Broadway is not the final stop for most of the musicals that are fortunate enough to open there. Many shows will send out touring companies to bring the production to the theatre lovers who cannot make the sojourn to New York City to enjoy the latest hits. Some musicals, like Les Misérables, The Lion King and Wicked have a long and fruitful life on the road, while others may have an abbreviated tour, hitting just the major cities around the United States where a more challenging piece has a chance of strong ticket sales. Beyond the tour, musicals are acquired by licensing companies such as Theatrical Rights Worldwide, Music Theatre International and The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization that will shop their wares in a variety of markets including regional theatres, summer stocks, community theatres and educational institutions. Hopefully, these titles will have a long life in perpetuity and be a success for both the authors and the organization that represents them.
Over the years, some titles have proven, for one reason or another, to be a challenge to market beyond Broadway. Whether it be complex, mature content (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Falsettos), choreography challenges (Grand Hotel, My One and Only) or the design challenges of the piece (On the Twentieth Century), musicals that have been Tony-winning hits in the Big Apple may be a hard sell to companies and organizations that are bound by time, talent, finances and/or audience demographics. Most obstacles can be overcome with a clever concept and a strong designer, director or choreographer, but content (and how an audience will respond to it) remains one of the greatest barriers to sophisticated, mature properties being produced in certain markets. The author's words and intent are there in concrete terms, and a producing organization is bound by contract to stay within the boundaries that their artistic outline provides.
The 2015 Tony winner for Best Musical, Fun Home, was recently acquired by Samuel French, one of the nation's oldest licensors of theatrical properties. Fun Home presents many content issues that might make it a hard piece to promote. The story about a young lesbian finding self-discovery inside a dysfunctional home wherein her father is a homosexual is, by today's standards, embraced for its honesty and heart. Though Americans are growing more and more comfortable with the idea of equality for all people, this may not necessarily translate into ticket buyers in some regional markets who are interested attending a musical with overtly gay subject matter, no matter how compelling or well-written. How will Samuel French target their marketing for this uniquely important musical that gets at the heart of the human experience? How will they convince theatre groups to take a risk on a musical as powerful and potentially polarizing musical as Fun Home?
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Samuel French, Inc. is one of the few licensing companies that handle both plays and musicals. Their catalogue of theatrical properties span a wide range of complex offerings including musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and Falsettos, and topical, challenging plays such as She Kills Monsters and Women and War.
Bruce Lazarus, executive director of Samuel French, Inc. weighs in on the challenges of delivering shows like Fun Home, on behalf of its authors, to markets around the country and worldwide. "Samuel French looks for bold and distinctive plays and musicals that will stand the test of time and, secondarily, reach a broad range of markets. We look for plays and musicals that also have a strong point of view. Fun Home is an important piece of musical theatre. Anyone who denies that is on the wrong side of history. It is the first Tony-winning Best Musical with a book and score by women [music is by Jeanine Tesori, the book and lyrics are by Lisa Kron, and the work is based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel-memoir]. It also, in part, tells the story of a young, lesbian girl who finds her connection to the world."
These attributes of Fun Home and its social relevance made it a hot property for whatever licensing company acquired the piece. "At Samuel French, we are committed to the author's vision and words. We imparted our passion for the project to the authors of Fun Home, helping them to see that we just 'get' the play. We made our case for how we perceive the story and its characters fit in with the rest of the world. This also helped to demonstrate how we understood the requirements of marketing it to theatres around the country."
Once Fun Home tours and regional theatres have had their chance with the musical, Samuel French has the daunting but interesting task of trying to make it accessible to theatres where they aren't as likely to chance producing a show. Conservative pockets of America may find the subject matter an uncomfortable fit for their audiences. But, Lazarus is quick to point out, "Audiences all over the country are smart. They aren't always looking for light fare. Sophisticated shows keep audiences excited. In the end, Samuel French, Inc. is not so worried about maximizing our investment, but instead, we want to make bold decisions." How does this approach bode for Fun Home?
Samuel French has a strong marketing and licensing team that will help get the word out about Fun Home. Not every play or musical is right for every theatre. For example: a musical like Fun Home may or may not be considered appropriate for high school groups. Lazarus, however, sees an evolving America where Fun Home might find its place there. "High schools and community theatres are becoming more progressive. This show is about complex relationships and that is something high school kids can relate to. Samuel French licenses two titles with advanced themes that have proven very popular with schools. She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, a full-length dramatic comedy, features a lesbian character. Jack Cunningham's Women and War is a series of monologues from the point of view of women as they are affected by war. One of the monologues deals with rape. Youth can relate to sophisticated material."
It is true that, in recent years, high schools have embraced shows with themes that were once considered taboo, but some of these instances were not without struggles. A production of Sweeney Todd: School Edition at Timberlane High School in New Hampshire earlier this year met with controversy. The production was initially cancelled due to its violent content, then the decision was reversed when participants and their families rallied for its reinstatement. High school productions of Rent have met with similar polarizing opinions, but have finally overcome and opened as planned. This makes the strong case that there are most-likely youth and families out there who are anxious to explore a musical like Fun Home that delves into richer and deeper subject matter, something that is pertinent to their lives and they world in which they live.
Some licensing companies work with the authors to help reshape a piece so that it can meet the needs of a wider range of theatre groups. At Samuel French, they are very careful about making alterations to properties without the direct involvement of the authors. Changes aren't made just to increase financial gain. "We nurture our playwrights. We are committed to their vision and only adjust material for regional markets and educational groups with their consent and input" asserts Lazarus. Fun Home is not currently slated for any modifications before it reaches regional markets, but it may also be too early in the game to tell if adjustments might eventually be made."
Fun Home has broken down some important barriers, exploring new points of view through authors who have something compelling to say. Sometimes the most honest, game-changing musicals that are embraced in New York will find a tough road beyond Broadway. Some theatres around the country will embrace the opportunity to produce a musical like Fun Home, invigorated by the chance to celebrate a new story and a new voice. Others will shy away from its subject matter, especially in places where audiences are likely to reject some of its themes on moral grounds or personal prejudices. What is most important, however, is that licensing companies like Samuel French continue to take the risk on a property like Fun Home. There are audiences for this delightfully charming and brutally honest little musical and they deserve a chance to form their own feelings about it through fully realized productions. Theatre is often a transformative experience and perhaps Fun Home can even go far as to change a few perspectives along the way. Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."