The ‘In The Heights’ Prequel

I saw my favorite flop this weekend.

I braved a borough and traveled to Brooklyn to see the BAM concert of Capeman, which featured Mr. Simon himself.

It was a wonderful celebration of a musical that didn’t work on Broadway, and still has its flaws.  But those flaws are found in some of the most beautiful and unique music we’ve heard on Broadway in the last decade (Encores, if you’re reading this, put down that script of Flora The Red Menace and call Paul).

As I listened to tunes like “Satin Summer Nights”, I forgave so many of the problems with the piece (most notably that the lyrics tend to be more narrative and do not further the characters arcs).

What made me forgive?  Three words.  Mel.  O.  Dy.

In the commercial musical theater medium, melody is so very important.  Common sense, right?  Then why do so many of the young and upcoming composers avoid it like an STD.  This not only goes for those fresh out of school, but also to those composers who have been anointed by the New York Times as being the future of musical theater (Has anyone realized that Michael John LaChiusa has never had a hit?  Doesn’t it seem odd for him to be teaching Graduate Musical Theatre Writing at NYU?)

In their search to be the next Sondheim, so many seem to forget what artists like Paul Simon, Elton John, Billy Joel,  Andrew Lloyd Webber, Marvin Hamlisch, John Kander and Richard Rodgers knew so very well.
A strong melody is like a drug to an audience.  It opens their mind.

And then, once they have smoked a little of what you’ve offered, you can say whatever you want to them.

And they’ll believe you.

Got a craving for Stew?

I saw Passing Strange on Wednesday night.

If you like Stew, and you want to see him in concert, then you will love this show.

You should also see this show if you think only commercial stuff that appeals to the masses gets produced on Broadway.

Because it’s not true.

Non-commercial stuff gets produced all the time (and thank God we have “Patron of the Arts” Producers like the ones above the title on Passing Strange that are in a position to push our manila envelope).

The non-commercial stuff usually just doesn’t run or recoup.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as you and your investors know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Establish expectations early.  Then if you exceed them and actually return money, it’ll be like finding a $20 bill in you pocket after doing the laundry.

There are zillions of reasons to produce shows that are exceptionally high risk and “non-commercial”:  commitment to the arts, possible Tony Awards, and so on.

My favorite reason for doing something that may not be the next Mamma-Mia is to develop and foster relationships with creatives, something I urge all young Producers to do.

Produce the plays of the passionate people around you.  Your peers are the playwrights of tomorrow, even if their plays of today may not be taking home Pulitzers.  But what about the one they haven’t even thought of yet?

And here’s a wonderful fact about human nature:  reciprocity works.  Do something for someone today, and they’ll be inclined to do something for you tomorrow, especially if you took a risk when no one else would . . . and lost.

My favorite example of this concept is the birth of one of the youngest producing houses on Broadway in the last few decades:  The Araca Group.

One of Araca’s first plays was called Skyscraper.  Cost them $30k and they lost it.

However, It was also the first play by David Auburn.

When David Auburn was at the Fringe Festival being wowed by a small musical, guess who he called first, before the show was even over!

“David called me at intermission and said, ‘You must come and see this show,'” Michael Rego recalled.  So they did.  Within months, they had secured the rights to Urinetown . . .
– New York Times

Careers begin, like life, with relationships.  It’s no coincidence that the Altar Boyz creative team consists of a guy I shared a room with in summer stock, a guy I shared a show with at the former Ford Center, and two guys I shared a tour with in 2000.

I got lucky. My first one paid off.  The people behind Passing Strange most likely won’t be so lucky.

But that’s ok.  They know the why they’re doing it.  And since one of the lead Producers is the owner of the theater, they have a little more control over one of Broadway’s biggest weekly expenses: rent.

Read the full story about the birth of Araca here.

Click below to see my favorite example of producing a show for a relationship in the last decade here.

But before you do . . . guess what the show was.

Click here as you think.

Click here for the results

BREAKING NEWS:  I wrote this blog last night, before Isherwood’s rave in the Times this morning.  It will be interesting to see if this review has an effect on the show’s financial and commercial viability.  Anyone want to take any bets?

 

This just in . . . theater tickets are cheap. :-)

I wanted to remind everyone that starting this Monday, February 25th and through Sunday, March 9th, The Off-Broadway Brainstormers are sponsoring the 3rd “20at20” campaign.

During 20at20, you can see over 20 of the best Off-Broadway shows (including my three) for only $20.

The only catch is that the tickets are only available 20 minutes before curtain.

I bet some of you might be surprised to hear that I’m the chairman of this committee after my “theater tickets are expensive” post.

20at20 is a perfect example of the type of program that demonstrates that there are lower entry points for seeing theater that make it accessible to all, despite our “rep” for high prices.

But frankly, Off-Broadway shows can’t survive on $20 tickets.  So why else would we do it?

The challenge and ultimate success of programs like this is not selling the $20 tickets.  That should be easy.

The challenge and goal is to take the thousands of $20 ticket buyers over the next two weeks, and convert them to higher price ticket buyers throughout the rest of the year that will increase the overall growth of our industry.

20at20 is the Off-Broadway version of a pharmaceutical company giving a doctor samples of a new cholesterol drug, or a soft-drink company giving away beverages on the street, or Gillette sending me a Mach 3 razor (with only 1 blade) for free.

It’s what Captain Andy does in Show Boat.  He gives away just a “sample” of his show on the street and that watches the audience file in.  Not too much and not too little.

How do you sample?

Oh, and take these 2 weeks to see an Off-Broadway show, even if it’s not one of mine.  Visit www.20at20.com to get the full list of shows and additional information on the program.

And while you’re there, sign up to get email updates on the program and other offers . . . and to see just how we try to convert you to a higher price ticket throughout the year.  😉

P.S.  I’ve been shaving with a Gillette razor ever since that box with the Mach 3 arrived at my door 7 years ago.

A Risky Business Tom Cruise would be proud of.

You’ve heard me talk about the importance of a title.

You’ve heard me talk about how today’s audience enjoys shorter entertainment.

And then along comes a play that is almost 3.5 hours long, has no stars, has a title no one can understand or pronounce . . . and will probably be the most profitable non-star driven play of the last several years and win the Pulitzer.

Look at it on paper, and producing August looks like a very risky venture.  Props to Producer Jeffrey Richards for taking the chance.  Inside sources tell me that he agreed to do it after a read and a recommendation.  He probably could have waited to see the regional production, but instead, he just jumped on board.

He read it.  He liked it.  And he also knew it had inherent marketing problems.

But, to quote one of my favorite 80s movies, Risky Business . . .

“Sometimes you just gotta say . . . “What the f***.”  “What the f***” gives you
freedom.  Freedom brings opportunity.  Opportunity makes your future.”

Does the success of August mean that my previous blogs were wrong?  No.  Would August be easier to sell under a different title?  Yes.  Would it be easier to sell if it was shorter?  Yes.

Maybe it would have made even more money.

But does recouping 200% compared to 175% really matter when you have to make that much of a compromise?

This is the challenge of the commercial producer:  what’s the right mixture of art and commerce?  Obviously Jeffrey believed without a doubt that his product was so good that it didn’t need the perfect canned marketing strategy.  He believed it could survive a bad title and a length that makes Les Miz look like a Family Guy episode.

He was right.  Remarkable product always proves the smartest marketers wrong.  That’s why it’s the first P.

If he didn’t believe that it was a home run, maybe he would have begged for a different title or a shorter length to prevent those overtime bills.  After all, there is a big difference between
75% recouped and 100% recouped, right?

But nope, he believed in the product and in the marketplace for that product.

So here’s the question:

If August: Osage County landed on your desk instead of Mr. Richards’, would you have produced it?

Don’t Quit!

Don’t worry, this isn’t an inspirational post about making sure you get to the finish line of whatever you’re working on (In fact, sometimes it’s important NOT to get to the Finish line).

This is a post to get you to go see Don’t Quit Your Night Job, an improv/sketch comedy/musical/cavalcade of stars that takes place once a month.  It’s face-hurtin’ funny, stars some great talent, and the proceeds go to charity.

Yes, go to laugh your a$$ off and see some Broadway stars making fun of themselves, but also go for this reason:

Last year, a commercial run of Don’t Quit tried to make it Off-Broadway.  It didn’t work.  I think it could have.  Do you?  How could you have made it work?

Oh and big props to the creators for not letting the failure of a commercial run stop them from doing what they love to do and what they do so well.  It would have been easy to “quit” after that, and most people would have.  They deserve some credit for keeping on, keeping on.

Oh crap, here I go, turning this into an inspirational post again.  Dang it!

Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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