"Where are we going?"
Bring your tall latte (yes, in a cardboard cup, if you must) and come stand with me in Shubert Alley.
What? Yes, that's who you think it is, dressed in fake fur and five minutes late for rehearsal at the Plymouth. Don't ask her for an autograph now. Time for that later. Now we are here to watch the tourists.
Yes, tourists. You'll see what I mean in a minute. Give them time to waste a roll of film on Duffy Square and realize the Tkts booth isn't open yet.
Of course it's cold. It's February.
Here they come now.
No, I don't know why they travel in packs. Yes, they are dressed funny. (Perhaps plaid is the epitome of sophistication in Omaha. But is it really any more bizarre than head to toe black?)
Watch for the ones who break away from the group. That one. And there's another.
These two have just realized where they are.
They hold back as the rest of their group crowds into One Shubert Alley, eager to buy tchotchkes. (No, I intend to die without ever owning a Phantom refrigerator magnet.) Keep your eye on these two young people standing quietly in the alley, taking in the atmosphere, as if they were in church.
The girl is staring at Sardi's. She knows about the orange walls and the portraits. She has seen the movies and read the books, and has talked her parents into taking her there for lunch today. That lunch will be a disappointment, for she dreams of catching sight of powerful and famous people (she wants to be one of them) but is unaware of the upstairs dining room. Do you think she will ever learn what happens on the upper floors of that building?
The boy is mesmerized by the show posters on the east wall of the Shubert's flagship theater. Like someone slowly wandering through a gallery at the Met, absorbing the beauty of great paintings, he stands before each in turn. The saturated colors must hurt his eyes in this bright morning sunlight. He dreams of his name on one of these posters, above the title of a Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber musical. Sadly, no matter how talented or dedicated or lucky he proves to be, contract negotiations, billing practices, and even Equity rules will conspire to see this small detail of his dream will never come true.
Why have I brought you here today? To see the future of Broadway.
This young girl has the talent and vision to outshine Julie Taymor and Hal Prince. This boy, after his face clears up and he learns how to walk across a stage without bumping into the set, will make his name by playing Cuccioli's role in the revival of Jekyll & Hyde.
You're smiling? It's impossible? My friend, we are on Broadway. Impossible things are happening every day.
What this boy and girl share with all the other young hopefuls is more than a dream. It is a painful mental and physical longing which draws them from all parts of the country to New York. It is the knowledge, terrifying in its certainty at such an early age, that to fill the void and become whole, they must pursue a career in the Theater. Some, the lucky ones, will make it.
Would you please stop giggling? Yes, I am aware that speech is hackneyed, having been used in some version in every movie and play about Broadway for the last 60 years.
But it touched something, a memory, deep inside you, didn't it? Trite as it is, that speech still holds a kernel of truth.
Unfortunately, the overly romantic implied concept of what it takes to make it on Broadway is all that most people have to work with. Is it any wonder that most aspiring actors, writers, composers, lyricists, and producers don't stand a chance? At least not until someone knocks all those stupid myths out of their silly little heads and explains how things really work.
Which is precisely what this column purposes to do.
Remember that talent, to some surprisingly small degree, is necessary. But until you can present yourself and be accepted as a professional (an insider) by other working theater professionals, you will remain only a tourist on Broadway.
It's a business. Not Show Business, a business. (You may only refer to your chosen career as "The Theater" in your first Tony acceptance speech, and then only if you do naive sincerity really well.)
Being a business, nothing about it works the way you think it does. (Repeat this sentence to yourself three times every morning. It is the single significant thing you must remember.)
Apprenticeships or internships (during which you learn the ins and outs of your profession and met the people you need to know) are rare these days. Few working professionals have the time to take a newbe under wing and show them the ropes. Few shows are cast with unknowns just off the bus from Arkansas. So how do you learn what you need to know to be taken seriously?
You read. (Stop whimpering.) You read and hopefully you learn.
Each of these columns will discuss some aspect of working on Broadway. And each column will recommend a book which gives real-world information about the business. What we discuss should give you the necessary knowledge to position yourself to take advantage of that lucky break.
Lucky breaks happen all the time around here, you know. It's being prepared to take advantage of them which defines the winner.
At a minimum you will gain an insight and understanding of the pragmatic side of the creative process.
Let's take it from the top. Musicals. The one true American art. One needs to understand the musical form before anything else about Broadway makes sense.
No other dramatic form can claim such passionate, fervid, obsessive loyalty from its fans. No other dramatic form can make so much money if successful or lose millions overnight if a failure. No other dramatic form is so shrouded in mystery or misunderstood.
"Misunderstood? What's to understand about Cats? Or Pimpernel or Lion or Ragtime? You go, you hear nice songs, you see pretty sets and costumes, you applaud the performances, you buy the CD."
Perhaps that is all you need to know, if you are content to remain on the outside. If that is the case, I wish you a long and happy life managing a fried chicken franchise in Selma, Alabama.
May I ask you a few questions?
You've seen the current crop of musicals, right?
So you're pretty much an expert on musicals?
"I've seen Phantom five times!"
OK. How are musicals created; where do they come from?
"Where do they come from?"
Is 1776 a Concept Musical or Musical Play? Why are two and a half hours considered the standard length for a musical?
"Wait. I think I know this one!"
What's the difference between a popular song and a show song? What do composers need to know about word accentuation? Why don't good librettists get the respect they deserve? When doesn't a musical need a title song? Why is the director all-powerful when it is the librettist, lyricist, and composer who create the show? What part do and should producers play in the creative process? What kind of property will make a good musical?
"Well . . ."
What properties are doomed to failure as musicals from the start? Why is writing on spec a bad thing? What are the secrets of a good musical book? What are the five pressure points' in a musical? What are the secrets of effectively deploying production numbers in a musical? Why is over the top' emotion absolutely and always necessary in a musical? How do you spot' the songs in an adaption? Why doesn't Sondheim like reprises? What's the difference between a showcase and a workshop? What makes a good overture and why do you need them? Who gets to murder the sound engineer?
"Uhhh . . ."
When do you freeze a show? Why are the creators of a successful musical frequently ask to waive their royalties? Why are experienced theatergoers reluctant to see a musical after it's been running for more than four or five months? Why did the critics say all those awful things about shows like Triumph and Pimpernel?
"Enough already! So, what are the answers?"
Stephen Citron wrote The Musical from the Inside Out, which has just been reissued in paperback. Clearly written, with an abundance of quotes and examples from the likes of Sondheim, Lloyd-Webber, Herman, Prince, Robbins, Block, Harnick, and just about every other power name in musical theater (and more footnotes than you've ever seen in one book), this is required basic reading for the musical afficionado. Read it as a companion piece to Mandelbaum's classic Not Since Carrie and you will, indeed, know everything there is to know (short of having the experience of developing a new one) about the musical.
"Not since who?"
You haven't read Mandelbaum's Carrie?
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The Musical from the Inside Out