What a musical really needs, by Walter Kerr.

Walter Kerr was the Ben Brantley of the ’60s and ’70s.

What’s interesting about Kerr is that prior to his Pulitizer Prize-winning career as a critic for the NY Times, he was a book writer for Broadway musicals, and contributed to six shows on the Great White Way.  (What is also interesting to me is that he was one of Sondheim’s toughest critics and I often wonder if he’d change his tune if he’d been able to see any of the recent revivals.)

Kerr was pretty knowledgeable about what it took for a musical to work, and he said so in a very simple way on January 28, 1968, in his review of the original Off-Broadway production of Your Own Thing:.

Do you remember those little light bulbs that used to pop into place over the heads of comic strip characters whenever one of them got a bright idea?  All a good musical really needs is one such light bulb, for starters.  The wattage doesn’t matter, where it comes from doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is the quick sharp click that lights the place up and lets us see things in sudden color.”

Kerr so poetically puts into words something that I think about all the time.

Yes, the play is the thing.

But without the right idea, the play is nothing.

How many pitches for shows have you heard that you just knew weren’t going to work?  They don’t feel musical.  The stakes don’t feel high enough.  They are too complicated, or not complicated enough.

When deciding what project you are going to spend the next several years of your life on, make sure the concept passes Kerr’s test.

The idea alone has to light up a room, so that the show can light up the stage.

To read the full article, including Kerr’s review of the yet-to-be-revived Your Own Thing, click this link:  Download ‘Kerr Has a Happier Time

Special thanks to my office historian, Jen, for putting this article on my desk.

Who should I surround myself with at the start?

Shows, theater companies, technology companies, etc. are all the same.

They tend to start with one person’s idea.  Maybe that idea is birthed in a dressing room or a dorm room, and then hopefully it grows beyond those walls, and turns into a billion dollar business.

I was talking to an associate recently who was about to birth a new theatrical concept here in the city. It was in its embryonic stage and he was looking for people to hire to help blow up this start-up.

Should he hire the best PR firm?  The best lawyer?  The best designers in the world?

While surrounding yourself with the best of the best is usually a great concept at any point in a company’s life, there is a price tag attached.  And yes, I’m talking about a literal price tag that most emerging companies and artists can’t afford.  But there’s also a price in whether or not the best of the best, who have a zillion other clients (probably bigger than you), have the time to devote to your new idea.  Will they have the passion to work through the night?  How important is it to them?  Will they work harder than you?

Maybe they will, and you’ll get the best of both worlds.

But in my experience, at the genesis of an idea, it’s better to surround yourself with people like you, whether or not they have the fanciest stationery or the longest resume.

Zuckerberg, Gates, etc. started their companies with the people that were in spitting distance of them, who they knew would work harder than anyone to learn what it takes to create a great company.

They chose sweat over style.

And when things started to get real, yo, they brought on the best later, when they could afford it, and when they could demand the attention they deserved.

Harry Potter and The Elusive Sponsor.

Getting a sponsor for a Broadway show seems like the stuff of fantasy. At every early ad meeting for a show that I’ve worked on, someone usually pipes up that we should find a sponsor to pay for some major expense, and trade away their name in our media, tickets, etc.

It’s always a great idea, and everyone around the table usually nods their head, yes.  Because in theory it makes perfect sense. Broadway shows are a highly visible, high-class product, and other big brands would definitely benefit from associating their wares with ours.

So why is it so rare?

Why, to give you a specific example, did not one of the 15 Marketing Directors for big brands fail to even return my call when I reached out to them with a very unique Broadway branding opportunity?

Here are a few of the excuses I’ve heard over the years from potential sponsors:

  • “It’s hard to associate ourselves with a product, before seeing the product.”
    • Brands don’t like to put their money or their name on something until it has already been introduced to the public.  It makes sense. If a show isn’t well received, does that feeling transfer to the brand? Besides, if a show gets out of the gate and is a hit, we usually don’t need the sponsor.
  • “There are not enough eyeballs.”
    • Even the most sold-out musicals can’t put more than 16,000 bodies (or 32,000 eyeballs) in the seats every week.  A lot of the live event sponsors like to sponsor one-time events that have 20,000 people plus in one night (think concerts, sporting events, etc.) PLUS millions on television.  Thems a lot of eyeballs!
  • “You may close tomorrow.  Then what?”
    • Since we can’t guarantee the length of the run, it’s hard for them to quantify the exposure of their brand.  And at the big brand level, it’s all about dollars and guaranteed impressions.
  • “I can’t advertise in the theater.”
    • Current contractual relationships between most theaters and Playbill, or their program provider, prevent the advertising of other commercial products inside the venue.  No signage, no manned or womanned display booths getting our customers to sign up for services, etc.
  • “It’ll take me too long to get this approved.”
    • Big businesses plan their quarters, their years, and sometimes their decades of underwriting in advance.  Often shows approach potential sponsors just a few months before opening, and at that point, discretionary underwriting funding is gone.

So what are we to do?  Is sponsorship an impossibility?

No.  Of course not.  We’ve got to come up with answers to these “my dog ate my homework” excuses, because there are work-arounds for everything . . . if we’re all willing to do the work.

– Want to know what the product is before you sponsor it?  Try a revival.  Or do you want to come to a reading?

– Not enough eyeballs?  The average Broadway musical probably spends $5 mill a year in paid media.  Get on some of that.  Or try a tour.  And we’ll start working on new media options for you.

– We may close tomorrow?  Put up less money if the risk is greater, but don’t stay on the sidelines.  Or find a show specialist that can tell you what shows have a potential of going down quick and which don’t (we all know, don’t we?).

– You can’t advertise in the theater?  The shows have more ways to reach our customers than ever before, so we can get to them (or start lobbying the theater owners).

– Too long to get approved?  We’ll start coming to you earlier.  We promise.

Everyone wonders why CBS continues to broadcast the Tony Awards every year despite disappointing ratings.  From what I hear, it’s because of the type of viewer that tunes in.  Tony Award watchers and theatergoers are highly educated and usually high-income individuals (Now it makes sense why Lexus, Cadillac, etc. advertise during the telecast, doesn’t it?).  And while there may not be a lot of them watching, they can afford big-ticket items.

Our audiences have significant value to corporations of all shapes and sizes.  We just have to do better at communicating our value, and finding more value for them.

Like Harry P himself, we’ve got to find a way to put them under our spell.

I’m going to cut this post short now, because I’ve got 15 corporations to follow-up with.

How to find a great writer for your great idea.

If you’re reading my blog, then I’ll bet a union health payment that you don’t have one single idea for a show.

I’d bet that you’ve got a “shit ton” of ideas for shows.

(Sorry for the language, but I heard a guy use that expression at a Shell Station in Austin, and I just can’t stop saying it).

So what do you do with your ST of ideas?

If you don’t consider yourself a writer, then you gotta find one, because leaving all those great ideas idle on a shelf is a sin.

But how do you find a writer for your play or musical (or television show or novel or whatever)?

Here are three fishing holes I visit when I’ve got an idea that I want executed:

1.  Agents

Almost all established writers are repped by one of just a few agencies.  And a lot of the younger, more promising writers get sucked up by the same agents very early in their career, regardless of whether they’ve had any success. Reach out to the literary agents in town, forge a relationship, and ask who they would recommend for a job.  If you do reach out to an agency, don’t be surprised if you can’t get a top agent on the phone.  Work the assistant.  Find out if they have writers that are looking for ideas, commissions, etc.  Take the assistant to lunch.  Come on, you can do it.  You’re a producer.  Act like one.

2.  Festivals

Festivals are like Whole Foods for Writers.  They’ve got everything.  Whether there are 10 plays, 100 plays, or 1000 plays in a festival, you can bet there are writers of all shapes, styles and interests.  Sample as many shows as you can, looking for someone who has the talent and the sensibility that you are looking for.  And hey, if they’re working in a festival, I’d go double or nothing on that health payment that they are passionate and a hard worker.  And that’s the kind of writer you want and need.

3.  Friends

Put yourself in a circle of artists that have similar sensibilities, and ask them for recommendations.  Not only will you get recommendations of talented individuals, but your friends and associates will be able to give you some insight into whether or not the two of you will get along.  You’re going to be birthing a baby together . . . and if it was your idea, then that writer is acting like a surrogate . . . so you want to make sure you understand each other and can go through this difficult (and at times painful) process together.

Great writers are hard to find.  And great writers that are also passionate about the same subjects you are passionate about are even harder to find.

But they are out there.

Sometimes it just takes a ‘shit ton’ of work to find the ‘write’ one.

What do you do when you find that perfect writer?  Do you commission?  Do you collaborate?

More on that tomorrow.

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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