Playing to Win

A guest post by Music Director, Orchestrator and Composer Eli Zoller. Eli was the Music Director for Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge at the 2011 Festival of New Musicals. He asked if he could respond to Adam’s recent post, which itself was a response to an article on Howard Sherman’s blog. We were more than happy to keep the conversation going!

I’d been struggling with my identity in the theatre for a while. For the multitude of professionals in this business, we’ve all had times where we’ve looked in the mirror and asked the daunting question, “how do I ‘fit’ in this industry?” My question wasn’t about my abilities on stage, confidence in my background, or my taste in current theatrical trends (though all weighed on my mind). I asked myself: “Am I in this as a dedicated professional, or as a dedicated fan?”  
I didn’t grow up a theatre fan; I grew up a sports fan. My heroes didn’t score music, they scored touchdowns. However, my love was music and theatre, and today I find myself working in the very field that combines those two wonderful entertainment mediums into the perfect story-telling mechanism known as the musical. However, upon arriving in New York professionally, I quickly became frustrated to find that unbridled and unmatchable creativity had been replaced with add-water-and-stir box office gimmickry; these were not championship teams.
As a sports fan, there are two kinds of teams that the majority of fellow fans root for: the powerhouses (teams with a history of dominance in their sport) and the underdogs (teams that, on paper, don’t match up to the others but still possess the intoxicating will to win…and every so often, they do!). Then there are the teams in the middle; the teams that lack some sort of spark or drive or full-bodied will to compete at the highest level. They think they can bare the same power and skill as the powerhouses, but don’t know how to properly execute. They think they’re better than the underdogs, but are too afraid of failure to go all-in against the toughest challenges. Instead, they play an over-calculated and timid game with underwhelming spirit, overburdened by outside opinion. With all of this focus on how not to fail, they don’t trust their fans to be enough of a motivation for them to just go out and play their hearts out. As a result, their fans abandon them, broken-hearted.
Cast off from the love of theatre audiences of all ages for the powerhouses and underdogs, these “middle teams” are the equivalent of commercial musical theatre today. So far as the entire industry is concerned, the conversation about how to improve has got to start focusing around our honesty between us and our fans; otherwise, we risk losing them for good; the clock is ticking. We as theatrical professionals on all fronts seem intimidated by our surroundings and outside competition (television, film, iTunes, even reality shows), and that’s exactly what turns our audiences away. We shouldn’t be focus-grouping to decide what the next hit Broadway show should be; we should simply be aware of our culture and choose how to affect that culture with our craft as opposed to the other way around. People don’t buy tickets to sporting events because they know the final score before the game starts; they want to see the action, feel the tension, experience the magic. We’re robbing our audiences of that opportunity every time we ask ourselves “what sells today?” “how can we sound more like…?” “has it succeeded yet?” Of course, it has been argued that the quality of the material is the constant culprit, but to what extent can we see a future for our industry if the best of our abilities are being spent on high-quality duplicates of previous art?
I often feared that we’d need to build from the ground up a new musical theatre for Broadway’s future, but it’s out there; it just needs greater support and the time to start is now. It’s certainly what our audiences expect of us as artists, and we owe it to them to be honest, eager, and unafraid to create an original musically theatrical experience. It’s time we admitted it: we’re underdogs! …and we should rejoice! Audiences love an underdog! But being an underdog means playing like one. We need producers who will stop predicting box offices and start believing in artists. We need writers who’ll start believing in their individualities instead of trying to sound like what’s popular. That, and only that, is where the beginnings of a new commercial musical theatre will start. Pundits like Howard Sherman see the proper ways to view our art form on Broadway for potential, not just product. NAMT offers new voices to audiences by giving proud musical theatre underdogs a stage that has the ability to reach across the country. We may lose a lot before we start winning; but I’d rather leave it all on the field than come away with an average and forgettable record. Those are the teams I root for: the underdogs, the fighters, the believers; they never lose the appreciation of their fans, and the legacy of both them and their game lives on forever! It’s a tough game, but I’m a die-hard fan and a die-hard professional, and I’m ready to play! 

3 Responses to “Playing to Win”

  1. Eli Zoller

    After the release of this article, a number of close friends who happen to be respected, experience professionals in theatre contacted me with outstanding suggestions to continue this conversation. David Andrews Rogers, established Broadway Music Director and Conductor, had this phenomenal contribution:

    “We must also consider in the discussion the farm teams, the little leagues, the batting practice, the early morning work-outs, the countless (COUNTLESS!) small town teams struggling to succeed, but – indeed – succeeding simply because they want to play.  They want to participate – either as player or spectator.  The moment we can convince the public to support those groups as well as the major leagues, THAT could be a turning point for us all to keep our work viable.  

    And moreover, don’t get me started on the publicity and the media attention that sports in all it’s forms gets.  If the arts in general and theatre specifically got even 10% of that attention, think what an impact that would make.  There is something in our culture that prevents that or at the very least discourages it.  That is disheartening, but it doesn’t stop us.  It just limits us.”  

    I look forward to sharing more with you soon! Thank you all for your support.

  2. Eli Zoller

    Accomplished musical theatre writer Leah Miles has weighed in on the conversation, offering an interesting perspective from her past to contribute to this conversation about our future. Enjoy!

    “The best piece of advice I have ever gotten is, “When faced with an either or decision, run towards the one that scares you the most.” And you know what? Every time I’ve had to make those “hold your breath and dive in” kind of decisions, when I reflect back on them, I can see, like a bread crumb trail behind me, all the gifts and new opportunities which have lead me to where I’m supposed to be: Proud to be a working writer for the musical theatre.

    Reading your article has landed another crumb in the trail behind me. And it makes me think back to all of my former NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program classmates turned colleagues and I smile. Because I believe we are all out here in the world, doing our part to leave our mark in the theatre world. Energetically, doing what we do as writers, we are all bound to one another by our passion to tell a story. When one of us succeeds, it’s a big step in the direction of a greater collected success.  And feeling that makes doing what I do easier in those times of self doubt.

    To keep the momentum going, seek out the new works that our fellow writers are doing and get out there to see them. We all know how hard it is to mount a show, financially and energetically. But if we can all do our part as writers to pay it forward, then we are setting an example to our audiences and producers to do the same.  

    We’re on to something, and I want to be a part of that. We, the risk-takers, we’re all here ready for our next challenge, our next writing prompt, our next story to breathe life into. We’re ready to shake things up and be heard. We’re ready!”

    Leah Miles and her writing partner Donny Codden are good friends and striving underdogs! I look forward to showing them my support, and I hope you do as well. Keep’m coming!

  3. Eli Zoller

    Another week, and another exciting musical theatre mind contributing his thoughts to the conversation. Writer Kyle Jarrow (A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, Whisper House) has this to say in praise of risk, NAMT, and the uphill battle:

    “I love your conflation of ‘middle teams’ with current commercial musical theatre. It’s a very apt analogy. Both are fundamentally risk-averse. But I think you’re right that there’s a hunger in audiences, particularly younger audiences, for something new in the musical theater world. For something risky. Kudos to NAMT — and particularly the awesome Branden Huldeen — for working to get fresh voices onto the stage. Sometimes I’m sure it feels to them (as I know it does to me!) like an uphill battle, but it’s a battle well worth fighting.”

    Thanks, Kyle! Keep underdoggin’ it!


Leave a Reply