Calling all angels

Statue of an angel in front of a yew tree in a churchyard

A sequel to ‘Reporting to the Angels’ (

So we’ve talked about submission packs and the numbers pages. But how about the show itself? What does it take to get a ‘yes’ from a producer?

Well, one thing you might have noticed is that I’m talking about ‘shows’ and not plays because most new West End and Broadway productions are shows. At the moment, the only plays that make money are classics with big-name actors – usually ones who also have careers in film. New straight plays (i.e. serious plays – the straight bit has nothing to do with sexual orientation in this context!), unless they’re by huge-name playwrights, go into small theatres and don’t last very long. They get put on at all because the producers think they’re quality theatre and there’s real value in that. But the value is not monetary: at best these plays break even, usually because the production costs were quite low. Shows (i.e. big, expensive musical productions) on the other hand can (though rarely do) make a lot of money.

Whenever I consult on a new show, I look at whether the story is based on a book/film/life-story or ‘the music of X’. All of these things can help sell the show: there’s money in tie-ins.

Next, I ask myself who the show will appeal to and why. Is it too edgy? Is it too old-fashioned? Is there any suspense? Are the characters interesting? Is there at least a dash of romance? Are there at least two really funny moments? Is there at least one moment of real drama?

It’s also important to think about the ‘razzle-dazzle’: nowadays people like musicals to be spectacular, so it’s important to consider what a proposal has to offer in terms of something new and amazing… But if there are going to be computer-generated graphics or cinematic elements or big, moving sets, how are they going to be integrated into the show as a whole? Are they really necessary or are they just tricks? Quick ‘magic tricks’ – things that last one minute or less and leave the audience asking ‘How did they do that?’ – go down very well. Big, flashy ones that take over the whole show don’t. Don’t under-estimate the audience’s ability to get bored of things that are going to cost a fortune: if the trick has to last through the whole show, it had better be a really phenomenal trick. Chances are it’s not and so putting it into your proposal is just going to make potential producers (and their consultants) go ‘You want me to pay how much for this piece of baloney?’ Let me illustrate, once when a producer asked me to see a show to advise on whether it would transfer well from the West End to Broadway I reported that the set moved more than the story did.

Finally, there’s the script and/or music to consider. Some proposals have song-lists and a script. Others have a more detailed synopsis and ‘sample songs’. The proposal that crossed my desk on recently included a sample CD that probably cost upwards of £10,000 to produce. The singers and band were professional. The recording was clearly done in a professional studio, then professionally mastered. The CD had fancy graphics printed on it. The whole thing was a complete waste of time and money.

I listened to the first three songs. Then I listened to the start of each of the other ten songs. One of the big questions producers ask each other on opening night is ‘Did people leave humming the music?’ My report on this proposal read ‘People would probably leave humming the music if they could remember it long enough.’ The whole thing was hopelessly generic: no interesting lyrics, nothing catchy, no spine-tingling key changes. If you took all the most boring bits out of whatever’s on the radio at the moment and turned those bits into full-length songs, you’d get this soundtrack. It wasn’t bad per se: there wasn’t anything wrong with it… apart from the fact that there was nothing right with it. Musicals need good music. You’d be amazed how many people don’t seem to realise that.

Don’t waste your money on producing a fancy recording. I’m not at all put off by a home-produced CD in a plain plastic sleeve with the show title written in felt-tip. The singers need to be able to sing in tune, but it’s fine if they’re accompanied solely by a pianist or keyboard-simulated instruments. People who do this stuff for a living can tell if a song has got mileage from the bare bones, whether they’re dressed up or not.

What can get in the way at this stage is the lack of good arrangements… And by this I do not mean that you need to have an orchestra on the recording. If it’s not your area, and you can afford it, invest in time with a professional arranger. They’ll be able to tell you that verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, coda structures are boring if there’s no variation in the chord structures and style. They’ll change up the rhythm in one of the sections, or they’ll shift one of the choruses into a minor key, or they’ll tell you to ditch the drum-beat and go instrumental on the bridge into the final chorus, or they’ll style one of the sections in a different way (fancy 8 bars of the reggae version of your song to ring the changes?).

This stuff is actually quite important. It demonstrates how much your music can be adapted and generally ‘changed up’ to keep it interesting enough for songs to sustain themselves and build to a climax. If the only way of bringing a song to a climax is to add strings and turn up the volume, you’ve got a problem (though it’s not insurmountable as a number of hit shows demonstrate). It’s also worth remembering that there are lots of repeats in musicals and that songs usually put in several re-appearances with different arrangements each time (with the exception of any ‘mega mix’ at the end of a show). So, if you’ve got the money to spend, spend it on an arranger. That’ll answer many more of my questions about the quality of the music than time in a professional recording studio.

Last, but not least, listen to your feedback. Occasionally, I report that a show has potential… but not enough potential to invest yet. In these cases, I usually suggest that the creatives re-write the synopsis or scrap a few songs (and then write new ones) or work on the lyrics or… If you are invited to ‘try again’, then it’s worth the effort, but only if you listen and try to deliver what the producer is asking for. In the theatre, producers don’t just know the business part of the industry, they (generally) understand a lot about the creative aspects too. They’re not creatives themselves, but they’ve often got stellar creative judgement. Ignore it at your peril.

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