So You Want to Write a Musical: Interview of Steve Cuden by Robin Gorman Newman
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know I frequently review theatre. I love sharing my love of shows. Theatre is one of my greatest passions, and in addition to being founder of MotherhoodLater.com, I’m the author of two books How to Meet a Mensch in NY and How to Marry a Mensch. I’ve long wanted to write a play, and at the suggestion of a producer, am currently at work on the book for a potential Off Broadway musical inspired by the material from my books. I’m also Associate Producer of Motherhood Out Loud, an acclaimed play written by noted playwrights, novelists, etc, that was recently published by DPS and is now available for licensing for production at theatres, conferences, schools, etc. It played at Primary Stages in NYC and has since gone on to various regional productions and will be overseas.
Recently I learned of a book Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations by Steve Cuden (SC), and it’s been such a a great read that I (RGN) seized the opportunity to connect with Mr. Cuden, Writer/ Director/Producer and conduct the following interview.
Whether you have interest in writing a play or just love theatre, you will find his insight, experience and generous offering of information helpful, interesting, inspiring….and right on the money. I highly recommend his book, and I appreciate him taking the time to share.
RGN: If someone is thinking of taking a playwriting class in NYC, any in particular you’d recommend?
SC: I’m probably not the best person in the world to recommend schools in New York mainly because I don’t live there and did not go to school there. But there sure are some amazing schools in the city. If you are looking to get a degree, then there’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Columbia University. Both have well-considered programs. If someone is looking for something less university-like, there’s HB Studio, and any number of other smaller, more intensive workshops to try, such as the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
I think one of the very best ways to become a better writer is to just write. Join a small writing group or start one of your own. Meeting and gathering with other writers regularly to have your stuff read and played aloud in a supportive workshop is a really great way to develop work.
RGN: Other than reading your highly engaging and informative book, what can aspiring playwrights do to learn the craft?
SC: Thank you for saying that. I hope people find Beating Broadway inspirational and helpful. I’m afraid there really is no substitute for writing. A lot. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent book, Outliers, The Story of Success, it takes something like 10,000 hours to become a master at anything. Writing is no different. It’s like a muscle. The more you write the stronger and better you get at writing. If you want to be a writer, then write.
But there are also other things you can do, too. Read as many plays as you can get your hands on. See how others have done it. Read the Greeks and Shakespeare and Moliere and Wilde and Shaw and Ibsen and Chekhov and Williams and O’Neill and Beckett and Miller and Mamet and Wilson and all the other great playwrights. There are some seriously broad shoulders out there upon which an aspiring writer can stand, and one must understand how these hugely successful playwrights have done it in order to know what it is one must do. See as many plays as you can jam into your life. If you see two plays a week for ten years, then you would have seen a bit more than a thousand plays. You may learn a thing or two. Become an actor. How can you understand how to put words in an actor’s mouth if you don’t know how and what it is that an actor does?
As far as musicals go, it’s the same thing, only writing musicals requires a facility for writing music and lyrics, too. Unless you are yourself a great composer and lyricist you’ll need to find those who are willing to join you as a partner. Musicals are special animals, and writing a musical can be a long, arduous, difficult task. They require having truly great fortitude and stamina. But the same advice holds true – write and write some more and keep on writing. And study all the musical masters who preceded you – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kern, Hart, Lerner and Lowe, Willson, Herman, Sondheim, Schwartz, Shaiman and Wittman, and so on. See, listen to, and study as many musicals as possible.
RGN: What current Broadway and Off Broadway shows do you like?
SC: I love the fact that my friend Jeff Marx’s very special show, Avenue Q, had such a phenomenally long run on Broadway and then moved to Off Broadway where it is very much alive. How many shows can make that claim? I really like Book of Mormon and Pippin. But what I’m truly excited about seeing is A Night with Janis Joplin which will be at The Lyceum in October. I’m betting that show, written and directed by the brilliant Randy Johnson – who happened to write the Foreword to Beating Broadway, so I’m biased – is going to blow people away. Mary Bridget Davies literally inhabits Janis Joplin. She raises the roof. Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t say I’m kind of a fan of Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical, which, unfortunately, did not have a long enough run on Broadway earlier this year.
RGN: Do you recommend workshops like ASCAP and BMI? Can a book writer get in?
SC: Yes, of course I recommend such workshops. ASCAP and BMI are the grandest of them all, but getting into any of those sorts of programs presents huge advantages for creators of musicals. You gain phenomenal experience by being critiqued by master writers. You can build a substantial reputation in those workshops. Regarding book writers, I’m not sure how you write a musical without somebody writing a libretto. This is true even if you write an opera and there is no dialogue, only recitative. A musical requires a story or else it is probably going to be called a concert. And you need a writer to write the story. In my opinion, the music and lyrics ought to always follow the story – not the other way around. Book writers make the whole thing tick.
RGN: What does it take for an Off Broadway musical to succeed/earn back its investment? Isn’t it tough, since most Off Broadway theatres don’t have that many seats?
SC: There aren’t many investments harder to recoup than those in the theater. It takes is a lot of hard work to make a show as good as can be, and then it takes a generous dose of luck that audiences are able to find it and talk about it. Word-of-mouth is still the primary generator of ticket sales in the theater. Smaller theaters tend to run smaller shows with smaller casts that require fewer costumes, sets, and musicians. That’s one of the ways that a smaller theater makes money. None of it is easy. There is no magic formula or else everyone would be partaking of it. Do what you like and like what you do. That’s a start.
RGN: Can shows make money outside NY? Do many find success that way even if they didn’t do well in NY?
SC: Yes, there are shows that do well and never reach New York. Some shows become locally popular somewhere and run a long time. Sometimes they spawn other productions, yet never play Broadway or even New York City. Shear Madness is a good example.
What is still somewhat true is that if a show can make it to Broadway and have even a short run it will take on a different, special cache which may enhance its chances of having life, maybe a lucrative one, in secondary rights licensing. There is definitely money in that.
RGN: How important is it to try out show out of town before coming to NY?
SC: Not too many shows succeed in New York City without a lot of work in front of audiences elsewhere first. It’s still a fairly indispensable tool. Of course, playing out of town before reaching Broadway is hardly a guarantee of success.
RGN: How come so often shows get poor reviews by critics? Don’t the creatives involved have any idea they need work, or are they just too close to or wedded to their material? Do they fail to make changes in previews?
SC: Asking me to figure out the critics is a few rungs above my pay grade. Sometimes producers and creators just can’t see the forest for the trees and don’t know how to fix things. Or they don’t think things need to be fixed and refuse to do so. Sometimes there’s not enough money to make the fixes. Sometimes producers believe in a property initially only to figure out too late that their initial feelings were flawed. The bottom line is that this is a highly collaborative art and so much of success is based on chemistry and timing and a lot of stuff that is not controllable. Sometimes productions find lightning in a bottle, but far more often they do not. Theater can be cruel and it can be a slice of heaven – sometimes simultaneously.
RGN: Do you recommend readings and out of town tryouts?
SC: As much as possible.
RGN: Any tips on how to get a show produced Off Broadway?
SC: I don’t mean to seem glib, but find yourself an experienced producer who has access to money. It certainly helps if you have the money already. There is no magic bullet, really. Meet and get to know as many people in the business as you can. At the end of the day it is a business of people who know people. Get your show into the hands of as many potential legitimate producers as possible and let the chips fall where they may.
RGN: How do you find a composer and lyricist if you’ve written a book for a musical?
SC: Tough question to answer. There is no single good answer. Join local musical theater writing groups – if any. Become a member of a theater company that does musicals. Take classes or workshops. Go to conferences like NAMT and NYMF and ASCAP. So much luck is involved. But Thomas Jefferson, I think, once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Good work attracts good people. But you have to put yourself out there.
RGN: Is it recommended, essential or helpful to enter a show in competitions?
SC: In most cases, I don’t see how it can hurt. Of course, expect rejection because it is going to come, and that can be discouraging. But if you can’t take rejection and keep on fighting then you are in the wrong business. There is much to be learned from seeing what others do, and much to be learned by trying to figure out what makes a show tick under the duress of competition. Learning to prepare under deadline can be invaluable. You have to be willing to put your work on the line at some point, and it is always instructive to get the feedback of a live audience.
Together with renowned composer, Frank Wildhorn, Steve co-conceived Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical, writing the show’s original book and lyrics. Steve and Frank also co-conceived the international hit musical, Rudolf, Affaire Mayerling. Steve has written ninety teleplays including episodes of: X-Men, The Batman, Iron Man, Xiaolin Showdown, Pink Panther, The Mask, Loonatics Unleashed, Extreme Ghostbusters, Goof Troop, Gargoyles, and Beetlejuice. He directed and co-produced the multi-award-winning horror-comedy movie, Lucky. Steve teaches screenwriting at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. Visit http://www.beatingbroadway.com.