Episode 4 Transcript – Terrence McNally
Ken: Hello everyone, this is Ken Davenport. Welcome to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast, episode number four. On the first three episodes of the podcast we sat down with three folks who sit on the administrative side of Broadway. For today’s podcast, we’re sitting down with someone on the opposite side of the table – the creative side – to get his perspective on all things Broadway. I’m honored that the table I’m sitting at, literally, is the table of none other than multiple Tony Award winner, Emmy Award winner, Drama Desk Award winner, Theater Hall of Fame-er, Terrence McNally. Welcome, Terrence!
Ken: Terrence is the writer of such plays and musicals as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Love! Valor! Compassion!, Master Class, Mothers and Sons, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Fully Monty and, of course, this year’s biggest hit, which I am fortunate enough to be a producer on, It’s Only a Play, and it was just announced that the long-gestating The Visit, which Terrence wrote the book for, will make its debut on Broadway this spring at the Lyceum Theater. Terrence has also written operas, screenplays, teleplays and a whole lot more so, Terrence, my first question to you is you have to be one of the most prolific playwrights around – can you tell me a little bit about your process? How long does it got for you to get an idea to do something to having a completed script?
Terrence: Well very often it’s a long time from an idea, like, “Oh, there’s a play here,” to me actually sitting down at the keyboard and getting to write it and it’s been a different experience with every single play I’ve written. Basically, I like deadlines. In a musical you have collaborators and you have meetings weekly so you have to have a certain amount done by Monday at 4pm when you have to meet with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who are working on the project. When you’re working on your own, you’re your own boss and, like I said, you get an idea, and you say, “There’s a play here” and maybe a year later, two years later. I got the idea for Frankie and Johnny, took a trip to India and came back and wrote two or three plays before I wrote Frankie and Johnny and then I wrote A Perfect Ganesh, which is a play about going to India, about five years after that, so there’s no cause and effect, I’m just grateful when they come. I think what I’ve learned is not to turn on the computer until I’m ready to begin writing. I don’t enjoy staring at a blank screen so I wait until it’s really time to go. It’s hard to figure out where to begin the play, is part of the challenge. Before you start to write a play you know the general story you want to tell but where do you begin? That’s a really important decision to make, when to start.
Ken: I’ve heard some writers say, “I know how this is going to end. I have the final scene in mind.” So for you it’s more the beginning?
Terrence: It’s more the beginning situation. Master Class is a play I knew how I was going to begin and end but I had no idea what would be in the middle. I always knew the first line would be “No applause” the day I got the idea for writing a play about Maria Callas teaching a master class for Zoe Caldwell and the second I got “No applause” and the last line of the play, “Well, that’s that,” then I had to write the play. There was a playwriting festival in Big Fork, Montana, and they said, “Do you have something?” and I said, “Yeah, I have something,” and they gave me a date – I said deadlines work well – so I had to have something done by March 15th of that year because I had told them in October, say, that I would have a play for them. I don’t just sit at an empty keyboard and think, “What should I write about?” New York is a very stimulating city, I’ve never been at a loss for ideas, it’s more finding time with having a play in production and in rehearsal it’s pretty hard to do something else because you get very focused on that. And so I’m now beginning to get back to some other projects that I put aside because of It’s Only a Play – happily, because that’s been a great experience, but I won’t pretend that I go to rehearsals of It’s Only a Play and come home and work on a new play. No, that’s all I do.
Ken: Tell me a little bit about how you got your start, why you decided to be a playwright and what was the early process like of you getting into this business?
Terrence: I always wanted to be a writer. I figured I’d probably be a journalist. I came to New York at 17 and went to Columbia. I went to the theater a lot. I’d seen a couple of shows as a young child and they made big impressions on me so I loved theater by the time I was 5 or 6 years old. I didn’t see very much of it, growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, but I knew New York, Broadway, that’s a good reason to go to Columbia. The first night I was in New York I went right to Times Square and found my way to the Mark Hellinger Theater and I asked to see My Fair Lady and they looked at me like I was crazy and they said, “It’s totally sold out for the next six months.” I said, “Oh, what do you do if you want to see it sooner than that?” and they said, “There’s a line of standees for $1, like 18 standing room places, they go on sale at 10am, so if you wanted one of them you’d better be in line by midnight because there’s 18 people in line by midnight. That’s the only way you’ll get in.” So I wandered a few blocks south and there, at the 46th Street Theater, was a big marquee that said “Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees,” so I saw that my first night in New York, went back to the Mark Hellinger Theater, there were about three people there already and we were sitting on the sidewalk when My Fair Lady ended, because shows began at 8:40pm in 1956 and My Fair Lady is a fairly lengthy show so it was about 11:15-11:30pm and people were coming out and saying, “You guys are going to sit there all night to get standing room for this show?” and we said, “Yeah.” They acted like we were crazy but they were rich, they were so lucky they could afford to buy a seat. I met several people, it was fun talking and that was my first night in New York, having seen Gwen Verdon, sitting outside the Mark Hellinger Theater. The box office opened promptly at 10am and those 18 tickets were gone by 10:01. It cost $1 so I just gave the guy a dollar bill, it happened really fast, the line was gone and I slept my way through my freshman week of Columbia but I did see My Fair Lady my second night in New York and during the run of the play, before the original cast left, I saw it eleven more times. So I guess I was stage struck. I still didn’t think I was going to be a writer – I was seeing a musical and I had heard the album in Corpus Christi and it was a glorious show. It’s pretty hard to describe how amazing the original My Fair Lady was. I think it was the first time people saw turntables and elaborate costumes; it was so extravagant. I just started going to the theater and the opera a lot and I always thought I’d go to the Columbia School of Journalism across the campus after four years and while I was at Columbia I read that they didn’t have anyone to writer the varsity show and I thought, “Well, I could try it,” and I wrote that with Ed Kleban, who wrote the music and lyrics – he was in my class – and I sort of enjoyed that. When I graduated from Columbia I got a prize to go off and be creative. It seemed like a lot of money at the time, I think it was about $5,000, and I went to Mexico and I was going to write a great novel and while I was there I just started writing a play. I sent it to the Actors Studio in New York, the playwrights unit, and Molly Kazan, who ran it – she was the wife of Elia Kazan – wrote me this letter. I was living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when it was a really unknown little spot – two flights a week that landed in a cornfield – and she said, “If you get back to New York I’d love to talk to you. You don’t seem to have a lot of stage experience, from some of your stage directions. You should hang out with actors and directors and see how plays are really put together,” and I thought, “That sounds good.” I had gotten nowhere with the novel, I had written maybe 60 pages of it, and while I was there I had written this play and I continued working on that, got back to New York and worked as the stage manager at Actors Studio, so I was in the presence of great directors, great actors, great playwrights – the playwrights unit was in its halcyon days then – and they did my play one afternoon and someone there from the Rockefeller Foundation saw it and they were commissioning new plays to be done at the Guthrie Theater and my first play got done at the Guthrie, people saw it and then it went to Broadway. This kind of story does not happen anymore – no one’s first play they ever wrote gets done on Broadway. Now, the first play I ever wrote that got done on Broadway was a big fat flop and it took me maybe 20 years to get a sense of humor about that and write It’s Only a Play and it’s taken me another 20 years to get that play onto Broadway, where it probably always belonged and happily it’s very successful now. But that’s how I sort of fell into it. I never had a vocational epiphany, like, “I want to be a playwright!” It was more, “Oh, I guess I’m earning a living as a playwright.” But I’ve always earned a living as a writer.
Ken: While you were coming up and around that company of actors and directors, which I love, I give a lot of people the same advice – you should surround yourself with other artists.
Terrence: Your peers. So my first play was a big flop, as I said. I went back to journalism and was working as an editor for a magazine, finding it very hard at the end of the day to come back to my apartment and write my own work, a play, and I had become friends with a character actor named James Coco and he said, “I’ll never be a star” and I thought he was a wonderfully comic, great actor, and he said, “No one writes leading roles for fat character actors. I get to come in in the second act and have a scene, or maybe have a short scene in the first act and a better scene in the second act, but I don’t really have plays written about me,” so I said, “I’ll write a play for you,” and I wrote this play called Next and he said, “Great, I love it, but who’s going to want to a play with me? No one knows who James Coco is.” So dissolve to less than a year later – he’s up in summer stock at the Berkshire Theater festival and I’m still at this magazine and the next play he was in was a play by Elaine May and the play that was going to follow them at the Berkshire Theater festival got canceled so suddenly they needed a play overnight. Jimmy said, “I have a play!” and they read it and liked it. He gave it to Elaine, she read it and said, “I want to direct it.” Jimmy calls me and within a day I’m on a bus going to Stockbridge, Massachusetts and we did Next and I’ve earned a living as a playwright ever since. That was about 1965 or so, so I’ve been very lucky. There is talent, sure, there is luck, but you’ve got to be prepared when the moment happens. If he’d said, “Can you write a play for me overnight? I’ll give it to Elaine in the morning,” I probably could not have written the play overnight but it was ready to go and it was a great experience working with Elaine. That’s the basic story of my career – suddenly I was earning a living writing plays and I loved it.
Ken: Any advice from people around at the time, as you burst on the scene? Any mentors that you worked with?
Terrence: The advice I would give people is what I did – hang out with really talented people. I think standing outside the stage door, hoping Nathan Lane is going to want to do your play and you slip him a copy and he may not even take it from you, or he may not even go out the stage door and make one of his phantom exits from the basement. When Nathan Lane did The Lisbon Traviata I had seen him in many things and thought he was the most amazing young comic actor, frankly, since Jimmy Coco, and Nathan Lane was not Nathan Lane when he did The Lisbon Traviata. So be realistic. There are so many good young theater companies in New York and that’s where you should hang out. Most off-Broadway theater companies now, not for profits, are not entry level theaters anymore –Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizon, they have their writers and it takes a lot to get their attention. It’s changed, it was relatively easy to get a play done off-Broadway in the ‘60s. It really felt as if we finished them on Friday, cast them on Monday and went into rehearsal the following Friday. It just was bang, bang, bang. Now I know production costs have risen, but there’s just been a slowing down of the process. Off-Broadway has pretty much died – there were so many small theaters and everyone seemed to be able to make a living out of a 99 seat theater or a 199 seat theater. Next ran at a theater that’s long gone on 13th Street and the big flaw in that theater was you couldn’t play on Friday night because it served a purpose as a synagogue. A lot of the commercial people said, “What do you do with that Friday night? It’s four-show weekends,” but everybody seemed to be able to make that work and now if you’re not done by the Public or Manhattan Theater Club or Playwrights Horizon it’s hard. But there are all these newer groups which are almost off-off-Broadway that are welcoming to new writers, directors and actors and that’s my advice – hang out with your peers. The odds of your first play going to Broadway in this day and age are pretty remote. Yes, anything can happen, but you should be with your peers anyway and learn from one another and the other bit of advice is try to work with people who are smarter and more talented than so you that you learn something. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you tend not to learn anything, so challenge yourself.
Ken: That’s fantastic advice about not being the smartest person in the room. You’ve always been very active, obviously, but there seems to be a lot of activity with both revivals of some of your earlier works and new stuff as well in the last year – Mothers and Sons, Away We Go, It’s Only a Play, just in the last 12 months, now here comes The Visit again and I’m hearing rumblings about some more revivals and you mentioned at the beginning of this you’re working on something new. There seems to be a lot of McNally activity or heat around you – why? Do you think there’s a reason?
Terrence: No, I don’t know all that.
Ken: You’ll take it.
Terrence: I’ll take it. I do think a lot of things that happen in life are beyond our control. I think the older we get the more we learn to let go and things happen when they’re meant to happen. I always believed in The Visit. The Visit is almost 15 years from its world premiere in Chicago and then about seven or eight years after that there was a second production at the Signature Theater outside of D.C. in Arlington and then this production from Williamstown and I always had faith that the show would eventually come to New York. I think it’s a wonderful show and it’s just the time wasn’t right, I guess. I didn’t drive myself crazy. I can’t make a show happen. A lot of things have to align and they just aligned this time. It’s a wonderful role for Chita. We used to joke, fifteen years ago, that age was on our side – the older you are for this part, the better. Now we joke, “No, that’s not true anymore!” She’s ready to do it and she’s going to be glorious but we didn’t drive ourselves crazy, there was a trust. I think good work eventually gets done. You have to have advocates for it – if a play just languishes in a drawer, no one’s going to do it – but that show had enough exposure, people had seen it and believed in it. I think it’s the last score John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote and I think it’s really one of their best scores, it’s so unlike any of their other shows and I think it’s going to surprise people. There are numbers in it that, if you didn’t know who wrote the words and music, I don’t think you’d say, “Oh, that’s a Kander/Ebb number,” and we’ve found the right director for it and choreographer – John Doyle and Graciela Daniele have just a kind of seamless thing. I used to read about that kind of thing that, I guess, Josh Logan had with Agnes de Mille, say, just seamless, as though one person directed it and choreographed it. It’s just wonderful. There’s a lot of movement in the piece – not “number” numbers but it’s very choreographed, very stylized. Their collaboration was a beautiful thing to watch and Chita and Roger Rees together are very special. I don’t know whose name it was who was at a table lunch saying, “Who can we get to play opposite Chita?” who came up with Roger but he’s a revelation in the part and I can’t take credit for that. That’s what’s exciting about the theater – the unexpected thing happens. That’s also the source of a lot of frustration about theater because it’s not a good industry career or way of life for a control freak and yet there are a lot of control freaks who end up in the theater but I think they are usually broken pretty thoroughly and soon. You could say, “You’re the biggest control freak of all, you’re the playwright – you’re dictating whether she lives, she dies, he gets married or falls down the stairs, he inherits $1 million,” but I’ve learned to let go. I think you do acquire a certain wisdom about theater the older you get but I love the impatience of young people and I still have my youthful impatience – I want it to happen now, I want it to be good, they did it so right Friday, why does the Saturday matinee suck? Why can’t you bottle lightning? But then there are nights of the show where you say, “I’ll never see a better performance of The Visit than that. This is the one that should be filmed for the history books.” Then you go three nights later and it’s even better – magically, the actors find even greater heights to rise to. It’s exhilarating. I often say having a life in the theater such as I’ve had is its own reward. I know we all have to eat and have a roof over our heads but, other than that, if you can do theater and not starve to death and not shiver in the cold night because you’re sleeping in the park, I think you’ve got to consider yourself well paid because it’s an amazing life. There were times when I lived in apartments and my mother would literally burst into tears and say, “I don’t know how you can live like this!” and I felt lucky to be living in Manhattan because these were still the days when you could live in Manhattan – now, all the young people, they all live in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island even, the Bronx, there’s no real estate for people and that’s had a huge impact on the arts in this city, that it’s so difficult for young people to come here and be artists.
Ken: Tell me a little bit about the difference between writing a play and writing a book for a musical.
Terrence: For me the biggest difference is that with a musical I am a collaborator and the musical should seem as if one person, one mind, one sensibility, wrote the book, the music and the lyrics, so there’s not a big disconnect from the dialogue to the music, where the lyrics don’t sound remotely like the character we’ve been listening to speaking. So it’s finding the right collaborators and it’s being willing to really see your main job is to provide the structure for the show and if you want a really good scene and the actors, your composer, lyricist, collaborators come up with a really good song that accomplishes exactly what that scene did you have to be glad for them and let your scene go. If you’ve got a big, needy ego, you’re not going to be happy writing the book for a musical. I think it’s more like some of the players down the line on a football team – the quarterbacks get all the glory, and the running backs, and that’s the composer and lyricist. You have to take pride in your work and that you’ve done a good job but you’re not the star of the evening. I’m the star of my plays; I’m not the star of my musicals. I love musicals enough because that’s what drew me to the theater as a child. Chekov or Samuel Beckett didn’t do it – it was musicals. A lot of my playwright friends who have taken a crack at writing a book treat it like playwright-lite and it’s not, it’s very hard work, you have to give it the same attention to detail and craft that you do to a play of your own but it’s just that your ego is going to be a little battered when your favorite line or two gets swallowed up by a song. There are whole sentences of mine in some of my collaborator’s lyrics and I’m honored. It’s a bad book if you’ve written a five page scene for two characters, three characters, and your collaborators read it and say, “We don’t see a song in what you’ve given us.” Then you’ve failed as a book writer. As far as my writing, I probably tend to overwrite the first draft of a musical a bit to give them a lot of ideas of what I think they can musical-ize or get ideas for lyrics, images that maybe the lyricist will respond to, but I’ve been really lucky with who I’ve worked with on musicals for the most part. I would say your choice of collaborators on a musical is as important as choosing a life partner, a spouse, because you’re with these people a lot, you have to completely trust them, you have to really look out for one another and it’s tough love a lot but I really have worked with wonderful, wonderful people and I think some people have been unhappy working on musicals because it hasn’t been the right people in the room and unless you have the right people in the room you’re kind of doomed and I’ve been involved in projects like that too, like we’re all sitting here because we’ve all won some awards and we have a bit of a high profile but do we really see eye to eye on this project? No, and those projects usually go nowhere. So choose well if you’re going to do a musical. I think one of the problems with musicals today is that people are choosing material that isn’t strong enough to sustain two and a half hours of song and at the end of the first act there’s not enough plot and stuff going. Most of the musicals I’ve done that are successful have been big, emotional stories, like Ragtime or Kiss of the Spider Woman and there’s even a lot of meat in The Full Monty. I’ve seen shows that have run out of gas very quickly because the story, the situation, isn’t strong enough. When I told people I was doing Ragtime or Kiss of the Spider Woman people would say, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard for a musical.” If someone said they were doing a musical version of Pygmalion I would have said, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” so you all agree, “Yeah, let’s make a musical out of Krapp’s Last Tape” and you will probably make a good one if you all passionately want to make that musical and see eye to eye on it and believe in it.
Ken: Obviously some things about the industry have changed a lot over what I now know is over 50 years on Broadway you’re celebrating. You’re talking about ticket prices for $1 when you saw My Fair Lady to now. Some things haven’t changed – there are still people coming to New York and waiting in line for tickets for the hottest new show. How do you think producers have changed over the last 50 years or have they changed? Is there any difference you see with the people you work with who option your shows now?
Terrence: The biggest change I’ve seen – when I first came to New York, producing was a very mom and pop kind of thing. It would say, “David Merrick presents…,” “Robert Whitehead presents…,” “Kermit Bloomgarden presents…,” “Roger L. Stevens presents…” Now there’s anywhere from ten to thirty or forty names above a title. So it was one man and there were people who would say, “I’ll see any show Robert Whitehead produces, or Kermit Bloomgarden,” because they went to classy plays so if he thinks it’s a good, new American play or a play worth bringing from London. They were like stars, the producers – David Merrick promised showmanship, like you were going to see a big commercial hit, but they were as big a star as the stars they were presenting. Their names were everywhere. Everything had “Robert Whitehead presents…,” “So-and-so presents…” That’s changed. Also we’ve had production cost cuts so high that the not for profit theaters like Manhattan Theater Club and Playwrights Horizon, those are institutions you’re working for and I spent a good 10-15 years at Manhattan Theater Club so I had a big disconnect from the commercial theater during those years I worked only at Manhattan Theater Club where I wrote most of my own plays, like Frankie and Johnny, The Lisbon Traviata, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Perfect Ganesh, quite a few of them. So now that I’m sort of back on Broadway, in a way, what I’ve noticed is it’s much more by committee. I think things move at a more glacial pace. Also what people want from success now has changed so much – a show is a hit if it ran a year. Now there theaters are being held hostage by shows that are in their 10th, 15th, approaching their 20th year, so the number of Broadway theaters has decreased almost by half, now that they’ve been torn down. Those theaters are, for the foreseeable future, not available to anyone. If you look back at the historic great shows of Broadway, most of them ran 300-400 performances. My Fair Lady, I think it ran 750. That would be nothing now, so that’s a big change. I don’t remember as many revivals when I was younger but there seem to be many more well known American playwrights, not just Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and William Inge, a lot of people whose names are not as familiar. Occasionally there would be a show on Broadway, but those weren’t like revivals, it was like, “Oh, we’ve got some great British actors to show us how to do Bernard Shaw or Shakespeare,” but the amount of revivals is a very significant change. We also had theater stars who would earn the respect and trust of the audience. They didn’t have to make movies to come and be on Broadway. People like Maureen Stapleton, Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, were really theater stars. Ethel Merman, Mary Martin. That was a little different. The phenomenon of, let’s say, what’s happening with The Elephant Man, that didn’t happen then, a movie star, a wonderful actor, but I don’t remember that happening and now that’s very common, for a Tom Hanks or a Bradley Cooper to come and do a play for a limited season. That’s another big change, the limited season, it used to be, “We’re open for as long as people want to buy tickets,” and now it’s very common, positively sixteen weeks and that’s why you want a star who will turn your selling up before you open. So that’s another change. But still that curtain goes up and there’s that wonderful dialogue between stage and audience and that has not changed and it’s not based on how much money you spend or what you’ve paid. There are more shows with unstarry actors that have had the audience absolutely galvanized, and I’ve seen big, over bloated productions with lots of famous people running around and fabulous sets and costumes and the chemistry between stage and audience didn’t happen which is always, you know, that lightning we keep trying to bottle. I think the theater is harder now, riskier for producers. I think it’s harder for young playwrights to get established. I just think everything is harder. You keep putting more obstacles in everybody’s way but it still doesn’t stop the people who believe in this art form. Some people think, with the invention of film, there was no longer a need for theater – you get the ideal cast, film it, it doesn’t change, you can show it anywhere that you have electricity and a screen. Why bother to make it happen live, eight shows a week? And there’s other people that think there’s nothing more exciting than this one night, this performance of It’s Only a Play or Hamlet will be unlike the performance they gave the night before and the one they’re going to give tomorrow night and you have to be there to see that particular night and I’m one of those people – I think people are stage struck and I think people still come. Kids love going to camp and sitting around the camp fire and the counselor would tell us a really good story. You’re still sitting in a dark room with light on and someone telling us a story and it makes you stop breathing or your heart races faster or you laugh, or it’s boring and your mind wanders. That’s the trick – to keep the audience’s attention and trust and affection and the rewards are enormous, emotionally, and they can be financially too. It’s just hard, but I don’t think theater was ever easy. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with references to how hard it is – the theater next door has bear baiting and they’re selling many more tickets than his theater which is doing drama and tragedy, so I don’t think it’s ever been easy.
Ken: You’ve worked with a lot of different producers over the years. I won’t ask you to name your favorite or your least favorite unless you want to but the characteristics that you think make up a successful producer, what do you look for when someone says, “I want to option your work”? What makes up a great producer today?
Terrence: I’m pausing because I’ve worked with so few individual producers. My first play was produced by Ted Mann, the one that started at the Guthrie Theater, and it was just Ted Mann, and now there are many producers to deal with. I dealt with a very famous, one of the last really theatrical producers, who was very famous at the time, Garth Drabinsky, who got into a lot of trouble with the law, but Garth was very mom and pop – “This is my play. I have an opinion about absolutely everything that goes on – the sets, the costumes, the lighting, that line.” – and I like that. I much prefer a producer who is there and engages in what he’s producing, as opposed to, “I’m just worried what the audience is going to think.” I can tell you the kind of producer I don’t want to work with – I worked on a show at the Globe Theater in San Diego, I won’t say which show, it eventually got to Broadway, and I was in a stall in the men’s room, it was sort of between shows, and there were other people not in stalls but at the urinals and I hear a very familiar voice, being the producer, saying, “So, what did you think of the show?” and this customer said, “I basically liked it. I didn’t like the scene where…” and they guy says, “Very interesting. Thank you.” I waited about five minutes and I went out into the lobby and there’s the producer – “Terrence! I’ve been meaning to talk to you. You know what scene’s never worked for me?” And word for word he quoted what this total stranger had said to him five minutes earlier in the men’s room. That’s the kind of producer I don’t want to work with and that is very typical, I’m sorry to say.
Ken: I’ve been stifling my laughter here for the last couple of minutes so that Terrence could get that out because that is a fantastic story.
Terrence: I also don’t like working with producers who are unable to raise a penny, for all of their intelligence and charm they are unable to do that part of it, which is important. I think in the theater the tradition is, if a playwright has notes, you give them to the director, not the actors. There’s one boss and there can only be one voice, I think, representing the producer. So in this day and age, where there are forty names above the title, and people come up to me and say, “I’m one of your producers and I didn’t like this line,” I say, “Tell the lead producer that. I take notes from him. I can’t take notes from anybody else,” because theater can become chaos so quickly. Everyone is fighting desperately to do what’s right for this play or musical. To have people all over picking at it, I’ve learned the hard way. There are times I’ve wanted to say something to an actor but no, wait and go to the director and say, “Would you please tell them,” or “The reason I think that’s not working,” or whatever. So I think a producer is the ultimate mom and pop job still left in the 21st century, where everything is so corporate. Here’s a chance for an individual to really believe in something and present, in collaboration with other people, his vision, but it can’t be a group – theater is not by committee. I think it is, perhaps, threatening a bit to get that way. I’m not big on audience polls and interviews. During Ragtime the producer, Garth Drabinsky, wanted us to do some market research and we were watching the audience through a one way mirror and it felt like a crime movie, these poor people being eavesdropped on and they didn’t know about the wall. The interviewer said, “What did you think of the title?” Someone said, “I didn’t like the title,” and he said, “Why?” and he said, “Well, I think Charleston would have been better. In fact, the whole show, I just thought there would be a lot more Charleston routines,” and that’s so stupid and you’re paying good money to hear these stupid opinions. The Charleston was developed 25 years after ragtime.
Ken: I love it, I can see it now.
Terrence: Why are you spending your money on this? You know. That’s why I say work with smart people who know that ragtime was before the 1920s.
Ken: Terrance McNally’s next play will take place in a focus group behind a glass partition. I have one more question for you – if you could wake up tomorrow and someone gave you a magic wand and they said, “Terrence, you can wave this wand and change one thing about Broadway today. One thing you can change.” I ask this question of everybody and I get very different responses. You can change one thing but one thing only – what would that one thing be?
Terrence: The price of tickets. No hesitation. It would be less money in my pocket but there would be more bums in seats, as the Brits say. And that’s the goal. We do this to communicate and the more people that see my plays, the more people I’ve had a chance to talk to.
Ken: I think we’d all love those ticket prices to come down and I think every one of us who got into this business for the right reasons would be happy to take some money out of our pockets in order to get more people to experience what we experience every day. I want to thank Terrence for taking time out of his very busy day – in fact, listeners, he literally said, “I’m on deadline for tomorrow morning, I’ll squeeze you in on Sunday night,” when we’re doing this, so I want to thank him for his perspective and just to say on the record, literally on this recording, how thankful all of us are for your dedication to Broadway and the theater – Broadway and the world, frankly, is just a better place because of you and your plays.
Terrence: Thank you, that’s very generous.
Ken: So that’s it for episode four of the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss our next episode which will feature none other than Broadway advertising and marketing guru Drew Hodges, the founder of SpotCo advertising. I’ll be user to find out what he thinks about market research and whether he agrees with Terrence. He’ll talk about the secrets to selling a show so tune in next Monday. Until then I’m Ken Davenport and this is the Producer’s Perspective Podcast.