virginia and was now being produced in preparation for a Broadway run. Once again the show had very talented actors (Shoshana Bean…enough said) and a story that was very familiar and beloved to the “average” theatre-paying audience.  But the sets were ugly and the book desperately needed to be revised……(the illness and death of Bertie was agonizingly long) – by the way, everyone around me cried…even me….during this show.

Then there was OCTOBER SKY – a musical based on the movie “Rocket Boys”. I call this the show of “too manys” and “not enoughs”.  Too many plot lines (I think you could cut the whole teacher plot line and give the “role of the cheerleader” to the Mother), too many set changes and too many rocket blasts – while not enough about the protagonist and not nearly enough about the climaxes in the story (the audience never even sees how the strike is resolved and the “important” rocket blast is anti-climactic because we have already seen several before.) But, once again, extremely talented cast, fun music and fast paced, clear direction.

So, why am I writing this article?  Did I tell you I am producing an original musical?  Yes, it is true. This show that I am working on now will be my 100th production. I started my career as an actor/singer/dancer then moved to directing and producing.  Then I left the theatre all together for a while (making money is nice!) and now I am back. And I am trying to experience and analyze these productions so that I can learn from them.  Here are some of the things I have learned:

  • It is all about the audience…….reviews don’t really matter (remember the glowing reviews of HONEYMOON IN VEGAS – then the show closed), incredible music doesn’t really matter (the only Sondheim show that made money on Broadway was INTO THE WOODS) and neither does a great story (Stephen King’s CARRIE is a dynamite story, and we all know how that turned out). It is all about the audience, which is one reason I think that out of all of the million dollar musicals I saw BEACHES will be the one that may do the best. My sense was that the audience (the typical theatre-paying type) really loved the movie and just wanted the musical to be great.
  • Commercial musical productions are like a good stew – they need time. They need fresh ingredients and they need to be tasted and adjusted accordingly all along the way.  The chefs also need to be “open” to add spices or salt and pepper if needed.  This may be the issue with FIRST WIVES CLUB.  Someone…somewhere…decided that they wanted to do this show and there was a deadline to get it to Broadway, so whether it was fully developed or not….they were going! I am not sure how many readings or workshops OCTOBER SKY had, but I cannot help but think, why didn’t someone say at one of the readings, who is the story really about and why don’t we show the audience more about him?
  • Bring back the Producers with the creative background. I am reading all I can about David Merrick, Hal Prince and George Abbott.  (While Merrick did not have an “artistic” background like the others mentioned above, many thought his marketing techniques were extremely creative).  These musicals in the beginning stages need someone to “oversee” the readings and workshops BEFORE the millions of dollars are spent, while the creative team (including the director) are working on it. Before a top of the line theatre decides to do the show a producer  with creative credentials (and not on the creative team) needs to work with the creative team on cuts, additions or a change in course.  My sense is that creative teams can be very selfish about sharing their work while it is still brewing.
  • Collaborations are the key. The composer must be open to write more music for a scene change.  The lyricist must be willing to write alternative lyrics for an actor of another race or color.  The librettist must be sensitive to “too many words”.  The director must have the creative freedom to “try” different things during workshops or readings without the composing team negating the experience.  But collaborations are not just about these people. Successful collaborations are also about listening to the designers, the actors and even the ushers! (I talked to one of the ushers who had worked at the theater that produced OCTOBER SKY for over two decades and she said that, while she loved the show, it was not nearly their best original musical.) I think many times the creative team working on the show does not bring in other voices, other professionals, other producers or directors to critique the “work in progress”.  And I imagine they don’t ask audience members to attend readings or workshops. Maybe listening to these other “collaborators” might start the conversation that saves the show!

Well…that is it. Those are the lessons I have learned so far, and I am only just beginning on my journey.  I would love to hear your thoughts. Next up, I will talk about some of the smaller shows I saw and what I learned from them.