3 Reasons Why All Universities Should Produce New Musicals.

There are 5,000 colleges and universities out there.  And a whole lot of them have theater degrees.  More now than ever before, actually.

In fact, while speaking to a group of soon-to-be-graduating seniors recently, I was asked if there was a growth sector in our industry, and what type of non-performing skill might be needed in the next ten years.

I answered in a heartbeat.


More people are studying theater. And more people are studying it a lot earlier than before.  High school kids, elementary school kids, and even earlier.  Broadway is booming, and more kids want to get into the game.  And smart parents are starting them earlier on that path (like parents of great athletes started to do about two decades ago).

I was thinking about all those theater schools out there and how we could build a better bridge between them and Broadway that might be good for both parties.  And I came up with three reasons why all college and university theater programs should be producing new musicals, instead of the usual fare (we did On the Town during my stint at Tisch).

And they are . . .

1.  You learn to work on your feet . . . fast.

Every time I’ve worked on a brand new musical, the rookie actors are never totally prepared for the last minute changes that come in previews, the idea of rehearsing one version of the show during the day, and performing a different one in the evening, etc.  It’s a whirlwind that they just weren’t prepped for, because they’ve never done it before.  And this is the most crucial time for the development of a new musical.  Giving college-aged actors training on the process of creating something new would give them a major head start when the stakes are much higher (I won’t tell you the many stories I know of actors that were let go during the early weeks of a new show because they couldn’t keep up).

2.  Broadway Producers will be your new best friend.

With the cost of enhancing a new musical at a regional theater getting to be as much as producing a new musical on Broadway was a decade or so ago, and the cost of a reading escalating as well, Broadway Producers are looking for new ways to try out their material.  Colleges have space, actors, designers, shops, etc.  Sure, the talent is still “in training,” but if I had a show in early development, I’d be happy to have a production anywhere, especially if it wasn’t costing me anything.  And obviously, the benefits of a school having a relationship with a working Broadway Producer are obvious (imagine that in a college catalog – “Our students have worked directly with INSERT NAME OF TONY AWARD-WINNING PRODUCER HERE.”)

3.  You never know where one might lead.

One of the primary purposes of universities is research . . . research and development.  New thought, new medicine, new art.  Should the theater departments be doing the same?  After all, you never know what may happen.  Focusing on the next new thing would seem to make so much more sense than focusing on the last old thing.  While sure, I understand doing the classics (including On the Town), the departments should evenly divide their production calendar and production budget to include new musicals (especially if they have a writing dept.).  And maybe, just maybe, one might hit it . . . and they might even be able to get a little piece of the show going forward as an endowment.


Colleges and universities could be an incredible asset to the development of new American musicals (and plays, for that matter), and I have a feeling they’d love to do it.

We’d just have to let them.


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  • Person says:

    Just throwing it out there that Purdue University of all places developed a new show this fall called Betty’s Diner. Ball State developed a show a few years ago called The Circus in Winter (which is still developing). Yes, schools would love to do this. We just need to have more opportunities.

  • I produced a new musical by Douglas Parker and Denver Casado based on Mark Twain’s LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI. It’s a great little piece that my audience and student actors loved. The best part was, Denver came to see our production. He was very positive about the show and my students loved talking with him afterwards.

    The whole experience provided all kinds of fantastic learning opportunities. I would repeat it in a heartbeat, but it’s tough to find small-cast musicals that come with the resources necessary for small programs, like mine, to produce the shows. Anyone who reads this and has good ideas about finding small cast shows that are NOT under the thumb of Samuel French, Dramatist, etc, please share. I’m happy to consider a new work.

    Btw, I’m anxious for DADDY LONGLEGS to be released for amateur production. I’ve got just the students who would love to tackle the roles!

  • Ted K. says:

    When Neil Simon let me adapt his “Fools”, we produced it at a local college in the South Bay Area. All the above is true … well, still waiting for #2 to happen, but it was a great environment for getting the show on its feet and shaping it. And the cast and crew had a great time, too.

  • Kristi R-C says:

    Do you have something you want to work with a university on? Let me know!

  • Wilhemina Paulin says:

    Ken, I truly agree with you. Your innovative approach to producing puts you far ahead of the game and your efforts are appreciated. Thanks for sharing “Daddy Long Legs” with us. Stream on!

  • Melissa Bell says:

    Just like college football develops talent for the major leagues, so can college theater. Doing new work would be a great addition. I agree that doing the same old stuff is tiresome when there is so much new exciting work–and by the students too!

  • Tim Barden says:

    Not only colleges and universities….

    In addition to the benefits mentioned above, the thing that appealed to us (as a small performing arts academy in Vermont) was being able to have our kids participate in the creative process with professionals. Invaluable. Another goal is to expose students to the range of financial issues involved in creating successful products. We’re doing this for the first time next summer with New York Stage Originals. Learning as we go.

    I think there’s probably a business in matching development projects to educational organizations interested in being part of the creative process. If you’re not buying something off the shelf from MTI, Tams, etc, there’s a whole piece of work that needs to be done and, as always, money is part of the equation. The approach we’ve taken is to do the project cooperatively. We’ll provide the space, logistical support, off and onstage talent (most of it), our partner provides the product and creative team. If we break even, we both win.

  • Ryan Garson says:

    There are universities — and specific programs — that do exactly this! As an alumnus and current employee of Northwestern University, I can’t say how important the two new musical programs — The Waa-Mu Show and the American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) — are.

    The Waa-Mu Show is a 85 year old tradition in which over 150 students come together and write a new musical in less than a year. In the past 5 years, it has transitioned from a revue-type format to a full book musical — including adaptations of Twelfth Night, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and tackling historical topics such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the Oregon Trail. Every lyric, word, note is written by an undergraduate student in one of three classes with both faculty and professional mentors.

    The American Music Theatre Project has been developing new musicals with professional writers, directors, producers working directly with student actors, stage managers and musicians for over 10 years. Some of the writers that have come through include Andrew Lippa, Craig Carnelia, Eli Bolin, Pasek and Paul, Larry Grossman, and most recently, Boublil and Schönberg. Not only is it giving the students an incredible opportunity to work with major players in theatre, it’s advancing the shows. And the students here can talk about character arcs, plot development, a score, because they are the same students writing a new musical each year. It’s really one of a kind.

    I would LOVE to see a blog post highlighting these programs — and other at places like Pace and Sheridan College. I think they are some of the best training programs for actors, musicians, directors, music directors, writers and of course, producers.

  • Kiri-Lyn Muir says:

    I think that producing new work at post secondary theatre schools is a marriage made in theatre heaven. As you point out, the costs of development are high, and what a benefit for producers, and especially writers, to be given the opportunity to hear/see their work for little to no cost. The students also benefit because a love for new material is cultivated within them. Sheridan College in Canada, with leadership by Dean Michael Rubinoff (a producer himself) is doing just this – using the post secondary program as a way to develop new Canadian work. It’s a brilliant idea. P.S. Nice to see a ‘shout out’ from Ryan above, who is aware of Sheridan’s involvement with new work!

  • June Rachelson-Ospa says:

    It’s a wonderful way to develop new Musicals

  • Herb says:

    I wrote and produced a musical in my 2nd year at the University of Western Ontario — now called simply Western — in London, Ontario. Fantastic experience. For everyone involved. I had music students from the music college at Western compose the music, and they played it for the show. We ran for a couple of weeks (?) in the Grand Theatre downtown and were consistently sold out. Absolutely priceless.
    –Be ever well,


  • We’ve written a new musical, and one of our first marketing tactics was to approach local colleges and junior colleges that: 1. had a theater program, 2. had a music program and 3. put on a “spring” or “fall” musical. We had a few bites, but ultimately nothing has become of it mainly for the reason that these musicals are fundraisers for the school and they felt they needed tried-and-true shows to bring in an audience. I couldn’t disagree more.

    So glad Ken wrote about this. I feel like forwarding it with every new submission I send out!

  • Universities in Canada have theater clubs and acting courses. Some of them are studying to become producers and directors, others are pursuing their online degrees to be screenwriters, art directors, costume designers, etc. Western Academy Broadcasting College Saskatoon and Collège International des Marcellines are the most prestigious among American students.

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