Monday, April 17, 2017


As a playwright I can tell you that it’s hard to get a play produced. And especially hard to get a musical on the boards. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had both. But it’s like winning the lottery.

The competition is fierce. A theater group might put on a season of five productions a year and one of them will be Christmas-related and one will be a revival of PAJAMA GAME. So that leaves only two or maybe three slots for original material. And they receive thousands of submissions.

There are producers that fund projects so you can imagine the number of submissions they get.  It must be like THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE but with scripts instead of buckets of water.

Submitting plays is also frustrating because you can go a year before hearing back. You get a faster response if you put a note in a bottle and drop it in the Atlantic Ocean.

Theater companies also put restrictions on the kinds of material they’ll accept. They must be plays about diversity, or plays by women, or agriculture-themed. They must be no longer than 70 minutes or have no more than three characters or not require more than one set or must have the word “Strudel” in the title.

And then there are the layers. Theater companies will offer a staged reading, which could lead to a workshop, which could ultimately lead to a full production. But there is competition at each level of that process.

You can also self-produce and fund the play or musical yourself. But that’s expensive. You almost never break even. And in Los Angeles, with the new Equity rules in place it’s so expensive that fewer shows are being put up.

And yet, like I said, there are thousands of plays and musicals being written on spec. Why? Because we love the theater. Because it’s intimate. Because it’s experimental. Because there’s a genuine camaraderie. Because we can write about things that matter to us even if there are no superheroes. Because Michael Bay can never ruin our work.

So we put up with the competition, and budget restrictions, and theaters that are in urban war zones.

But now comes another hurdle – stage musicals based on sitcoms. Several years ago there was HAPPY DAYS: THE MUSICAL (at least that was written by its original creator Garry Marshall), and then GOLDEN GIRLS, SAVED BY THE BELL (dear God!), and last year a CHEERS stage play where they just cobbled together pieces of existing CHEERS scripts. And now comes word that the Off Broadway Triad Theatre will stage a musical version of FRIENDS. Really?

It’s bad enough that Disney is mounting stage versions of everything they’ve ever done. I fully expect to see “The Making of Disneyland: The Musical.” And other movies are getting stage treatments. But musicals based on sitcoms? Other than a money grab, what could possibly be the point? You’re watching other actors imitate iconic characters, singing for reasons that will need to be explained, acting out either scenes you’ve already seen done better or new scenes probably not written by legitimate FRIENDS writers.

And here’s the ultimate irony – when TV writers write for the theater they are usually buried by critics. Why? What is their biggest sin? “This play felt like a sitcom.” “The writing was merely sitcom.”

Well excuse us for not writing Chekov or having songs.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think William Goldman correctly predicted the future in THE SEASON, his non-fiction book about the 1968 Broadway season and the changes taking place in theatrical productions. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was still possible to go to Broadway or the West End and find original and interesting new work. In London, now, if you want to see that you're more likely to find it outside the West End; on NYC it's off-Broadway. One big change in the last couple of decades in London is that so many theaters are now part of chains with large corporate owners. People don't realize, because unlike movie theaters they all have different names, but if you read the programs or look at the websites to buy tickets, you see it. The accountants in charge of these companies want blockbusters, shows guaranteed to bring in tourists, etc.

I'm now more interested in community theater than I am in professional theater. It turns out that around where I live (ie, within five miles) there are at least a half-dozen amateur groups - there's a light opera group, a Shakespeare society, and several more general theatrical groups, and each one does a couple of productions a year. Contrary to the public image of "am dram", the people are nice, hard-working, passionate, and excited to be part of something they love. It's very much like the folk music scene, in that people have varying levels of skill and talent, they share a spirit of community endeavor. My suspicion is that people who want to start in theater now would do well to start there. The Questors Theatre in Ealing, for example, which was strongly supported by the late actor Roger Rees, provides facilities for members to learn various aspects of production, stage their own shows, act in and work on others' shows, etc.


VP81955 said...

It's like most corporate movies these days -- marketing is easier than thinking.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Wendy's comment reminds me that the actor Jeff Daniels has supported a local theater in Michigan, The Purple Rose. She brings up an interesting quandary -- we're always looking for entertainment that has a certain production value, but the cost of that value leads to some conservative thinking. I think, as long as there's a lot of money at stake, that we'll always see some risk aversion and the pursuit of proven properties.

Now this paragraph is just sneaky, since we've seen Stevan Moffat here a time or two. Just wanted to mention that the first episode of DOCTOR WHO was very nicely done. I will miss both he and Peter Capaldi on the show.

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, I have a Friday question for your stockpile :)

Thinking about the realities of having to produce work on demand, have you ever been given an assignment where you were really unhappy with the story? Obviously I guess your job as the writer is to do the best job you can, but how do you reconcile the fear that your name is going to be on something you may not even like?

Michael Piler wrote about working on Star Trek The Next Generation, for example, and how the staff turnover was insane. Nobody wanted to come up with stories for a show where none of the characters were allowed to have any flaws. (Or, most writers didn't.) He stuck it out, however, and said he framed it as a challenge, which made that tall order appeal to him.

When he was hired to write one of the later Star Trek movies, he kept the same stance. He took every rewrite as a challenge, even though I can only assume he felt the project was getting worse as he watched his original vision disappearing with every draft.

How do you approach situations like that? I guess it's the sign of a bad staff member who puts their ego ahead of the group, but it must still be difficult to remain motivated. How do you tackle it?

Peter said...

I'm just amazed Dick Wolf hasn't done Law and Order: The Musical yet.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Charles: Reminds me that the most successful living British playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, has spent his whole career producing, directing, and writing for the small Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, West Yorkshire. All his dozens of plays have premiered there and it's only after their run in Scarborough that Ayckbourn and his agents look for commercial success elsewhere. I doubt he'd have the astonishing output he's had or the experimental stagecraft many of them use without his own sandbox to play in (to quote Carol Burnett). A few years ago, when his retirement was mooted, I went up to visit the theatre while it was still under his stewardship. It's quite a place: a theater in the round inside a refurbished 1930s theater. Besides the evening shows they do lunchtime one-acts, and it's clearly a place that's intended to encourage writers and actors to develop.

It's also worth mentioning London's Royal Court Theatre, which not only puts on new and interesting (often left-leaning) work but also runs various workshops for writers.


Philip said...

The FRASIER with Diane's play about her experience with CHEERS is definitely one of my favourite episodes.

Unknown said...

Saw a commercial for "The Bodyguard, The Musical". I thought I had flipped tgechannel to some sort of was a real ad.


CRL said...

Who wants to sit through two and a half hours of 'Smelly Cat'?

DBenson said...

Decades ago, ventured into Scarborough during a vacation and saw a new Ayckbourn play: "Woman in Mind". The theater was small and -- aside from the impressive talent level -- felt like a small community group. The play itself was both technically slick and intriguingly deep, about a woman drifting between a fantasy version of her life (dashing husband, worshipful daughter, grand estate) and the reality (dullish vicar hubby, alienated son, tiny back garden). It went on to West End and Broadway.

These days I have a season ticket to TheatreWorks, an excellent local group that seeks the sweet spot between commercial and experimental. A lot of new work, but also proven draws and shows like "Rags" that failed on Broadway but found a second life in reworked revivals. Another trend is for TheatreWorks and similar groups to get together on projects, so a new show essentially tours as its key creative personnel shape each local production. This may reduce the total number of slots for new shows, but it enables theaters to spread the development costs and often involves the playwright refining the script for each new staging.

Wayne said...

In the thirties, when Kaufman and Hart had their wonderful comedies on Broadway, was that like TV sitcoms of their day?

Don See said...

Ken, have you seen the British TV comedy series "Peep Show"? If so, did you like it? I watched all 54 episodes in about two weeks... so I kinda liked it... REALLY like it.

Andrew said...

I would pay to watch "Seinfeld, the Musical." Even if it was atrocious, it would still be funny.

Brad Apling said...

And as of today, it's been announced of another musical "Groundhog Day". I wonder if Punxsutawney Phil will get to play himself?

Charles H Bryan said...

Off topic: So I'm listening to a minor league game on the radio (Great Lakes Loons, Dodgers' single-A team, in South Bend) and I don't know if there's a sound engineer, but the announcer, who's good, is doing his best to talk over the park's PA system. Getting drowned out by walk-up music, promotional announcements, contest chatter, even whooping fans. Poor dude. Ever had nights like that?

Have you ever thought of making your book, GOING GOING ..., available as an ebook? Do you have the rights?

Ralph C. said...

Here's an idea, if it hasn't been done--"The Pitch: The Musical".

Shaun Michaels said...

I remember going to a Cheers stage performance at King Island amusement park in Ohio back in the mid 90's. Did you have anything to do with that?

Mike Barer said...

I think classic TV like Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island would work in musical. Also, Bewitched and Jeannie.

Jay B said...

Boy, did you hit the nail squarely. I could have written this word for word. The piece proves one thing-- theater is dead. Lots of people filling playhouses, but theater is dead. Put a lily on its chest. How lucky we are to have had Miller, Williams, Inge, and Albee when we did because their talents would be unexplored by dumb producing teams today.