Last weekend, Music Theatre International—the licensing company behind such musicals as Into the Woods, Fiddler on the Roof, and Legally Blonde, among many others—celebrated the return of live theatre after nearly two years of most live performances being shuttered worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All Together Now!, a special revue made up of songs from some of the most beloved musicals MTI licenses, was performed at theatres around the world over the weekend of November 12, capping 20 months of what was, for most of these groups, one of the most challenging periods in their history.
But All Together Now! wasn’t just a fun tribute to musical theatre. In an unprecedented move, MTI made the revue available to schools and theatres completely free of charge, working with the writers of the shows in their catalog to waive royalty fees and providing all performance materials digitally to avoid the costs of script, score, and orchestra part rentals.
We recently chatted with leaders of three organizations that took MTI up on this generous offer, all of whom spoke to the financial impact of being able to do the show free of charge.
“Words don’t do it justice,” shares Jason Coale, executive director of North Carolina community theatre Whirligig Stage. “The effect that it has on us is so profound. There’s nothing we will ever be able to do to say thank you.”
Sudden and often total loss of revenue meant closing shop for many theatre groups and has tightened budgets for nearly all of those that survived. A report on the effects of COVID-19 on middle and high school theatre departments released by the Educational Theatre Association last year reported 91% of respondents with canceled productions and 44% receiving no district financial support, meaning those canceled performances often resulted in empty bank accounts, or worse—debt.
“In just rental fees alone, a show can run between $2,500 and $5,000,” shares Douglas Fisher, director of choirs at Burley High School in Idaho. “When my kids selling tickets are actually putting money back into an account that’s empty—that money is saving my program.”
But according to these arts educators, the social, mental, and emotional impacts of COVID-19 on their student artists far outweighed any financial losses.
“I had all these extroverts who suddenly became introverts who were scared to express themselves,” says Shell Ramirez of Decatur Community Players in Georgia. “I would do theatre classes in people’s front yards to reconnect with kids that were really struggling.”
“You try to do as much as you can remotely,” shares Coale, “but when you’re used to being in a group of friends and fellow artists who are totally accepting, being stuck in a less accepting home can create a lot of issues.”
And thus All Together Now! may have been the perfect project for this exact moment, giving theatres a mechanism through which to earn much-needed revenues with as much overhead eliminated as possible, while also allowing artists and audiences to remember all the reasons live theatre is so uniquely entertaining, vital, and necessary. After months of not being able to gather, the initiative also provided powerful moments of unity. Schools and theatre companies presented All Together Now! around the world over the weekend of November 12 in what Fisher described as a “Hands Across America moment,” but many companies, including Fisher’s, took this idea of unity a step further.
“When I announced at our big district meeting that I was willing to open up my event to anyone who wanted to come, I literally had four choir directors run to me and say, ‘How do we get involved?’”
Fisher’s All Together Now! ultimately featured 100 choristers from six area high schools—many with drama and music departments too small to produce something on their own at this scale otherwise—and five professional-level performers from area theatres, who he invited to perform solo numbers from some of their best loved past performances.
Fisher also ensured that the financial boost from the project would be shared along with the performance, primarily by using PLAYBILLder to create his own officially authorized Broadway-style Playbill program for the event.
“We’re selling ads for our Playbill, and I told the folks from the community that whatever ads they sell, they keep that money,” Fisher said. He and his colleagues sold 20 pages of ads in his Playbill program, showcasing just how deep his community’s love and support for the arts runs.
Coale, whose production of All Together Now! brought eight different local arts groups together, spoke to the immense value of working with other area arts organizations.
“The best was the increased diversity of cultures coming together. We are always trying to do everything we can to create a theatrical group that is reflective of our community. To be able to come together in unity is quite special—to learn how different groups go about putting on a show and how they work and who shines in each group.”
Ramirez’s Decatur Community Players went in a different direction, paying MTI’s gift forward and turning their production into a fundraiser for several local non-profits, including The Global Village Project, an all-girls school for refugees.
“I decided we’re not going to raise money for our theatre since these rights are free. We wanted to help our community since my community gave me so much so that I could survive through COVID. I know the refugee organizations in my area are struggling more than I am. They’re having big trouble getting funding from private donors, so I wanted to shine a light on them and let them be heard in a different format, rather than just the news coming out of Afghanistan.” Ramirez and her company raised $7,000 through the event.
On stage, thousands of performers got an opportunity to be reacquainted with coming together as a group performing in front of a real, live audience, as one of Fisher’s students, Lohanny, shared.
“It was so cool to be singing with lots of other choirs because when I didn’t have the note, 20 other sopranos around me had it. I met so many awesome people and had a great time blending my sound with others. It was an unforgettable experience."
Coale was able to use his production to let student performers rewrite history and make up for opportunities lost during the pandemic.
“We have someone singing ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen, which she was supposed to do pre-pandemic. It ended up she never got to perform in front of a live audience. A year and a half later, this is her first opportunity to sing the song she’s worked on for so long," Coale explained. "It’s so meaningful. Live audience response is not the same as a comment bar online.”
But Fisher hopes that All Together Now! isn’t the end of something, but a beginning—or perhaps a reminder.
“I want the audience leaving here feeling refreshed and excited that things are coming back to normal, but I want them to feel the impact of not having it for so long so that when they leave our space, they’re compelled to come back to the next show. The reason we’re ending with 'Seasons of Love' is it ends with a minor chord. I like that it’s unsettled. We’re not finished yet. You’ve got to come back and see what’s next.”