10 Questions for a Broadway Pro. Volume 7: Arbender Robinson, Dance Captain/Swing


Hair
played its last performance on June 27th.  And while I’m sure everyone in the cast/crew was very disappointed to see this love-and-flowers-filled production close, I’d bet that it took the show closing to finally allow Arbender Robinson, the Dance Captain and Swing, to catch his breath!

Dance Captains/Swings are some of the hardest working people on Broadway.  They have to memorize a bunch of different tracks and be ready to go on for any of them at a moment’s notice (sometimes during the show).  They are constantly in rehearsal, and they have to keep the show in shape by giving notes to their fellow cast members/friends (which ain’t easy).  

It’s no wonder that so many Dance Captains and Swings go on to choreograph, since they have to possess great creative skills and great leadership skills simultaneously.

But enough from me about what these gutsy guys and dolls do for a living, because God knows I’ve never done a pirouette on Broadway (ok, there was that one time at 3 AM on Broadway and 51st St., but that was after an opening night party, and . . . well, never mind).

Here’s Arbender!

1. What is your title?

Dance Captain/Swing

2. What show/shows are you currently working on?

Hair.  Love Out Loud!!! (I love that phrase)

3. In one sentence, describe your job.

That’s impossible!
Actually I maintain all of the blocking and choreography for the show,
assist in training all understudies, swings and replacements, and I am also
responsible for knowing what every ensemble role does in the show, and I must be
able to go on for any of those tracks (male or female).

4. What skills are necessary for a person in your position?

Attention to detail is most important. In my show I am
looking at over 20 people onstage at a time and if things are wrong, or unsafe, or not what the choreographer intended, then I need to see it, note it, and
devise a quick plan to fix it for the next show.

Self motivation is great, too.  Not only do I need to know the show, but I
need to be sure that I am ready to perform any of these roles at any time…this requires a ton of homework to remember different vocal parts, blocking,
choreography, and acting intentions for each character.  This includes everything they do
offstage, too: costume changes, prop shifts, entrances and exits etc.

Time management as well.
Sometimes you may have a list of things to tweak or adjust and you have
limited time to get the notes out and fixed before the show.

5. What kind of training did you go through to get to your position?

Well I do have a degree in Theatre and Music.  I do think it’s more of my people skills that
helped me land this job.  Everyone learns and takes notes differently.  You need
people skills to be able to communicate effectively with each individual.

6. What was your first job in theater?

A Play called Magic In the Toyshop.  I was in 3rd grade and I played a robot name
Marv-L.  I even remember the lines.

7. Why do you think theater is important?

Theatre has been around forever.  It’s a constant link between the past, present
and future.  It is a medium that can
teach [and] allow self expression and creativity.
It, like music, can touch anyone [regardless of] race, age,
religion, or sex.  For me, I truly think
theatre and the arts saved my life.
Honestly, but that’s a much longer conversation.

8. What is your profession’s greatest challenge today?

There is a lull in amazing creativity.  I’m not being mean by this but it seems that
commercial success is more important
than creating new creative and innovative pieces of art.  I’m not a writer or a designer, but where are
the new creators?  What innovation in the
arts will a history book say about today?

9. If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?

I wish everyone could recall that the work is what
counts.  If it’s a show at school, or
community theatre, Broadway or Regional; it is all about the work, the passion,
the precision.  We always have our eyes
set on the dream of Broadway but the dream should be to create great work.  It does not matter where.  We would have no Steppenwolf, no Groundlings,
no 2nd City if someone did not realize…I JUST WANNA DO THE WORK and CREATE
ART!

10. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do what you do?

This is simple…. JUST DO IT!!!   You will get a ton of “no’s” and
discouragement, you will kick yourself all the time…  Just dont give up.  Once you doubt it…. then it’s over.  You have to be your biggest motivator and JUST DO IT!   Accept nothing less…

Advice from an Expert: Vol. XVII. My Mother The Theatergoer.

There’s always a lot of talk about the Tonys in the weeks that follow the big show.  What numbers were successful?  Could we give the plays more attention and still hold the audience’s attention?  And who fit Katie Holmes into her dress?

But the most important question for the Producers out there is . . . after watching the Tonys, what shows does the public want to see?

All of us in the industry debate this question like crazy.  But what do we know?  Most of us don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a family of four from the suburbs interested in seeing a show on their next long weekend.  In fact, I would wager that the people making the product in our industry and the people seeing the product are more different than in most industries out there.

But that doesn’t stop us from guessing.

I was in the middle of a heated discussion about my own guesses on what the public wanted to see last week, when I realized it was time to go to the source.  I decided to go to what most advertising agencies would describe as the model of a “traditional” theatergoer:  a suburban female in her 50s-60s who sees 3-5 shows per year, mostly musicals, and pays full price.

And that theatergoer is my momma.  And she’s literally been in my backyard this whole time!

I called Mom, who, of course, had tuned in to the Tonys, and asked her if she would write a mini-blog for me about her perspective on this year’s show.  Most specifically, I asked . . . “Mom, after watching the Tonys, what shows do you want to see the next time you are in town?”

Here’s what Mom had to say . . . [my comments are in brackets] “I watched the Tony Awards a few nights ago.  I love the excitement, costumes, music – even the speeches.  I often get ideas about what I’d like to see on our next NYC trip.  Before I tell you what shows captured my attention from the way they were presented at The Tonys, I thought you might find it interesting to get a few additional details about my perspective (and some of these Kenneth doesn’t even know).  [Yes, she, and about three other people on the planet, call me Kenneth.]

  • My first theater experience was 50 years ago when I saw Annie Get Your Gun.  When the stage curtain opened, revealing a real live horse . . . I was hooked!  [When people see things on stage that they don’t expect to see: kids, animals, helicopters, it elevates the experience.]
  • As a teenager, I was addicted to buying show albums, and also listening to show songs popularized by famous artists.  I loved those album covers and the summaries of the shows on the back (King and I, Mame, etc.)  [Oh, if only popular artists were covering our tunes today.]
  • I was a teen in the ’60s, which put me in the proper emotional state to grasp the power of music.  It brought people together, challenged their thinking and even caused them to take action (Hair, West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar).  

And now, here are the shows that I wanted to see and the ones that didn’t interest me (there were many other shows that I had no opinion on – I’d have to learn more before putting them in the “to see” or “don’t see” category).  It’s important to remember that this is based solely on what I saw on the Tonys.  I might not see any of these shows, or I might see them all.  A lot of things may change my mind before I get to New York next, including what Kenneth thinks I might like to see or not.  [Good ol’ fashioned Word of Mouth trumps all, and I can’t believe she called me Kenneth twice in this blog.]

SHOWS I REALLY WANT TO SEE!

Memphis:  The music and the dancing were so exciting, this is at the top of my list.  (I have to admit that ‘Listen to the Beat’ sounded like Hairspray‘s ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat.’ but I loved the music and the dancing in that show, too!)  [Music, dancing . . . the keys to an audience-pleaser of a musical.]

Fela!:  I love the costumes, the music and the dancing.  The story (about using music to communicate) also seemed very interesting to me.  [See her comment about growing up in the ’60s.  What our audience lived through helped make them who they are today and influences what they want to see.]

Million Dollar Quartet:  Loved the music and the story idea and Levi Kreis’s performance.

Red:  I really liked the premise about the importance of art and what I saw of both Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne.  [Mom was disappointed to hear she wouldn’t get a chance to see this show because of its limited run.  I told her if she was disappointed, imagine how the Producers must feel.]

NAH, I’LL PASS

American Idiot:  To me, it seemed like a concert, and not a show.  I’ve heard about Green Day because my other son is in the music business, but I’ve never listened to any of their music before.  The music was interesting to me, but I’m not going to play it in my car anytime soon.

A Little Night Music:  I don’t know this show very well, so I can only base my thoughts on what I saw, but I wasn’t inspired.  I love ‘Send In The Clowns,’ but I didn’t learn anything else about the show through the performance.”
So there are Mom’s Tony Award Takeaways.

Now please remember, this is only one Mom’s opinion. And the opinions expressed here by my Mom are solely my Mom’s and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Moms everywhere or even me.

But she’s a Mom with a Mastercard, and she uses it to buy tickets.  So maybe we should listen to all of the Moms out there more than we listen to those of us on the inside of the business.

So . . . what did your Mom think?

[Update:  My mom came into the city this weekend unexpectedly.  Although she wanted to see Memphis, she ended up getting Chicago tickets instead (and special thanks to Michael at the Ambassador BO for helping her out).  Why?  “I thought your step-father would enjoy it more.”]

The Tony Awards beat me to this blog.

The theme of this year’s Tony Awards opening number was the current overwhelming number of songs on Broadway stages from the popular musical canon.

Well, dangit, that’s what I was going to say!

But it’s more than just this year’s crop.  While leaving American Idiot a few weeks ago, I walked through Times Square and looked at all the marquees.  Connections to popular music are all over the Great White Way in one way or another.

Let’s look at all the book musicals (in alpha order) currently playing on Broadway and connect the popular dots:

A Little Night Music

Stephen Sondheim is not considered a “popular” composer, but ALNM features his only major pop hit “Send In The Clowns,” of the over 800 songs he has written.  It won a Grammy for ‘Song of the Year’ in 1976.

American Idiot

Composed by punk-rock super-group, Green Day, the album of the same title also won a Grammy for ‘Best Rock Album.’

Billy Elliot

Composed by rock superstar (and sometimes Rush Limbaugh supporter), Elton John, who has more Grammys than a retirement home.

Chicago

What do I have to say about this composing team?  How about this:  two words repeated.  “New York, New York.”  That popular enough for you?

Come Fly Away

Speaking of NY, NY, Come Fly Away is all pop tunes sung by pop legend, Frankie S.

Everyday Rapture

This bio musical uses pop tunes to tell some of its story.

Fela!

Fela Kuti’s tunes may not have been featured on morning radio in this country, but in his homeland, his pioneering sounds were all the popular rage.

Hair

The astrological tune, “The Age of Aquarius,” held the #1 spot on the charts for 6 weeks and is listed as the 57th Greatest Song of All Time according to Billboard.

In The Heights

I got nothing on this one, except for the obvious influence of pop music of the time on the score.  So far, that’s 8 out of 9 with a direct connection to the pop world.

Jersey Boys

A bio-musical about one of the most popular guy-groups ever, who sold more than 175 million records.

La Cage aux Folles

Not only did “I Am What I Am” rank on the charts, but Herman had a hit with “Hello Dolly” in 1964 when the Louis Armstrong recording knocked The Beatles out of the #1 spot!

Mamma Mia!

The gold-record standard of the jukebox musical still has ’em dancing in the aisles and grossed almost $800 million last week, almost 9 years after its opening.

Mary Poppins

The Sherman Bros have should get an award for having so many awards. Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and more.  Their supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songs have been sung by the masses for years.

Memphis

David Bryan, the composer of Memphis is the keyboard player for a little known band called Bon Jovi.

Million Dollar Quartet

Some of the greatest classic rock tunes, and classic rock characters, are featured in this jukey musical.

Next to Normal

Outside of his musical theater work, Composer Tom Kitt is the founder of The Tom Kitt band, and his work on American Idiot led him to be hired by Green Day to provide arrangements for their latest album, 21st Century Breakdown.

Promises, Promises

Promises Composer Burt Bacharach has written 70 Top 40 hits in his lifetime, including “I Say A Little Prayer For You” and “A House Is Not A Home” which were both integrated into this revival.

Rock of Ages

Mamma Mia but with 80s tunes.

South Pacific

How many covers of songs can a composer/lyricist have?  R&H’s tunes were all over the place in their day, and are still used in pop culture today.

The Addams Family

Like In the Heights, there’s no real strong connection to the pop world here.  That makes 18 out of 20 with direct connections to the pop music world.

The Lion King

Another one by Sir Elton.

The Phantom of The Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber is like a modern day R&H when it comes to his theater songs becoming standards.  Streisand, Manilow, and Mathis are just a few of the folks that have covered and scored hits with “Memory” alone.

West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein was successful in the popular idiom in another way . . . the classic way.  He grabbed a couple of handfuls of Grammys in his day, including one for Lifetime Achievement.  He wrote for the movies, for shows, for choruses, and more.  His stuff was everywhere.

Wicked

What Andrew Lloyd Webber is to the UK is what Stephen Schwartz is to America.  He is our most popular successful composer, with Grammys and Academy Awards and more, oh my.  “Day by Day” was a Top 40 hit, and he has even written songs for Five For Fighting.

There you have it.  24 musicals on Broadway and 22 of them with direct connections to the world of popular music.  Some looser than others, I’ll admit. And some are chicken-egg questions (Did their pop success come from the theater work or vice-versa?).

But my point is not that you need to be a successful pop artist to be a successful Broadway composer.  In many of the cases above, the Broadway success came first.

What I am saying is that the overwhelming lack of degrees of separation between successful Broadway composers and the world of pop music suggest that there may be a characteristic that binds the two.

And that characteristic is melody.

So if you’re a composer looking to get a show up on Broadway, you might want to make sure your songs have some similar characteristics to what’s on the radio.  I can’t tell you how many demos I listen to (or stop listening to) where the composers seem to be after some sort of intelligentsia award, instead of just writing a song that people might enjoy hearing in their car, or while cleaning their room, or while they are finishing a blog at 2:08 AM (Lady Gag
a is on in the background on my Sirius radio).

I’m not saying that theater songs have to be Britney-like trite or super-simplistic (God knows Green Day isn’t trite, and Elton’s stuff is some of the richest musical and lyrical material you’ll ever listen to).

But they’ve all got melody and hooks and songs that people like to sing along to.

And that will put you at the top of charts and the Tony Awards.

We’re having a Tony Party and you’re invited!

Tony night is my favorite holiday of the year.  Yep, that’s right, for me (and I’m sure for you, too) it qualifies as a holiday.

It’s better than New Year’s, better than Thanksgiving . . . and hey, if you’re a nominee, it can be better than Christmas!

Well, what better way to spend the holidays than with friends and family. So, we’re throwing a Tony Party and all of you are invited!

BroadwaySpace.com is sponsoring the bash which will take place at my favorite wing place in the city:  Blondies on the Upper West Side.  They’ve got super wings, and super-sized TVs all over the place, so you’ll be able to get a great view from any angle.

And, this is the coolest part . . . we’ve got two super-awesome hosts who will be giving you their running commentary on the festivities all night long . . . Current Hair stars, Annaleigh Ashford and Kyle Riabko!  (And I hear they are working up some pretty cool surprises, including a song or two, to keep you entertained during commercial breaks).

In addition, here are a few more things we have planned for the Big Night:

  • A Tony Pool with a BIG prize!
  • Raffles and contests for cool prizes including free tickets to shows like A Little Night Music, Million Dollar Quartet, Lend Me a Tenor and more!
  • Surprise special guests
  • Broadway Karaoke after the awards
  • A “Quiet Room” with its own large screen TV for those that want a more private viewing
  • And more!

But the best part of the night is going to be spending it surrounded by other folks who are as passionate about the theater and Broadway as all of you.  If you’ve been to one of my socials, imagine that . . . times 100.

There is a food and beverage charge of $25, if you reserve your wings in advance. You’ll get unlimited wings, moz sticks, chicken tenders, fries and veggies, as well as unlimited sodas.  There will be a cash bar . . . and I hear the bartenders at Blondies are already working up a $5 specialty drink called the Tony-Tini!  At the door, you’ll pay $30, so reserve in advance.

The room can only accommodate a limited number of people so reserve now, and you won’t end up wondering on June 13th, “What am I gonna do tonight?”

It’s gonna be a blast.  I can’t wait.  In fact, if I can’t be at Radio City up for an award, then this is the only other place I want to be.

See you there!

THE BROADWAYSPACE.COM TONY PARTY
with Hair’s Annaleigh Ashford and Kyle Riabko

Blondies
212 West 79th St. (between Broadway & Amsterdam)
Doors and Wings at 7:00 PM
Show starts at 8:00 PM
Sunday, June 13, 2010

(Arrive early to play the Tony Pool and to get a good seat)
Karaoke immediately following the awards until ????

Unlimited Food and Soda
$25 in advance
$30 at the door

Reserve today.  Click here.

10 Questions for a Broadway Pro. Volume 1: A Broadway Mad Man.

Today on The Producer’s Perspective we’re introducing a brand new feature, which is a spin-off on my Advice From An Expert articles.

In “10 Questions for a Broadway Pro,” I ask . . . yep . . . a Broadway Industry Professional 10 Questions!

We’ll talk to all sorts of people involved in the modern theater and get their perspective on their job, their role in the biz and what they’d like to see change.  We’re gonna hear from Casting Directors, Marketing Directors, Press Agents, and more (let me know if there is a position you’d like to hear from).

The inspiration for this feature came from my first gig on a Broadway show.  I was the Production Assistant on the Barry and Fran Weissler revival of My Fair Lady, starring Richard Chamberlain and a 23-year-old Melissa Errico.  My duties included everything from getting Richard his fresh-off-the-bone turkey sandwiches to typing up the rehearsal schedule on a Mac Classic.

And it was one of the greatest times of my life.

The best part about the gig was that I was exposed to a whole bunch of people and positions that I never knew existed before.  The job gave me a chance to see who was pulling the curtain strings of Broadway . . . and made me realize that I was even more excited about being behind-the-scenes rather than in them (I was on the actor-track).

I used to ask everyone involved in the show questions about what they did. Thanks to their answers, I learned so much about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.

So, I thought I’d give you a virtual experience of what I went through back then, and introduce you to not only the biggest players on Broadway whose names aren’t on the marquees, but also help us all understand what exactly they do on a day-to-day basis.

First up is one of Broadway’s own Mad Men, Drew Hodges, the founder and CEO of SpotCo, one of the two Broadway heavyweight ad agencies.  (Drew also happens to be #21 on BroadwaySpace.com’s 50 Most Powerful People.)

Having sat in many an ad meeting with Drew, I can tell you that he’s one of a very rare hybrid that combines incredible business acumen with unbridled creativity.

Without further ado, here are 10 Questions with Drew!

1.    What is your title?

Founder, SpotCo Advertising

2.    What show/shows are you currently working on?

Next Fall, Million Dollar Quartet, La Cage, Memphis, A Behanding in Spokane, Chicago, The Pee Wee Herman Show, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair, A View From the Bridge, Billy Elliot, Fences, Time Stands Still, Red, In The Heights,  The 39 Steps, Avenue Q, West Side Story, Come Fly Away, Lips Together Teeth Apart, Present Laughter, The Miracle Worker, Blue Man Group, Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Love Never Dies.  In no particular order.

3.    In one sentence, describe your job.

We create identities and sell tickets for live theatrical events.

4.    What skills are necessary for a person in your position?

Creativity, marketing, problem solving, humility, humor, and fast thinking.

5.    What kind of training did you go through to get to your position?

I owned my own design studio doing advertising and design for entertainment – film, cable, and the recording industry – for 12 years. Before that, I got a BFA in Graphic Design from the School of Visual Arts.

6.    What was your first job in theater?

I did the poster for The Destiny of Me, the sequel to The Normal Heart for Tom Viola and Roger McFarland.  It’s a portrait of my right hand.

7.    Why do you think theater is important?

It creates joy and outrage, both often when we need it most.

8.    What is your profession’s greatest challenge today?

Conservatism, and too many cooks.

9.    If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?

That every challenge be met with humor and poise, rather than blame.  The team is always better when unified and caring.

10.    What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do what you do?

If you wanted to work in advertising for theater, there are several paths to take.  If you are a graphic designer, video editor, web designer, etc., we just look for a great portfolio that has vibrancy, a sense of humor as a person, and the ability to move fast.  A love of theater is not essential, and often times, I like that people bring a more diverse palette to our Broadway materials.  If you wanted to be an account person, a writer, etc., a passion for theater is a great help.  A sense of marketing, or marketing courses as a background are nice.  We have several people from the BMI workshop, and the producing program at Columbia.  We also have people who have worked at other more traditional ad agencies, and that knowledge can be a huge help, when combined with the joy (or the heartbreak) of theater.

Because Drew is the kind of guy that always goes a little further in everything he does, he also answered a bonus question.  When asked what kind of advice he would give to someone that wanted to be a Producer, he answered as follows:

Surround yourself with the best people, and be willing to understand that every friend you have will tell you your project is perfect.  You need to listen to real people, and if your advance is falling, people don’t like it as much as you think.  The opposite is also true- if your advance is climbing, no matter how slowly, people are genuinely loving your show and you should keep going.

Want to hear more expert advice from Drew but don’t have a show that he can advertise yet?  Listen to some of his American Theatre Wing panels here.

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