Organizing New Musicals at Their Roots
Volume CV, No. 11November, 2005
From left, Allison Spratt, Hollie Howard, Richard Todd Adams and Jodie Langel in “Plane Crazy,” one fo the shows in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Despite rising production costs and real estate obstacles, it appears that the theatre industry is expanding. It is imperative that Local 802 keeps its finger on the pulse of the industry and the ever-growing community of theatre musicians who are a vital part of that industry. The union’s Theatre Community Initiative — a three-part campaign with the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) — was a direct result of our need to be in touch and in tune with the world of musical theatre. The most comprehensive portion of the Theatre Community Initiative was our outreach to all musicians performing in this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Prior to the opening of the festival, we laid some groundwork for our effort. Local 802 staff met with festival organizers and were subsequently invited to a production meeting where we were able to explain our campaign and provide information directly to the producers of the individual shows. And beginning with the opening night gala on Sept. 12 through the end of the festival on Oct. 2, the Local 802 theatre community descended upon the festival en masse.
Over the three-week period, some Local 802 staff — but primarily rank-and-file members of the Broadway Theatre Committee and the Small Theatres Committee — attended 31 musicals featured in the festival and had one-on-one contact with the musicians performing in each production.
The primary goals of the outreach were to support those theatre musicians who are doing this type of work, to determine how many members versus potential members were doing the work, to learn why musicians opt to do this type of developmental work and finally to invite the festival musicians to Local 802’s networking opportunity at the conclusion of the festival (see article below).
So who, exactly, are the musicians playing in the New York Musical Theatre Festival?
Of over 100 musicians playing in the festival, approximately 60 percent of those musicians are active Local 802 members ranging from Broadway and Off Broadway musicians to those musicians who work, for the most part, with the small independent theatre companies that populate New York and produce primarily showcase-type productions.
The remaining 40 percent are the future of our union — potential members who have not yet found their way to our door.
Reaching out to these musicians on a grassroots level such as this may offer them an indication of the commitment that Local 802 has made to live music and to all musicians working in the greater New York City area.
STARTING OUT SMALL
What does it mean to work in a developmental theatre festival?
The developmental theatre festivals in New York City are generally two to three weeks of performances with perhaps a week to 10 days of rehearsal prior to opening. Any artist who performs in these festivals usually works for a flat rate for the entire period and will receive transportation and equipment rental costs.
For actors, these festivals fall under Equity’s Basic Showcase Code. Prior to this year, Local 802 did not have an equivalent to Equity’s code, but in collaboration with musicians from previous festivals, the festival organizers and union staff, Local 802 established our own guidelines for this year’s festival, which we named the Theatrical Showcase Rules and Regulations.
These regulations provide producers of festival productions with basic guidelines for payment, working conditions and future productions for all musicians working in the festival. In addition, the regulations emphasize our commitment to live music and our expectation that the producers will support and adhere to the same level of commitment.
WHY DO IT?
So with minimal financial compensation provided by these festivals, why do musicians choose to do them?
Artists who create these shows range from established composers to new composers on the brink of breaking out to complete unknowns. The performing musicians fall in a similar range. Their reasons for working in the festival run the gamut from doing it as a favor for a friend to being motivated by the chance the show will move up to Off Broadway — or even Broadway.
The show “Feeling Electric” had an orchestra made up of six Broadway musicians. One of the musicians said that he had agreed to do this show because he liked the composer, Tom Kitt, and liked playing his music.
Another show, “But I’m a Cheerleader,” had a four-piece band, two Local 802 members and two non-members. Talking with the show’s musicians, one of the main reasons they offered for playing in festival productions is the hope that a producer will pick up the show and move it into a commercial theatre — which is of course the universal hope of every producer and show in the festival.
“But I’m a Cheerleader” actually won this year’s NYMF Audience Award and could follow in the footsteps of “Altar Boyz” and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” two shows — currently running at the Off Broadway Dodger Stages — which came out of last year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival. Both of those shows moved from the festival to the commercial space with their original bands.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The number of shows from festivals like NYMF that move into commercial Off Broadway theatres will continue to grow. Both “Altar Boyz” and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” are currently under a contract with Local 802. But achieving a signed contract is not always a given. The earlier we can establish a good relationship with both the musicians and the producers, the easier the negotiation process becomes.
In addition to reaching out to the musicians in the greater theatre community, our hope was to establish first contact with new, up-and-coming producers and develop a positive relationship from the start.
In fact, due to our appearance at an earlier production meeting for the festival, the Drama Department, an established theatre company in New York and producers of the show “The Big Time,” contacted Local 802. Working under a different Equity contract from the Showcase Code, the producers were providing their actors with health and pension benefits. They wanted to do the same for their musicians. We worked with them and achieved our first signed contract with a festival producer.
Local 802’s initial expedition into the developmental theatre festivals was a great success. We will continue to develop our Theatrical Showcase Rules and Regulations, advance our relationship with NYMF in the years to come and expand our outreach for next year to include the Fringe Festival.