The L.A.-based Academy for New Musical Theatre presented its bi-annual Biz of the Musical Theatre Biz Conference for musical theater writers from Friday through Sunday at the NoHo Arts Center. The intensive event focused on why it’s called “show business” and not “show art,” with nine panels and presentations focusing on the more practical side of bringing singing stage productions to investors and audiences alike. The pragmatic “how to” confab was part symposia, part boot camp, part morale booster for ink-stained individuals who often create alone in those fabled garrets reserved for starving artists.
Conference panelists and presenters included successful writers, entertainment attorneys, industry representatives, publicists, backers, producers and more, with sessions geared for composers, lyricists, librettists and playwrights, who did not have to be Academy members in order to participate. Up to 60 writers ranging from newbies to the produced traveled from as far away as Melbourne, Australia, from New York and throughout California to attend what may be the only US-business-oriented powwow of its kind regarding musicals aimed solely at scribes. The conference format also gave attendees time to socialize, network and develop a sense of community during frequent breaks and meals provided as part of the overall package by ANMT, a non-profit organization headquartered in North Hollywood which offers one of only three professional programs in the US for musical theater writers, composers and lyricists.
Following an opening night “schmooze,” the weekend conference was kickstarted Friday evening by two Tony-nominated talents in a “Meet the Writers” panel moderated by ANMT artistic director Elise Dewsberry. Cheri Steinkellner, who wrote the book for Sister Act and Paul Gordon, composer/lyricist of Jane Eyre, each discussed the writing process and compared their experiences of having a show run on Broadway. Gordon found he had far more creative control when his work was presented at the Rubicon, an Equity-contracted company in Ventura County, as opposed to when Eyre ran on the Great White Way. Gordon said he likes to start working solo and then collaborate, while Steinkellner, who co-writes with her husband Bill and comes from a TV background where she wrote sitcoms such as Cheers, was used to the writers room and a more collaborative process.
During Saturday morning’s “Opening Remarks” ANMT’s executive director Scott Guy gave a presentation on the Academy’s producer-driven professional branch. Dewsberry delivered an overview of the ANMT curriculum. The ensuing “Keynote Address” presented a Skype interview with Scott Wittman, lyricist and writer of Hairspray and a producer, writer and composer of the Smash NBC-TV series.
In the “Meet the Future” session, each conference attendee verbalized a short pitch about themselves and their projects. Their various musicals ranged widely in terms of how developed they were and regarding subject matter, from the historical — a play about the War of 1812 — to one set 200 years later with a ripped-from-the-headlines story about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Gay-themed musicals such as The Max Factor Factor and the Jewish-oriented Eating, Praying, Loving were pitched by writers. One attendee called himself “a recovering CPA”; a former psychotherapist quipped that he was “made crazy” by 30 years of practice; and a wobbly, elderly novelist cracked everyone up by declaring he was currently “working on standing up.” Overall, during the conference participants went on to do more pitching than Sandy Koufax at the World Series.
Seven panelists with insider info discussed the pros and cons of assorted contests and the like in the “Meet the Festivals” session, which focused on these outlets as launching pads for exposure, advice, contacts and more. The Festival of New American Musicals’ co-founder and co-executive producer Bob Klein said that when this fete began five years ago there was “something rotten in the musical theatre world” — namely, according to Klein, a lack of support for the development of new musicals, as opposed to reviving vintage shows. Since 2006 Festival of New American Musicals has introduced more than 100 works.
UC Irvine associate professor of musical theatre Gary Busby discussed the advantages of working with an academic institution with a readymade supply of actors, musicians, etc., to launch a show from scratch. Lindsay Lefler, general manager of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, invited submissions, saying, “Every other month we present four new musicals that are 10 to 15 minutes long” and have a certain offbeat sensibility. “Every show is sold out. Our audiences want to see something weird and shocking”¦ Showcases provide good opportunities to see what works.” Talents Erik Przytulski, Jordan Beck and Jonathan May spoke about the submission process and the opportunity to present work at the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop and ASCAP/Dreamworks 2012, which includes coveted feedback from musical theater gurus such as Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) and Stephen Bray (The Color Purple).
The afternoon’s “Meet the Lawyers” marathon was arguably worth the conference’s price of admission. Attendees fired questions at entertainment attorneys Gordon P. Firemark and Michael R. Blaha for 105 minutes, as the lawyers dispensed legal advice while waiving their usual hourly rates and other fees. Both legal eagles stressed the importance of “getting it in writing,” collaboration agreements, copyright violations, the importance of the Dramatists Guild, non-disclosure agreements and more legalistic showbiz nuts and bolts.
The day’s final panel, “Meet the Artistic Directors,” was moderated by LA Stage Alliance executive director Terence McFarland. Although some of these panelists who give thumbs up or down to productions at their playhouses had different titles, they all discussed what they were looking for and how they should — and should not — be approached. (Note to aspiring scribblers: Waylaying artistic directors in theater lobbies may not exactly endear you to them.) Getting to know theaters before writers submitted to them was emphasized by the house honchos. “It’s offputting for a writer to submit material to a theater that’s not appropriate,” lamented Boston Court’s Michael Michetti.
Tim Dang explained that downtown LA’s East West Players focuses on the Asian American experience, while John Michael Beck said Celebration Theatre is one of the longest continuously running theatrical venues geared for the LGBT community. However, Beck warned, don’t query him with a message proclaiming your play is perfect for Celebration “because it’s so gay!” — which he actually considers to be insulting.
Steven Glaudini of Musical Theatre West participated. NoHo Arts Center’s Kevin Bailey said, “new plays and musicals is exclusively what we do.” Daniel Henning noted the Blank Theatre Company has a well-known writing contest for aspiring playwrights 19 and under, although the Blank also presents edgy, adult works as well — such as a revival of the proletarian classic The Cradle Will Rock. Karyl Lynn Burns said that the Rubicon Theatre has “a commitment to a variety of works, classical and innovative. We’ve had 15 world premieres.”
The first two days of ANMT’s Biz of the Musical Theatre Biz Conference for Musical Theatre Writers gave its aspiring dramatists, lyricists, composers and librettists plenty of ammunition for crossing the Rubicon into the world of professional musicals.
Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and majored in cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College. After graduating, Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting for 20/20, Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, and Newsweek.Â Rampell went on to move to L.A. and co-write “The Finger” column for New Times LA. He has written on theater, film, and opera for The Progressive Magazine, Variety, LA Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, LA Daily News, The Progressive, Written By, Guardian, Mother Jones, Financial Times, Islands, The Nation, Edge, AlterNet, Jesther Entertainment, Hollywood Progressive, JabCat, and LA Progressive. Rampell has appeared on CBS’ 48 Hours, C-SPAN’s Book TV, NPR, Pacifica Radio, the 2005 Australian documentary Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise. He co-authored two film histories, Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies, and is sole author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.
(Note: Tomorrow Rampell will re-cap the ANMT’s Sunday panels.)
***All photos by Chana Wise