Editor’s note: Ed Rampell covered the Academy for New Musical Theatre’s bi-annual Biz of the Musical Theatre Biz Conference for musical theater writers, in NoHo last weekend. For his report on the first two days of the event, go here. And now, what happened on Sunday:
In Twelfth Night Shakespeare wrote: “If music be the food of life, play on.” And so it was with the third day of the LA-based Academy for New Musical Theatre’s bi-annual Biz of the Musical Theatre Biz Conference for musical theater writers, which on Sunday continued playing on, presenting four final panels at the NoHo Arts Center.
Continuing with the confab’s no-nonsense approach of administering a heavy dose of reality to starry-eyed theatrical idealists, the “Meet the Reps” panel introduced book writers, lyricists, librettists and composers to essential industry representatives. Larry Dean Harris, the Dramatists Guild’s Southern California regional rep, is himself a playwright who “was on the ledge” due to problematic business dealings — until this labor organization, which supports the rights of those who write for the stage, helped straighten things out. “Now I advocate for people like me,” said Harris, who went on to explain that the “the Guild is New York-based, but in the last few years it made the decision to go national and now has 30-plus regional representatives.”
The Dramatists Guild presents national and local programs geared for stage writers and fosters a sense of community for those in a profession of often solitary toilers. It sets industry standards and provides members with templates for collaboration agreements and the like, plus a monthly magazine. Perhaps most important, the Guild’s business affairs division provides legal assistance, which includes reviewing contracts and rendering expert advice before writers ink the proverbial parchments and sell their souls to the devil.
Michael Van Duzer, an Actors’ Equity business representative, explained contractual nuances regarding pay scales for members of the chorus, as opposed to principals, and painstakingly defined the differences. These details were emblematic of the conference’s emphasis on the business side of the “show business” equation, which writers sometimes neglect, even as they tune in to their inner muse.
The panel also included two American Federation of Musicians reps — Michael Ankney,
Professional Musicians Local 47’s business rep for its live performance referral service,Â and Paul Castillo of the Theatre Musicians’ Association. Michael Kerker, who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles as ASCAP director of musical theatre, explained that the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers collects and distributes royalties from venues that play music — from cabarets to elevators to discos to supermarkets — to members. But, he noted, the only outlet in which ASCAP does not collect fees for use of music is theater, which is subject to other payment formulas.
Following lunch was the “Meet the Money” session, moderated in a return engagement by entertainment attorney Gordon P. Firemark, who had co-presented the previous day’s legal panel. With justification, ANMT’s schedule notes described the “Money” panel as “eye-opening.” Kensington Entertainment’s Michael Shapiro seemed to match one’s pre-conceived image of a theater producer and/or investor, as the ebullient white-haired gentleman regaled listeners with tales of the fabled Nederlanders, noting that opening shows in their own 1,232-seat Broadway house was a hedge against loss, because they were at least paid rent, even if a play flopped. The musical money man also quoted bank robber Willie Sutton who, when asked why he robbed banks, responded: “Because that’s where the money is.” Shapiro, noting that unions have large pension funds that make investments,Â suggested that unions could be a source for investing in productions.
At the other end of the spectrum was Peach Reasoner, who due to circumstances beyond her control violated The Producers’ Max Bialystock’s “two cardinal rules of producing. One: Never put your own money in the show,” which, of course, is also rule number two. Although Hoboken to Hollywood, the award-winning big-band-themed musical Reasoner produced, had a long run in LA, she said she has yet to earn a profit from it. Reasoner also discussed the crowd-funding kickstarter.com website as a possible source of financing for musicals.
Tony- and Drama Desk-nominated Broadway producer Heather Provost seemed somewhere between these panelists, asserting that she “doesn’t ask investors to put their money into a show I wouldn’t.” The backers she has approached for dramas written by, among others, Neil LaBute, run “a wide gamut, from athletes to my brother’s stock market buddies,” said the trim transplanted New Yawker, who insisted that “the smallest investor should be treated like the biggest”¦. It’s all about relationships, be sociable. You gotta get out there and meet people,” Provost insisted, advocating a “schmooze or lose” philosophy.
The long-legged Schoen Smith and Marco Gomez, whose long locks are worthy of a Musketeer, cut a dashing pair on the stage as they discussed their Venture Hill Entertainment. According to its website, it’s a LLC and “private investment company created to enhance and develop theatre, film, music and television properties” — including a London production of Driving Miss Daisy with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, the Tony-nominated Evita featuring Ricky Martin, and closer to home, DOMA’s revival of the musical Jekyll and Hyde at Hollywood’s Met Theatre, directed by Gomez himself.
During the panel, in lightly-accented English, Gomez related that he was born into money, but his mother required him to attain his own wealth. He invests in shows that capture his whimsy. Smith is VHE’s producer and vice president of development, who apparently first came to Gomez’s attention when she was attached to the play Elevator, which she convinced him to back, against Gomez’s better judgment, and, he confessed, she proved him wrong. Gomez expressed a preference for “something I haven’t seen, something new. I’m not afraid to take risks.” Other “Meet the Money” panelists included Divorce, The Musical producer Rick Culbertson and independent producer Murphy Cross.
The ensuing “Meet the Entrepreneurs” session reinforced the sense of the commercial side of theater, discussing the importance of self-producing, marketing and publicity. The panelists included the writers Michael Antin, who described himself as “an ex-tax accountant and self-funded playwright” of Sophia; Peter Colley, who wrote the book for Cagney! and lamented “The writer is the low man on the totem pole”; and former standup comics Debbie Kasper and Pat Sierchio, who share writer-producer credits for Boomermania, which had an eight-month run.
Write Act Repertory director/producer Anne Tamanaha Mesa, whose credits include producing the recent Geeks, stressed the significance of “finding a target audience” and expressed a “can-do” attitude, insisting “anything is possible and you can definitely produce it.” She noted that she had once presented a play for only $1,000 in expenses. Mesa was joined by Stefany Northcutt, Write Act Repertory associate director of artistic development.
David Elzer of Demand PR, who had a background in the motion picture industry, represents a number of SoCal theatrical companies and venues including the Colony, Rubicon and San Diego Musical Theatre. Elzer is also a producer of award-winning shows, such as The Marvelous Wonderettes. Elzer urged the assembled aspiring writers to “Follow your heart, listen to your gut”¦ I have gut instinct.” He also ballyhooed the key role staged readings can play in the development of a play and advised the aspiring scribes, “You want to market what’s most sellable about your play — not necessarily what your show is about”¦The title should tell what the show is about.”
Ken Werther brings 30 years’ worth of public relations in TV and theater to bear, and when this veteran press agent predicts the imminent demise of the print media, as Arthur Miller wrote regarding Willy Loman, attention must be paid. “All of the newspapers across the country have decimated their staffs,” Werther insisted. He noted the increasing role of the Internet vis-Ã -vis print. In a similar online vein, Elzer added that “great websites with links to buying tickets and fabulous graphics” are vital for successful marketing of today’s productions.
The conference’s grand finale was “Meet the Producers”, in which five producers read written pitches of the projects attendees were working on — and if available, listened to excerpted audio files. Venture’s Shoen Smith returned to the NoHo Arts Center’s stage with her colleagues Brian McDonald (Rubicon Theatre Company’s resident director), Michael Jung (Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment’s v.p. of theatrical development), Oanh Nguyen (Chance Theatre’s artistic director) and Gregg Maday (Warner Entertainment) to candidly comment on the strength and weaknesses of the submitted pitches at a rapid-fire pace in a veritable pitch-a-palooza. They considered pitches about the Tea Party, James Madison, space aliens, suffragettes, a US doctor in South America and much more, offering pointers.
Smith said she looked “for poetry in pitches that get to the heart, that strikes a chord,” and she recommended that period pieces “be made relevant to audiences today.” Maday advised using the phrase “in the tradition of” to help set the tone, conjuring up an image of previous plays that put a pitched show into context. Jung was “turned off when politics were more important than the human element” and pointed out that “ultimately, the opening lines are crucial to the experience” of considering pitches.
The conference offered its 60 or so attendees practical advice, specific outlets — venues, festivals, investors — to submit material to, advice on how to craft proposals and applications in professional ways, a sense of shared camaraderie and more.
Australian Kevin Purcell probably traveled the farthest in order to take part in the conference, all the way from Melbourne to North Hollywood. When asked if it was worth the expense in terms of fees, airfare, hotels and more, the Aussie gushed: “I got my money’s worth many times over.”
Shakespeare never wrote a single musical, but had he attended this exhaustive three-day
marathon, Hamlet and Ophelia just might have warbled a few toe-tapping duets.
For more information about ANMT’s Biz of the Musical Theatre Biz Conference for
Musical Theatre Writers, go to www.anmt.org/conference.asp.