By MARK BLANKENSHIP
These days, you can't hurl a head mic without hitting an Off Broadway musical. For the next few weeks, nonprofit theatres are serving a smorgasbord to audiences that love a song and dance.
But how does a new musical land in a nonprofit, Off Broadway house? What are the benefits of producing on that level? What are the challenges?
In short, what constitutes the "culture" of a new Off Broadway musical?
Break a Few Rules
Nonprofit Off Broadway musicals are often marked by experimentation. Produced in small venues with budgets that look microscopic next to a Broadway extravaganza, they typically aren't burdened by the pressure to please enormous crowds or sell thousands of tickets. That gives artists and theatre companies alike more freedom to try something unexpected.
Take The Shaggs: The Philosophy of the World, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons (in a co-production with New York Theatre Workshop.) Based on the true story of three sisters whose father forced them to form a rock band, despite having no musical ability, this strange, spiky, and emotionally piercing rock musical breaks several conventions.
Most of the songs, for instance, reflect the characters' emotional states without forwarding the plot. When Austin Wiggin, the girls' father, takes them out of school so they can practice full time, he tells his wife, Annie, that she has to home school them: Annie responds by singing lines from the textbooks she's supposed to teach from, and every "lesson" about capturing butterflies or the ruin of Pompeii reflects her own emotional turmoil.
Elsewhere, composer-lyricist Gunnar Madsen and lyricist-librettist Joy Gregory toy with the Shaggs' own legacy for making terrible music (their 1969 album The Philosophy of the World is a cult classic.) In several scenes, they blend original Shaggs recordings with more elegantly orchestrated versions of their songs. The "good" versions suggest what Austin thinks his daughters sound like, but they're still not fantastic. The melodies are nonexistent and the lyrics are bizarre, and it feels risky to unleash them on stage at all.
"Gunnar and Joy have created something that doesn't exist in a traditional musical theatre form," says Kent Nicholson, Playwrights Horizons' Director of Musical Theater Development. "They're standing outside the form and saying, 'Well, if we did a more traditionally structured musical, it wouldn't feel like The Shaggs. It would feel false somehow.'"
The creative process was as unusual as the show's structure. At first, Gregory and Madsen just wrote songs that felt "Shaggy," without knowing where they'd turn up in the story. For instance, a second-act number called "My Head is an Empty Birdcage" gives the awkward middle sister, Dot, a devastating moment to reflect on her sadness, but that wasn't necessarily what the song was created to do. "That was one of the first songs we wrote," Gregory says. "We didn't know where it would go. We just wanted to start hearing how these girls would express themselves."
It's hard to imagine a musical like The Shaggs, whose story was co-created by director John Langs, being supported in a commercial theatre. That's one reason Nicholson was attracted to it. He has tracked the show through almost ten years of development, including productions in Los Angeles and Chicago, and he eventually decided an Off Broadway premiere could be vital.
He explains, "It's a piece that, while it had had a couple of productions, actually had never reached the kind of exposure that would guarantee it was going to have a life after. That's what makes it a Playwrights show. That's our functioning goal."
All Hands On Deck
No matter how bold a theatre company might be, of course, it's still not easy to support a risky new musical. While they might not run $8 million dollars like a lavish Broadway spectacle, ambitious Off Broadway tuners can still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (and sometimes more). The bill includes everything from musician's salaries to set and costume demands to the cost of arranging the score for specific instruments.
On top of that, musicals tend to involve more writers than a play, and they require years of finesse to balance songs and book scenes. That means extra workshops and development productions, and those cost money, too.
Therefore, most Off Broadway musicals require a large network of supportive organizations. "With a play, if you're turned on and you want to do it, you say, 'Let's do it,'" says Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons. "But whenever you get turned on by a musical, you've gotta figure out how to afford it."
Consider all the companies behind I Married Wyatt Earp, a new musical about the real, yet overlooked women of the Wild West. Last year, The New York Theatre Barn gave the piece a reading in Manhattan, which attracted the attention of Prospect Theatre. Soon, Prospect approached 59E59 about including the musical in its current Americas Off Broadway festival.
That's three companies uniting for a single production, with Prospect artistic director Cara Reichel serving as director and NYTB artistic director Joe Barros serving as choreographer. For Sheilah Rae, the musical's lyricist and co-librettist, the breadth and intensity of this support has been a shock. "When it finally happened, it happened so fast," she says. "The writers, we all looked at each other and went, 'Oh my God.' We'd been pushing and pushing this thing, and then all of a sudden, it was, 'Boom.'"
So Many Chefs, Just One Kitchen
Sometimes, all this collaboration can derail a show. Jim Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, says, "It's really tricky when you have two co-producers or the producer and the artists looking at what's on stage and seeing different things. They're describing problems or issues differently and therefore solutions are different. That's when it gets very complicated and almost impossible to get out of."
He adds, however, that NYTW and Playwrights haven't had that problem with The Shaggs. "Luckily for us, all parties seem to be seeing the same things."
Gunnar Madsen agrees, saying, "In this particular production, it feels like I've got an army of dramaturgs who are not getting in the way, but who are really helping to clarify the piece and make it stronger." Gregory adds, "They've held my feet to the fire on some clarity things, and I always appreciate that. You hate it at first, but then you find a way to own it, and then you say, 'No. Dammit. They made the play better.'"
For his part, Douglas Carter Beane appreciates the notes that he gets Off Broadway. A few weeks ago, he was polishing his book for the Broadway musical Sister Act and simultaneously prepping for the Transport Group's New York premiere of Lysistrata Jones, a playful spin on the ancient Greek comedy in which college cheerleaders refuse to sleep with their basketball-team boyfriends until they win a game.
With a book by Beane and music and lyrics Lewis Flinn, Lysistrata Jones is being staged in the gym at Judson Memorial Church near Washington Square, which is a far cry from a Broadway stage. The notes haven't had a Broadway flavor, either. Beane says, "There's no person who's come into the room and said, 'Don't do this. Don't do that. We want this to tour,' which is a much freer way of creating." (Transport Group is producing the show by itself, though it did receive a production at Dallas Theatre Center earlier this year.)
Describing his Off Broadway experience, Beane adds, "It's much more loosey-goosey. It's not a whole rigmarole. I've seen actors play with each others' hair---'Oh no, honey, you should wear it back'---and that would be a heart attack on Broadway. There would be a union meltdown, and the director would be freaking out, saying, 'I didn't approve that.'"
So What Type of Show Are We Seeing?
Yet for all their unique traits, Off Broadway musicals may struggle to escape Broadway's shadow. After all, recent Tony winners like Next To Normal, Avenue Q, and Spring Awakening launched Off Broadway, and it's tempting to wonder if today's small show is tomorrow's worldwide hit.
"I work very hard to keep that out of my head," says Nicola. "And I work hard to get that out of the artist's head as well. The key thing is to focus on the here and now and get this right in this room. If we don't do this right, then nothing is going to go anywhere."
Beane echoes him, saying, "It's essentially the same work, wherever you're writing. It is very much the same job. You do quickly realize that a song is a song, dialogue is dialogue, and something touching is something touching."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo credits: Top, "Lysistrata Jones," Carol Rosegg; second, "The Shaggs," Joan Marcus; third, "I Married Wyatt Earp," Gerry Goodstein; fourth, "Lysistrata Jones," Carol Rosegg