UPDATE 8:45: Adds more comment regarding Broadway book writers.
EXCLUSIVE: Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.
ROTH: It’s starting to feel like the only people who really get what a book writer does are book writers. This week, a group of our most accomplished librettists wrote a collective Letter To The Editor of The New York Times each explaining in their own unique way what a book is and how it functions within a musical. This letter was prompted not only by the Drama Desk’s elimination of the book category this year — which was quickly and wisely reinstated — but also by Times critic Charles Isherwood writing about his puzzlement over Hamilton‘s best book Tony nomination given that the musical “is almost entirely sung-thru.” He’s not alone. Many theater lovers both in the audience and in the business believe that a musical’s book writer is responsible solely for the spoken dialogue. As James Lapine, Terrence McNally and more explain in their letter, the book writer is responsible for crafting the entire structure of the musical, for designing the foundation upon which the whole show is built. Whether each of the building blocks are ultimately realized through speaking or singing or dancing or lighting or something else does not change the book writer’s fundamental contribution. And that’s not the only role that is often misunderstood. How many think that the director’s job is mostly telling the actors where to stand? And then there’s sound design and orchestrations.
Of course, whether we know who to credit or not, whether we know exactly what they do or not, the work still stands and speaks for itself. But in our business, credit and awards and whether awards are even given all matter.
GERARD: Sure, they matter — to other people in the theater. Do critics have an obligation to know better than just folks about the contribution of the book writer? Sure (though I seriously doubt Charles Isherwood’s comment was meant to suggest he doesn’t know what the book author’s responsibilities are). This is an old issue. When the great book writer Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly!, 42nd Street) died in 1987, it was recalled here that no less a figure than David Merrick showed his contempt for the profession by crediting Stewart and co-author Mark Bramble with “lead-ins and cross-overs.”
“Mr. Stewart often bemoaned the fact that musical-book writers did not get the kind of appreciation accorded composers and lyricists. ‘I don’t know why any bright person would want to be a musical-book writer,’ he said in an article in The New York Times in 1979. ” ‘You’re scorned by critics, you get no recognition from the public, and the money isn’t that good, either. I feel I’ve written two classic American musicals – ‘Birdie’ and ‘Dolly’ – but both books got terrible reviews.’ ”
This also is one issue that shows clearly why the Tony Awards telecast services the business of Broadway promotion but not the art of Broadway creation. The Tony show has seen the inexorable diminution of categories that don’t have a high entertainment value, from creatives including book and score writers to playwrights, directors and choreographers. And why shouldn’t they, when they have to keep a global audience entertained? Everyone wants to see big numbers from Hamilton, Waitress, The Color Purple and Shuffle Along, but who wants to listen to some word nerd nattering about the process of laying the structural groundwork for a musical, as those Times signatories imply? Read their letter — even they couldn’t manage to make the hard work of book writing for a musical seem very romantic. I remember Yip Harburg talking — I believe it was at the 92nd Street Y — about how many grueling hours it took to come up with “somewhere over the rainbow,” because “over” wasn’t an obvious choice. “Beyond,” “on the other side of” and other choices seemed apt. And then, magic. Only you and I and a handful of our friends would find that story worthy of primetime.
Next subject. I want to return to something we’ve discussed before, but that’s taken, I think, a new turn: Making the experience of attending a Broadway show less of an affront to common sense, rather than the worsening gauntlet for patrons that begins with trying to navigate the bottlenecked Theater District to finding somewhere to put your knees while trying to watch a show from an orchestra seat so poorly placed that unless you’re behind a child, much of your time will be spent peering around someone’s head.
I’m encouraged by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s growing anti-mobile phone activism. He’s taken to texting the stage manager at the Richard Rodgers with the positions of people recording Hamilton during performances. His co-star and fellow Tony nominee Phillipa Soo tells me what bothers her the most is that people filming aren’t watching the show. I couldn’t care less about idiots who will pay hundreds of dollars to watch a live show on a tiny screen. I just want the damned phones off.
And in another razz to the common customer, my wife and I were being routinely inspected before a recent performance of (the still shattering) Blackbird at the Belasco. The flashlight-wielding inspector told my wife she couldn’t bring her bottled water into the theater. When she reluctantly started to empty it, she was told she couldn’t bring the empty plastic bottle into the theater, a “management rule.” I mean, really.
ROTH: We don’t have that rule, so I can’t speak to what that’s about, but I’m sure there’s a reason. I do think it’s important to have only those rules the reasons for which can be clearly explained and to offer those explanations whenever invoking them. But you know why the security guards are inspecting bags and while it’s so sad they have to, we should all feel better that they are. Let’s not confuse the challenging realities of living in our world today with challenges of theatergoing. And yes, there are challenges, though we try everyday to lessen them.
Actors have always told stage management where they see cameras or disruptions of any kind, and that is immediately relayed to the front of house team who then attempt the tough job of stopping it without creating even more of a disruption. That’s not new (though I do enjoy the newish irony of texting during your performance to get someone to stop texting) and until every audience member leaves their phone in their pocket, it will unfortunately continue. I know it’s so frustrating for actors and theater team members who see it happening every performance, night after night. But the thing we all have to remember is that’s not the same patron doing it night after night so we cannot unleash a fountain of frustration on them as if it were. We talk about this in our theaters all the time. For our teams, this may be the 806th time tonight we’ve been asked where the restroom is, but it’s the first time that person has asked, so we want to answer afresh with no tone of frustration.
But since this might be the 806th time on this next one, tone shift: Speaking of “Over The Rainbow,” I’m so over people blaming the Tony Awards for wanting to be entertaining. We are theater — making stories and ideas entertaining is what we do! You say you want just awards but then when award winners read off a list of thank-you’s you’ll complain about how boring that is. And you should. The acceptance speeches we remember are the speeches that touch us, that tell us a story, that let us in, that make us laugh, that make us cry. You know, entertainment.
Would millions of viewers want to have seen Yip Harburg alone at a podium recounting how a song got written? Maybe not (though yes, you and I and probably everyone reading this would). But would they want to see a number built around him sitting at his desk frantically writing and scratching out while Audra McDonald sings what’s in his head… “Somewhere beyond the rainbow” then correcting herself “Somewhere on the other side of the rainbow” then more versions before she triumphantly arrives at “Somewhere over the rainbow” and continues to a big finish? Oh yeah they would! That’s how we bring things to life. That’s what theater is. Why shouldn’t the awards show for theater want to be as theatrical as the theater it celebrates?!
GERARD: Well I know who I’m nominating to exec produce next year’s Tony Awards. But Jordan, once we get through that 20-minute segment on “Over The Rainbow,” which producer are you going to tell his or her number’s been cut for time?