A decade ago, when the producers of Rent were fielding offers from publishers wishing to put out a commemorative book about the Jonathan Larson musical, a number of supplicants sent them a copy of a tie-in connected to the MTV program "Unplugged." It was a distinctive book, housed in a reusable, corrugated cardboard slipcase. The book's shape was reminiscent of a guitar. Each volume was printed on recycled paper, with a spiral binding, and was individually numbered, as a ticket to a concert might be.
"' We think it should be something like this,'" the would-be publishers said, according to Charlie Melcher. "The producers intelligently noticed that those publishers didn't make the book. So they called us."
Melcher is the founder of 15-year-old Melcher Media, which created the Rent book and has since carved a niche for itself as a producer of high-quality, durable companion books to Broadway's biggest musicals. It has published books for Wicked, Avenue Q, The Color Purple and Jersey Boys which are part memento, insider guide, pop culture encyclopedia and fan bible. Moreover, they are a far cry from the cheaply-made souvenir books of the past.
"Often, what's called the media tie-in is an exploitation or reduction of the original," argued Melcher, whose small staff works out of a townhouse basement space in Greenwich Village. "It's often done quite cheaply and poorly from existing materials. Slap a logo of it, get someone to put together a few words and pick up the press photos and: Boom! You have a book." Melchor said he tends to think of such shoddy publications as mere merchandise, akin to a souvenir mug. He's not interested in producing that sort of thing. Rather, his goal is to create "a meaningful experience in print," something that is a valuable and a somewhat separate extension of the show. For the Rent book, for example, his aim was to created a tribute to creator Larson, who died suddenly before the show opened. "We came up with the idea that it should be a chorus of voices," he said. "His story is literally told by approximately 70 people that we interviewed who knew him." Among the book's original aspects were a map of locations in the East Village that figured in the musical and Larson's life; and special photography taken during a dress rehearsal, unseen in any other format. "The metaphor for the book was an East Village artist's journal," he added. Toward that end, the book jacket had a stark black look with a strip of faux duct tape along the binding.
Melcher, who is a New York City native and attended Yale University, learned what young audiences might buy while publishing books for MTV for a three-year period in the mid-1990s. Among the successful titles he put out under the MTV imprint were books connected to the series "The Real World" and the cartoon "Beavis and Butt-head." That latter featured a removable talking remote control, and sold 350,000 copies, putting it on New York Times bestseller list. "It was a very successful imprint launch, in part because we figured out the kinds of books young people would actually read. It set us on a trajectory, which was doing media tie-ins, trying to figure out how to translate from one media to another."
The Rent book sold well, but it did not provoke other producers to bang on Melcher's door, demanding he devise tie-in books to their shows. In fact, it was years before Melcher Media did another book for a Broadway show. One day his assistant came into work saying her sister had just seen a new musical and loved it. She recommended the company approach the producer about doing a book. That producer was David Stone, who was familiar with the Rent volume. His show was called Wicked.
The Wicked tome, subtitled "The Grimmerie," now has 240,000 copies in print (three times as many as Rent). Hefty and glossy, it includes a text by Time Out New York's theatre editor David Cote (who has authored several Melchor titles), profiles of the cast and creative team, the complete lyrics to the score, more than 200 full-color photographs, and odd features called the "Ozian Glossararium" and "Oz travelogue." Though priced at $40, it flew out of theatres where the show is playing, not to mention bookstores across the country. Melcher contends it may be most successful theatre tie-in book ever done. "It kind of changed everyone's attitude about what a theatre tie-in book could be," he said. "All of a sudden, it wasn't this little thing that maybe would sell in the theatre and sell in New York. It was this book that could sell around the country and sell really well.
"We discovered," he continued, "that the fan base for certain kinds of musicals, particularly among young audiences, is strong in parts of the country where they don't get to see the show, but where they're waiting to see the show. And while they're waiting, they need everything they can get. They've got the album already, they know the lyrics, but now they can learn a tremendous amount about the musical from the book."
Melcher claimed that Broadway producers "have become aware that a really beautifully done book is a brand-extending opportunity, rather than just a merchandising opportunity." Producers have another reason to look kindly on Melcher's handiwork: it costs them absolutely nothing.
In the unusual agreements Melcher works out with the producers of hit musicals, the showmen lay out no money for the creation of the book. That comes from the high-powered co-publishers such as Harper Collins and Hyperion that Melcher approaches. "When the show's a big enough hit, then the publisher's willing to invest enough money to cover all the costs. But only if it's a big hit." Melcher handles every aspect of the book's production, hiring a design team, a photo researcher and text writer, while handling the editing in-house. For this, the house is typically paid a flat fee, though sometimes royalties are also involved. The collaborating publisher takes care of distribution and shares a spine credit with Melcher.
Each book is designed to have an original, distinctive design "look" that is in keeping with the nature of the musical. "'The Grimmerie' needs to feel like a magical spell books that you took off the prop table," said Melcher. "'Spring Awakening' will feel like a book from the period of the original play. It will feel kind of like a children's schoolbook from the 1890s."
Theatre books are, of course, only a small part of what Melcher Media does. The house puts out 15 to 20 titles a year and most of those are tied in to television series. The company has a relationship with HBO and has done books related to "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "Sex and the City." Other titles include "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Ugly Betty" and "Deadwood."
Though the theatre books are proliferating — the Jersey Boys volume came out last fall and one about Spring Awakening will be issued later this year — not every show on Broadway is an attractive prospect for Melcher. "We agree to do books for shows that we know have reached a certain plateau and will be around for a long time. It's a matter of being able to justify the economics. If the show is not a big hit, we can't sell enough copies to pay for this level of production."
A possible future candidate is the well-reviewed musical In the Heights. However, it's too early to tell whether the show has staying power, said Melcher.