HOW TO LIVE A SUCCESSFUL LIFE IN FLOPS
by Steven Carl McCasland
Immediately after graduating from Pace University, I promised myself I wouldn’t wait around for theatre to come to me. I’d make it happen. Of course, it took a year to realize that goal, but eventually Beautiful Soup Theater was born. In the summer of 2010, with a very small (practically non-existent) amount of funds in the bank, I debuted the company with a pair of one-acts. Over the course of the next two years, I honed the mission of Beautiful Soup: to present theatre that would bring awareness to the charitable organizations of the tri-state area. But there was another element that was of importance to me, and that was my love (and devotion to) for flops. You know, those big Broadway bombs that the critics (and the audiences) slaughtered. Combining these ideals, Beautiful Soup Theater, the home of Moose Murders’ first and only New York revival, was born.
So many people ask for advice in starting up their own theatre company. I’m not sure I’m the best one to be giving that advice, as I’m still learning more and more every day; but I’ve developed over the past few years, a few “first steps” for those who ask.
1. START WITH A NAME
Though it might not seem like the most difficult of challenges, selecting a name for my production company was an incredibly daunting task. I decided that I would turn to an old friend for advice: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I opened it to a random page, and there was the Mock Turtle singing of his history. It all seemed pretty obvious from there.
2. FIND THE MONEY TREE
According to Kander and Ebb, there’s a place where the green dollar fits on the silver money tree; but to tell the truth, I haven’t found it yet. For Beautiful Soup, the continued obstacle has been fundraising. How do you start a theatre company in New York City, rent a theatre, pay royalties, find the funds for advertising and make sure you’re getting by? It’s hard. And to be perfectly frank, I’m not sure I’ve figured it out yet. But for a small theatre group like ours, it’s the volunteer staff and patrons that are most important.
For almost all of our productions, we are blessed to welcome volunteers. The only staff members who take home small stipends at the end of the production are our Stage Managers and Musical Directors, who put in more time and energy than many of us in the “office”. Our talented casts are made up of volunteer performers of all backgrounds. Without them, there wouldn’t be shows; but being able to select a charity a lot of people don’t know about, seeing them receive a check AND attention? We can’t beat that. It’s why we keep Beautiful Soup alive.
While we do use a great deal of crowdsourcing on IndieGoGo (you get to keep your funds, even if you don’t reach your goal, unlike other sites like Kickstarter) to fund our larger productions, we also host a concert series and small readings throughout the year to bring in pure profit for Beautiful Soup to cover its operating costs.
3. GET A GIMMICK
Stephen Sondheim wasn’t lying: You gotta get a gimmick, if you wanna get a hand. Especially when you’re trying to lure audiences in when there are fifty other (at least!) productions playing elsewhere in the city. Why should they choose you?
For our first year, I presented mostly Shakespearean classics, and new plays. Royalties can get expensive. But it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, and it wasn’t bringing in any audience. It was clear that I needed to turn to what I loved most: archiving and exploring the short-lived plays and musicals that are now thought to be urban legend. Not only would I be doing what I loved, but I’d be bringing in curious theatre-goers who’d always wanted to see these shows. The formula worked and our production of A Doll’s Life was the first in a “new” Beautiful Soup Theater.
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, A Doll’s Life seemed to have a lot going for it, including producer/director Harold Prince. But a musical sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with lyrics like “please pass the salmon” barely treaded water for five performances. Hidden underneath the disastrous reviews and the many urban legends about a ditzy leading lady, however, was a stunning score by a relatively unknown composer: Larry Grossman. Why shouldn’t we bring it back to New York for its 30th Anniversary? Armed with a red pen and the permission of Larry Grossman and Green’s widow Phyllis Newman (for whose Health Initiative the production would benefit), I studied three versions of the show and presented a brand new look for audiences. The reception was warm, welcoming and it was clear that our “gimmick” would lead to many more productions. (Discover two songs from the show sung by cast members from our production by clicking here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u99TYYuxj2o (Preview) .)
4. PICK THE RIGHT SHOWS
Part of learning how to run a successful theatre company is trial and error. Like Betty and Adolph had to learn about the mistakes of writing a musical inspired by Ibsen, I had to learn that not every “flop” was redeemable. And not every “flop” was really, truly deserving of that title.
In the early weeks of January 2013, I bravely went where no producer had gone in 30 years. I went to the scene of a horrific crime. And that crime was Moose Murders, Broadway’s biggest disaster of all. I even got the playwright to revisit his traumatic experience and revise his script. But the play deserved to close on Opening Night. It deserved to stay buried. And resurrecting it for two weeks even for curiosity’s sake turned out to be the opposite of what I expected. Dragging out shows to make fun of them wasn’t what I had in mind. It wasn’t what I wanted to spend my life doing. I wanted to redeem these misunderstand shows. I wanted to reintroduce them to a new audience. I wanted to find the parts of them that truly soared, like Larry Grossman’s score for A Doll’s Life. It was evident that Moose Murders would need to be followed with something truly special.
This time, I chose right. I chose Stephen Schwartz, Joseph Stein and Charles Strouse’s Rags. The still surviving Schwartz and Strouse gave me full permission to pull from every version of Rags and create my own new version. I found 7 different librettos, and 5 different scores. It took three months, but I finally had a brand new libretto. Our largest production to date, Rags featured a six-piece orchestra, a 20-person cast and stunning projections by an up-and-coming designer named Brad Peterson. It restored my love for archiving these lost works and armed me with a newfound confidence.
Next, we’ll present the American premiere of a musical that opened in London to very mixed reviews earlier this year. Lift, with a libretto by Ian Watson, features an extraordinary new rock score by Craig Adams. The concept album thrilled all of us at Beautiful Soup when we first heard it, and it was clear we wanted to give the show a life across the pond. The show, by no means a flop, was certainly misunderstood by some critics and audiences. It is a complex look at missed connections, loss and love. How American audiences will respond? We don’t know. But that’s part of the fun in picking shows that are sometimes misunderstood.
This winter, we’ll be presenting the first revival of Molnar’s Liliom (the play that inspired Carousel) in over 70 years. While it was far from a flop, the play has long been forgotten. Producers often choose to revive Carousel instead, looking past Molnar’s beautiful and heartbreaking play. After that? A new season, and productions we’re still lining up. I’m itching to revive Prettybelle, but I’m not so sure my colleagues are interested in putting a drunk, racist, psychopath in a tree to sing showtunes. (Learn more about that doozy by clicking here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqtH0sVU8_8 (Preview) .)
5. DON’T GIVE UP
It might sound easy, and it certainly sounds corny, but it’s the hardest and most important of all. We’ve got a hard road ahead of us all in this business. Production companies across the country are closing. Just last month, Theatre Under the Stars announced they were bankrupt after nearly 50 years in operation. On top of it all, there are more and more eager new faces arriving in New York City armed with rep books and luggage full of “the perfect audition clothes”. But you won’t get anywhere sitting around at home, kvetching that you don’t have an agent. Find an agent. There are books available at The Drama Book Shop that’ll teach you how. Write a play to star in. Crowdsource for the rental fee at a theatre. Find a space. Find a scene partner. Tell your story. Make it happen. Stop waiting for someone else to do it for you. Theatre is the best medicine for folks like us. If I didn’t have a rehearsal to go to tonight, I’d be lost.
STEVEN CARL McCASLAND is the Artistic Director of Beautiful Soup Theater, founded in 2010. Since its premiere production, the company has presented revivals of Rags, A Doll’s Life, Crossing Brooklyn, Moose Murders and many more productions. To learn more about the upcoming American premiere of Lift, which will benefit Broadway Impact, visit Beautiful Soup at www.beautifulsouptheatercollective.org.
Steven Carl McCasland