Why I was wrong.


Ok, I was wrong about the strike.  I admit it.  Now the fun part is trying to understand why.

I didn’t think there would be a Broadway stagehands strike because of the history of the two organizations at the crux of this confrontation.

What I failed to take into account is how the makeup of those organizations, especially The Broadway League, has changed over the past several years.

We forget that the theater industry is a young one.  The modern theater is less than one hundred years old.  The golden age of musicals ended less than 50 years ago, and some of the individuals that played such a crucial role in the birth of the business are still active players in the industry.  But to quote a turkey from last year, the times are a changin’ . . . and I’m seeing a whole generation of these incredible leaders start to play less and less of a role in the day to day operations of the theater, as a new group of producers comes into their own.  It’s the theater industry’s version of the “baby boomer” phenomenon.


The last three major negotiations have been more contentious than their previous years.  Local 1 (strike), Local 802 (strike), AEA (no strike, but it resulted in a major restructuring of the touring market).  This is not a coincidence.  This is a result of these baby boomers getting in there and shaking things up.  Which is exactly what’s needed.

And what else is different about these three negotiations? They are all post 9/11. 

We live in a new theatrical economy now.  The way we live changed significantly that day, and therefore the way we do business has to change with it.  Whether we like it or not.

I love turkey!

 

Q: What’s better than celebrating Thanksgiving with a big, juicy, turkey? 

 

A:  Celebrating with three of them! Here are my favorites: The Capeman: Proof that just because one of the world’s best songwriters and a Nobel Prize winner for literature get together, doesn’t mean they’ll make a great musical.  (It did have some great tunes, and despite the fact that the CD was recorded (and features Marc Anthony), Paul Simon has refused to release it.  (I have an advance copy, but don’t tell anyone.))

The Goodbye Girl:  Proof that just because you have one of America’s most prolific comedic playwrights,the composer of one of the greatest musicals of all time, a Tony Award winning lyricist, a movie star and a theater star, doesn’t mean you’ll have a show that achieves even close to the same success as the movie on which it is based.

Lestat: Proof that just because you have a movie company with almost an unlimited budget as a producer,
one of the world’s greatest popular music artists as a composerand source material enjoyed by millions and millions of people, doesn’t mean that your musical won’t suck (pun intended).  Oh yeah, and by the
way, vampire musicals just don’t work on stage.  Duh.

So what’s to learn from having eaten all this turkey, laced with so much tryptophan, it put so many of us to sleep?

Two things:

1 – Musicals are a collaborative art form.  Creating a musical is not writing a novel, where you sit in a room by yourself at your keyboard and crank it out page by page.  Creating a musical is not painting a picture, where you sit in front of a canvas and use your own set of brushes and colors to complete your vision.  Creating a great musical can’t be done with just one person.  It needs a composer, a lyricist, a book writer, a producer, actors, designers, an orchestrator, musicians, and so on and so on.  And every single one of those people needs to be delivering 110%.  That’s one of the reasons the failure rate for musicals is so high.  Put something that requires perfection for not one party but several into an incredibly restrictive financial model, and all of a sudden that 80% failure rate makes sense.

2 – Applying converse logic to the above list says that if extremely well recognized, experienced and lauded artists can produce flops, then unrecognized and inexperienced artists can produce great shows.  So don’t think that just because you haven’t won an award or sold a million records that you can’t create a great show.   

Because if they can suck, then you can succeed. 

 

It’s hard for me to enjoy theater.

The problem is that when you work in an industry and then you’re asked to sit back and give yourself over to a product from that same industry, it’s hard to stop your mind from spinning and wondering, “how much did that cost” or “why did they cast that actress” or “what did they do in terms of marketing to actually get me to buy a ticket?”  Or, sometimes, like when watching Dance of the Vampires, you just wonder . . .  “Why?”

It’s not just theater.  It’s every business.  I mean, if you run a cheese factory, and all that you think about all day and all night are the differences between provolone and Swiss, it’s not going to be easy to keep your curds in check if a friend offers you a grilled brie sandwich. (Ok, I’ll admit, that sentence was the cheesiest thing I’ve ever written.  🙂  Ok.  I’ll stop now.)

So that’s why it’s hard for me to enjoy theater. And that’s also how I know when I’m witnessing something truly spectacular, because if a show can get me to STOP asking questions, then it’s something truly remarkable.  And that’s how I felt last week when I saw KA.

Cirque has done this to me once before, when I saw O. They do things on stage and with stages that most people could never even dream

I’ll admit that whenever I see one of their shows, I’m a little envious of the amazing things they do on stage.  And then I remember . . .about.  I’m convinced that the production budget for their shows includes a line item for hallucinogens.  You just wouldn’t believe the stuff they do if I told you, so you just have to see it.  And, in true “remarkable” style, there is only one place to see it . . . Las Vegas.  It’s an amazing example of a Purple
Cow.

Theater in Las Vegas isn’t the primary revenue stream.  It doesn’t have to make artistic sense OR financial sense, because it’s there just to draw other people to gamble everything they’ve earned at their cheese factory. That doesn’t work for Broadway.  We’re not feeding another revenue stream (unless maybe you are Disney).  We are the revenue stream.

So no hallucinogens for you when you are planning your next show.  But definitely go see what they’ve been smoking in Vegas. Oh yeah, and at KA, they let me have popcorn and coke at my seat.

 

Different is nice, but it sure isn’t pretty . . .

Musical Theater and Straight Plays are different. I’m not just talking about the fact that one has chorus girls and sequins and higher price tickets. There is an inherent difference in the expectations of the audiences that creators of musicals need to recognize.

Need an example? At the end of Romeo & Juliet, what happens?  They both die.  Tragedy.
Sadness.  Love itself dies with them.

Now, let’s look at the musical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story, arguably the greatest musical ever written because of its seamless integration of music, book and dance.

What happens at the end of West Side Story?  Only ONE of them dies.  Ah ha!  Already
you’re starting to see the difference. But wait for it . . . wait for it . . . West Side isn’t over yet.

After Maria’s feisty “How many bullets are left” speech, the Jets start to carry off Tony’s dead body.  But, like Jesus carrying the cross, they falter.  Who comes running to their aid?  A Shark!  That’s right; the two warring gangs come together right before your eyes.  And a ray of sunshine is cast on what was a very dark tragedy.  Suddenly, there is hope that the future will be better.

Doesn’t sound like R&J, does it?

Musical theater audiences don’t mind tragedy.  In fact, they love a little drama.  But you can’t leave them with a tragic aftertaste.  No matter how dark your tale, it’s important to leave them with the idea that things could get better.  That the sun will come out . . . you know when.

Want another great example of this?  Look at the ending of the original London production of Miss Saigon.  Then look at what they did when they came to Broadway. It’s a subtle change that demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about.

Email me if you figure it out.

 

Ouch! I’ve been branded!

I just
returned from speaking at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association conference in 
Las Vegas.  My panel was on branding.  There I was, seated next to some giant Brands like Southwest Airlines and Doubletree Hotels (I have to say I did love hearing my shows and Southwest Airlines mentioned in the same sentence.  I made a joke that our advertising budget on My First Time is probably about the same amount as one business class airline ticket). 

The speaker from Doubletree told the story about the infamous PowerPoint presentation prepared by two very unhappy Doubletree customers that appeared on the internet in 2001.  I call it the “Complaint Heard ‘Round the World” and for me it represents the beginning of the new era of customer/user reviews and the use of the internet as a word of mouth weapon for your consumers.The Doubletree representative said that this complaint was meant to “inflict pain” on Doubletree.

And that’s when I realized something about branding. In the media world, I think we’ve forgotten where the term “branding” comes from.  It comes from cattle.  When ranchers don’t want to lose their cattle, they take a red hot iron and burn their “tag” into their skin.

In the cave man days of advertising, this is exactly what the big companies did.  They spent millions on major advertising buys (TV, print, etc.) and since there was no competition, these big buys were the equivalent of a red hot iron used on the consumer.  The consumer had no choice, especially when faced with an iron the size of Proctor and Gamble’s, etc. And without even knowing it, all of a sudden they had a P&G brand on their butt. But times have changed. There are more choices now.  And customers have their own branding irons:  blogs, user reviews, creative PowerPoint presentations, etc.  And they’re a bit PO’ed.  Wouldn’t you be?

So what do you do as someone with customers who are ready to brand back?

Be prepared to take it. 

The best companies recognize that power is shifting.  They recognize that in this consumer driven market, their ass is sticking up in the air waiting for a customer to burn their “tag” into them. And online, those tags are permanent.  They never go away.

And when you’re that exposed, the only way to really CYA (cover your ass) is by being responsible to your customers. The great thing is, not only will you win with your customers and make them even more loyal, but they’ll probably go out and burn the butt of one of your competitors.

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