Posted by on Nov 18, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments Off


There is a built-in problem with older Musicals. They’re…well, old. Many shows that worked well in their own time and which had successful Broadway runs would not and cannot work now…as is. There are more examples of this than I am comfortable discussing, so for now I’m going to generalize. Throughout this book you’ll find many specific examples of shows that creak.

At the start, musicals almost universally had really dumb books. Throughout the early decades of the American Musical Theater, up through around the mid 30′s, the books were most often just a rather lame excuse to tell some jokes, and present the songs. This was the juvenile age of Musical Comedy. What mattered were pretty girls dancing in a chorus line, stars the audience loved to hear crack jokes or watch sing, and great songs. Sometimes the “story” (so to speak) was placed in an exotic locale to add “color.” There was often a mistaken identity or two. Love was lost and then rediscovered. The jokes were different, sort of, from show to show. But the essential stories were few, simple, and built to be what was called a “clothesline,” upon which might be hung the songs and elements the audience was paying to see.

Shows were written far more quickly then. There was more of an attitude of throwing as much up against the wall as possible to see what stuck. Upwards of 300 shows a year opened on Broadway in the 1930s! (Compare that to recent decades where 25 shows per year was close to right.) Some writer had several shows open in a year. It was a time of golden opportunity for new writers trying to break in. But the overall quality of productions, particularly on the writing end, was poor. And Musicals usually show haste most easily in their books.

Silly books were okay for the most part with the audiences of the Great Depression. They didn’t want more to think about, anyway, they wanted escape. But come WWII, Kurt Weill’s entrance to America, and Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s great musicals, the audience changed. They became accustomed to story in Musicals. Critics began to demand it. And writers began to comply. Not that this problem was utterly solved in the 40′s, or later. Most Musicals have poor books. This is sadly still true, though if you were looking at the overall quality of stories told in Musicals, you’d have to admit they are more thorough now than in, say, the 20′s. It’s strange, perhaps, since the vast majority of libretti are adapted from established, existing literary sources like plays. But books are hard. The book is the hardest part of a Musical to get right. I have heard that no less a producer/director than Harold Prince, the most awarded and respected practitioner in the Musical Theater today, will not listen to the score of a proposed show until he’s first read the book to see if it works. His feeling – if the book doesn’t work, the show won’t work. Or as Directors have said since time began, “if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”

There are many older shows with terrific scores. The songs are still fresh, still sung. They bear the names of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart or Berlin. And the shows are completely not-producible. The books are just too silly or too dated for a modern audience. Even jokes that had ‘em falling out of their seat in 1932 are now incomprehensible – the frame of reference no longer exists. And given the profound expense of production today, no one will risk putting up a show that does not seem to have every possible element in place for success. Sure, these elements change depending on the level you’re working at, your budget, stuff like that. A Jr. High does not need a Broadway star in the title role, to sell tickets. But what they do need, what every production needs today, is a story to tell. And the songs and book are supposed to work together to accomplish this feat. The sad reality about many shows is that they do not have much story to tell, and that kills their ability to be produced now.

But this show, so troubled from the get-go, needs work. It needs directorial guidance and, dare I say it, changes made to its script and score. And without those changes, it will eventually stop being produced by the High Schools and Little Theaters that keep it marginally alive today. After a while, Camelot as a show will be forgotten, a footnote in textbooks about theater, if that. This should not happen. But to keep this show (and most musicals) breathing and vital, companies that have acquired rights must re-evaluate their intentions. They should be all about keeping these shows in the public’s eyes, in front of paying audiences. But sometimes, they assume the misguided role of guardian, as if producers and theater companies were children a show needs to be protected from. And believe me, friends, this is not only misguided so far as that one production is concerned, but it is misguided in terms of the long term well-being of that Musical, and of the Musical Theater as a whole.

I think these companies currently see each show as a “brand,” one which must not be altered. Coca Cola can never be anything but Coca Cola. But shows aren’t drinks or brands. To survive through the decades, a play or musical must be responsive to changing social and financial pressures. Coca-Cola may me more likely to survive the next fifty years than 4/5ths of the shows in this book. It’s rigid formula works…for Coca Cola. For these shows to live into the next century, and in many cases the next decade, they must be adaptable.

Anything that does not change dies. Musicals are the same. They must change to fit each production, each theater, each audience, at least to some extent. And that should be only the start of the experimentation that needs to happen to make old shows new.

So we start with edits, the simplest way to shorten and often improve a show. (You can also edit a show to death if you don’t know what you’re doing. But how do Directors get good at editing? BY DOING IT.) You may need to get rights to edit legally, again from the rights companies. High Schools, colleges and the like rarely do ask for or get rights, and invariably they make alterations in the text of any show they are doing anyway. No one really cares, do they?

And folks, really, no one should care! We edit and rewrite and reinvent Shakespeare mercilessly, tirelessly, endlessly. He was a better writer than anyone who ever wrote a musical. (Except maybe Frank Loesser…) We need to stop treating musicals older than say 10 years past their Broadway closing, once they move off of Broadway and into world productions, as sacred cows. The needs of independent productions should come first, overall, so long as they don’t butcher a show. And it is obviously in their best interest NOT to butcher a show! After all, that theater company is investing tons of resources into putting up a musical. Musicals are expensive and hard to do! They want to get the show right! But that means right for their theater and talent, their audience, their community. I think companies like Tams Witmark, MTI, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Library need to understand this. Their survival is at stake, as is that of a lot of incredible BUT OLD musicals.

What’s more, it is in the financial best interest of a show to get a lot of productions, to be seen, to be seen as relevant, to stay alive. These shows are not the Ten Commandments, and yet companies controlling rights often treat them as though they are written in stone. That is a self-destructive attitude that will result in great, older musicals being seen as calcified and unproducible as time marches on.

Shakespeare lives today largely because we CAN AND DO ADAPT AND CHANGE HIS PLAYS. In fact a number of musicals that insist on collecting royalties from you were adapted from Shakespeare’s plays. I notice that the authors of those musicals and the companies that represent their rights do not send a royalty to Shakespeare’s descendants. But they certainly profit from Shakespeare’s work, don’t they. What’s more, I think our long-gone friend William would not be unhappy with this arrangement.

He’s lived for 400 years at the very heart of theater. This, in part, because his plays, his language, plotting, characters are unparalleled in all of literature. Also, in part, they survive because they are allowed to change, sometimes into almost unrecognizable forms, to fit the pressures of the time.

Musicals have the potential to do the same. I believe that if Bill Shakespeare was writing today, he’d write musicals. Some of his comedies and masques come pretty damned close as it is, and he did place over three dozen songs into his plays. An argument might be made that he was the first writer of hit show tunes. No, I’m not joking.

The company that owns and licenses rights to a musical is usually comprised of nothing but attorneys, and they are not making ANY investment in your production. On the contrary, they merely collect money from you, a “royalty” for the right to produce the show they represent, forwarding much of the cash to the second and third-generation heirs of long-dead writers who generally do not care what rewrites are done. The licensing keeps a percentage for themselves, naturally. They do represent the rights of those writers, however, and their power over the show you want to produce, which is why they have the legal right to protect the text of a musical from edits and changes.

But should they really have that right? And more importantly, is it pro-survival for the musical theater and even for the shows they claim to “protect?” I say no to both counts, soundly and loudly…after a reasonable amount of time has passed from the original Broadway production’s closing. Say ten years.

What allowed the original producers some say was that it was THEIR MONEY OR THEIR INVESTOR’S MONEY that made the show possible. Rights companies do no such thing. They make scripts and scores available, and pay the authors their royalty, it’s a service, but they have been vested with far too much authority. Listen, the shows are written. So if someone does a strange production of, say, Guys and Dolls, with everyone in clown face and the story taking place in the Parisian catacombs while Jean Val Jean wanders through, lost and looking for his own show…so be it! The original, pristine script and score remain intact for future productions, above and beyond all experimentation. It’s safe, really. Look at Shakespeare.