Some of the biggest buzz this Broadway season has revolved around several shows that have one notable element in common: Rather than transferring from London, being based on a popular movie, or serving as a vehicle for a Hollywood celebrity, the musicals Fun Home and Something Rotten! and the play Hand to God are all truly original productions. And while original material offers writers and composers more creative freedom, it makes attracting audiences more challenging.
But when producers are willing to take risks with unproven properties, they can help bring unique work to wider audiences—and, in some cases, cause a sea change in what those audiences expect and accept. (To wit, see Hair, A Chorus Line and Rent.) While the long-term effects of Fun Home, Something Rotten! and Hand to God remain to be seen, their arrival on Broadway is evidence of producers trusting writers and creative teams more than something already in the popular mindset.
Assessing the Risks
"What we look at first is, 'Is it a great show?'" Fun Home producer Mike Isaacson said of his selection process with his Fox Theatricals partner Kristin Caskey. "If it's not that, I don't care what it's inspired by or where it's from. We fundamentally look at why it needs to be a musical."
Isaacson and Caskey were invited several years ago to an early reading of Fun Home at the Public Theater and were intrigued by the adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir. "We knew the piece was going to change significantly from the reading that we saw—and it did," Caskey said. "But at same time, there was something beautiful there that we immediately responded to."
Similarly, Kevin McCollum, who is producing both Hand to God and Something Rotten! this season, saw Robert Askins' edgy puppet play workshopped Off-Broadway and met the playwright to discuss the piece. While he felt that the writing was "exquisite," he didn't think the play was finished. "Rob didn't, either." It needed more work—but McCollum believed in the project enough to offer support and help gather a creative team for its next steps.
Three years later, when the show transferred to Broadway, McCollum decided to put the show's vulnerabilities front and center. To that end, an early marketing campaign capitalized on its challenges: "No movie stars. No London transfer. No film adaptation, Pray for us."
Isaacson agreed that having a familiar element—a famous movie title, a famous movie star—can help. "But you also have to deal with a whole other set of challenges when you have things that are familiar," he warned, noting that if a show can't meet an audience's pre-existing expectations, they may reject it. While a film or "a brand that people recognize...can be helpful with early sales," Caskey agreed with Isaacson: "It has to be a great show if it's going to go the length."
"Every show gives you tools," Isaacson and Caskey's fellow Fun Home producer Barbara Whitman argued. "Sometimes that tool is a star, sometimes that tool is a recognizable title." For the Fun Home transfer, she added, the producers' tools included support from the Public Theater, a "huge amount of acclaim" and early awards. "Every show has both challenges and things to market."
Creating Thirst Live theatre is always a risk, McCollum argued, but the risks are simply different depending on what kind of show the project is. While it may seem economical to not have to pay for the (potentially expensive) rights to adapt a well-known movie or a celebrity salary, the cost of advertising and marketing an unfamiliar show may be much higher than with something already known. From a financial point of view, he added, "it always costs more to do a startup. And every musical that's completely original is truly a startup!" When he produced the most recent revival of West Side Story, McCollum noted, tickets began to sell as soon as the first ad ran. "They were familiar with the material and there was a thirst to see it," he explained. "With something completely original, you have to create thirst."
Word-of-mouth becomes vital when trying to create that thirst. "Nothing sells a show like word-of-mouth," Whitman said. "It's always a nail-biter, and it's scary to go into a process where word-of-mouth is necessary, but ultimately, every show needs that. There is nothing better."
To generate buzz, McCollum launched advertising campaigns for both of his shows, including a retro-style poster by artist Peter De Sève for Something Rotten! that was inspired by posters for shows like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And while McCollum didn't want to offer comps to his shows, he offered tickets to early performances at $15.95—the year in which Something Rotten! is set. This, again, was geared to start a conversation about the piece. "The prices had a storytelling element," he explained. Similarly, for Hand to God, he offered tickets for $20.15 to emphasize the contemporary nature of the show.
But even with clever advertisements and pricing, McCollum echoed Whitman's sentiment that everything relies on word-of-mouth. "That's the best bit of advertising you can do," he said. "You can't buy great chatter if it's not real. If everyone doesn't like the show, people will see that." Audiences, he added, are "very sophisticated" and talk amongst themselves. "The advocates are the people who go," he said. "It's very hard to create a false heat."
And even if audiences are buzzing about an early version of a show, there's no guarantee that the conversation will continue—generating yet another risk for producers who bring a show from Off-Broadway to the Main Stem. While audiences responded "enthusiastically" to Fun Home at the Public in late 2013, Whitman noted, acceptance by Broadway audiences was still not a sure thing. "Risk is inherent in what we do," Caskey agreed. But the strong response at the Public gave the transfer some momentum. "With the huge amount of support we had from potential investors and the Public, and our fervent belief that there is passion for material...we wanted to take that risk."
Creating and Adapting So how can producers help guide a less-than-famous project to a Broadway stage? "You have to honor the type of show that it is," Caskey noted. "We spent a great deal of time with the creative team, [asking ourselves] if we brought Fun Home uptown, what does that mean? What does it mean to put it on the Broadway landscape, and what is the experience you want people to have? And so we chose—and at the time it was a risk—we chose to create a unique experience by putting the show in the round, because for us, a major priority was to retain the intimacy you experienced when you were downtown. The entire show was constructed around that idea."
As Something Rotten! and Hand to God made their way to Broadway, McCollum helped gather creative teams to make the shows as good as they could be. For example, after hearing his friend Karey Kirkpatrick's idea for a show that he and his brother Wayne were working on, McCollum immediately brought director Casey Nicholaw on board. "My job as a producer is to make sure that, together, we all establish the right tone and the right way to tell a story," he said. "And that doesn't mean I tell them what to do; it means I figure out how to put together the right personalities in the room together to affect the chemistry." He noted that his production company is called Alchemation, a portmanteau of alchemy and creation. "That's truly how I look at work," he said. Once the authors have written the piece, "we build it. It's a yellow brick road, and you gather people along the road as you get to Broadway."
Beyond finding the right creative team, McCollum agreed with Caskey that finding the right venue for a show is vital. "Hand to God in a 1,500-seat theatre wouldn't work well," he said. The intimate, 766-seat Booth Theatre was the right space for that show.
The Future of Broadway Producing
Of course, it remains to be seen if these productions will encourage more producers to take more risks with unknown material. "I hope producers get behind American plays," McCollum said. "There is an abundance of British plays that come over for limited runs, but I'm trying to give more American playwrights an opportunity to come to Broadway." Both of his Tony-nominated shows this season are from first-time Broadway writers and composers, he noted. "I'm a great believer in giving people the opportunity to write for the big stage." If those shows become hits, he said, then other producers might do the same. "Broadway is the place for exciting new work, and it's rewarding to create something out of nothing...You are part of the group of people who made the show happen in the first place." Beyond that, he added, it's exciting for the audience to see something that isn't famous yet.
"It's always dangerous to look at one season and think about trends," Isaacson said. "Every producer working on a show is passionate about it, and they believe in it and they will do whatever it takes to give it life on Broadway." In terms of original material, he acknowledged that very few musicals are truly original—almost everything is based on something, whether a well-known movie or a book studied in college classes, as Alison Bechdel's graphic novel has been. "With Rodgers and Hammerstein, everything they wrote was based on something," he said. "There's a relationship with some source material. That's the arc of adaptation. That will definitely continue strong."