Navigating the Business of Musical Theater

Navigating the Business of Musical Theater

The Unexpected Detours of a Broadway Drumming Career

During my time in San Francisco this summer working on the Broadway-bound musical “The Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical,” an unexpected event occurred near the beginning of tech. Merely days after settling into the theater, the cast and crew were called to the stage at 7 PM. In Broadway parlance, such impromptu gatherings often spell doom, signaling a show’s imminent closure.

Our meeting on the American Conservatory Theater stage, however, harbored a different urgency. It was a cautionary tale against the backdrop of a city grappling with crime and unchecked drug issues. As we got together to listen to the artistic director speak, we were informed of a brazen theft. Intruders had slipped into the theater under the veil of night, pilfering vital production equipment – laptops, monitors, anything within grasp.

This alarming breach led the theater management to swiftly bolster security, ensuring locked doors and vigilant watch post-rehearsal through the night. The revelation was unsettling. The sprawling array of technical equipment, a common sight in any theater’s orchestra section, now seemed like an open invitation to those with nefarious intentions.

Yet despite this disruption, “Soul Train” kept on truckin’. The incident occurring at the theater, which is right at the edges of the Tenderloin and downtown San Francisco, was a stark encounter but not a showstopper. Our ominous 7 PM meeting was not what we expected, but it wasn’t the end of our job.

The Stop Clause: Broadway’s Harsh Business Realities

But far too often, such gatherings herald the end of your job, primarily due to dwindling ticket sales. Today, I aim to discuss an industry mechanism – the stop clause – that may be the cause of a show to leave, even when you may see massive crowds at every show.

As someone who has experienced the rollercoaster of emotions that come with being part of a Broadway production, I understand the allure and pitfalls accompanying this journey. One aspect that often surprises many, as it did with my first Broadway show, “Memphis the Musical,” is the business side of Broadway, particularly the stop clause in theater contracts.

The stop clause is a stark reminder that Broadway is, at its heart, a business. This clause in Broadway contracts allows theater owners to cancel a production if it fails to meet specific financial benchmarks, usually a percentage of the theater’s potential gross revenue over a consecutive number of weeks. This mechanism is designed to protect the economic interests of theater owners, reflecting the harsh reality that a show’s longevity on Broadway isn’t just about talent and applause – it’s equally about tickets sold and seats filled.

When “Memphis the Musical” received its closing notice, it was a jarring introduction to the business realities of Broadway for many of us involved in the production. The show had been running for almost three years, a testament to its artistic success and popularity. However, as in any business, past success does not guarantee future security. This experience was a harsh lesson in the unpredictable nature of Broadway, where production is at the mercy of not just the audience but also the city’s dynamics, the theater owners’ decisions, and the broader economic landscape.

The Case of “Shucked”: When Artistic Acclaim Isn’t Enough

Another example that illustrates the power of the stop clause is the musical comedy “Shucked.” Despite its artistic accolades, including nine Tony Awards nominations and a win, the show is closing at the Nederlander Theater in January of 2024. The decision is not attributed to the show’s quality but to its financial performance, which reportedly has yet to meet the expectations set by the theater’s stop clause.

This situation is further complicated by the upcoming “Tommy,” a revival show with a solid financial outlook, poised to take over the theater. This shift underscores the precarious nature of Broadway productions, where economic considerations can overshadow artistic merit.

I have yet to see “Shucked” or “Tommy,” but I may try and check out the show I hear it’s great. These examples are important lessons for musicians who want to play on Broadway. The need for a show to be commercially viable is as crucial as its artistic quality, but the money always trumps creativity. It is a business first and foremost.

The unpredictability of a Broadway career means that even seemingly successful shows can face abrupt endings. This reality necessitates adaptability, financial savvy, and a broad skill set for anyone aspiring to have a lasting career on Broadway. In other words, hope for the best and expect the worst.

The Journey of Emma Ford: Resilience and Connections in the Broadway Drumming World

The journey of Emma Ford, a talented drummer currently with “Shucked,” exemplifies the importance of resilience and connections in this industry. Her ability to navigate the ups and downs of Broadway, always landing on her feet, is a testament to the skills required beyond musical talent.

Emma’s passion for drumming began in her high school years, and she was later accepted as one of only two drummers into the prestigious Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia’s leading music university, where she gained her qualifications as a Bachelor of Music Jazz Performance.

Emma’s story, as featured on Broadway Drumming 101, is one of hope amidst uncertainty, illustrating that with the right mindset and preparation, one can thrive in Broadway’s challenging yet rewarding world.

Broadway offers a world of opportunity, but it is crucial to enter it with eyes wide open. The stop clause, as evidenced by the experiences of shows like “Memphis” and “Shucked,” is a critical aspect to be aware of. It serves as a reminder to aspiring Broadway musicians that while you may be chasing your artistic dreams, you must also navigate the business realities of theater.

The Importance of Adaptability and Financial Savvy

If you understand these dynamics and prepare for the uncertainties, you will be much better at adapting to the inevitable disappointments that come your way. As composers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have observed, the rising costs of Broadway productions and the increasing focus on existing intellectual property can make it challenging for young writers to break through.

In this ever-evolving landscape, adaptability, financial acumen, and a diverse skill set are essential. While the allure of Broadway’s bright lights and standing ovations is undeniable, it’s crucial to recognize that it is, at its core, a business.

As you embark on your journey to conquer the musical theater world, remember the cautionary tales of shows like “Memphis” and “Shucked.” Embrace the lessons of resilience and connection that Emma Ford’s story teaches. And most importantly, keep your eyes wide open, ready to navigate the ever-changing tides of the Broadway industry.

After all, as the saying goes, “hope for the best, but expect the worst.” With that mindset and the right preparation, you just might be the one standing on that iconic stage, reveling in the thunderous applause, and leaving an indelible mark on the world of musical theater.

So, what are you waiting for? The curtain is about to rise, and the stage is yours for the taking. The Musical Theater Center is here to guide you every step of the way.

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