Recently the Chicago Sun-Times ran a front page article on musicals in its Magazine Section for which several prominent theater professionals were interviewed. Below is the complete interview with Harry Cohen.
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: Harry Cohen is a former theater and music critic who now consults in New York on musicals.
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: With “The Producers” opening in Chicago, it seems a good time to explore what makes one musical a hit and another a flop. Some musicals seem unlikely prospects for success, but don’t all great musicals take risks?
HARRY COHEN: We would have to define “great musical,” but I can only think of a few truly successful musicals that took any real risks. “Fiddler” was one. Absolutely no one wanted to produce it in the first place because of the subject matter. They weren’t able to see beneath the surface to the underlying universal elements that transcended religion and culture. “Chorus Line” was another. It was the first musical that bridged the long standing gap between the book musical and the revue. It had all the characteristics of a revue, but introduced character, the essence of a book musical, and blended it all seamlessly. “West Side Story,” though dated now, was somewhat risky for its time.
CST: Would a musical about Hitler ever make it?
HC: Never. We’ve recently seen the next worst thing though, namely “Capeman.” The subject matter doomed it from the start. Such things are better explored in a film, or even a straight play. But its demise was attributable to much more. The librettist and lyricist were very inexperienced. Beyond that, there was the music, which brings up an important point about today’s musicals. There is a misconception that has been evolving in recent years to the effect that “music is music,” and that any composer can write for a musical. It simply isn’t true. Since the advent of the book musical, say “Showboat,” theater music has always been a discrete genre. That’s because, when written properly, it naturally arises from character and context. Theater music must reflect and support specific lyrics sung by a particular character within a defined context. I’ve only heard a few composers who can execute that properly and well. People like Paul Simon and Elton John are pop songwriters. Their theater music is fairly simple and generic, and bears at best a tenuous relationship to the lyrics.
CST: Is there a formula for success?
HC: Not really. Even if a musical is honed to perfection, you still have no assurances. There are many other factors that come into play that can destroy the best written musical. I’ve seen directors make hash of outstanding work, the wrong music director can be disastrous, and even the venue can be wrong for any given show. Also, you have to define “success.” It may be hard to believe, but most musicals show a loss at the end of their run, even some you might consider “successes.” That’s because the initial capitalization is simply too high. Much of the Broadway audience is comprised of tourists, and the producers want to give them spectacle, which entails enormous cost for sets, costumes, etc. Worse, the weekly running costs have soared for two main reasons. First, the unions, whose contracts stipulate you must pay four people to screw in a light bulb. In addition, we have a situation where set, costume, and lighting designers are now demanding and receiving ongoing royalties. They historically were paid a one time flat fee, since they only render their services the one time, at the outset. There is no rationale or justification for them to receive royalties. The only saving grace for most musicals is the “afterlife” – stock and amateur rights, cast albums, music rights, sheet music, publication rights, and subsequent domestic and foreign productions.
CST: Are there absolute no-nos?
HC: “Springtime for Hitler.”
CST: Was there one show that surprised you – one you thought would never make it?
HC: No, only because there no longer seems to be any relationship between the quality of a musical and its prospects for success. Practically everything in recent years should not have made it on the merits. The fact that x number have is simply a testament to wily producers’ skills, and lack of audience discrimination. With today’s high powered media at their disposal, producers can keep a show running with an advertising blitz, sometimes one that includes quotes from critics taken out of context that can be hysterically funny if you read the original review. Between that and papering the house, the idea is to keep it going long enough to make viable the “afterlife” I mentioned, which can allow them to recoup and even show a profit.
CST: What’s the most unlikely success you’ve ever heard of?
HC: Again, for the above reasons, nothing anymore is an unlikely success, if by success we mean a long running musical.
CST: Is there a show you thought would be a sure-fire hit that flopped?
HC: There’s no such thing as a sure-fire hit, but in any case nothing has flopped in recent years that I didn’t expect to.
CST: Has Andrew Lloyd Webber made a deal with the devil?
HC: I think that Andrew Lloyd Webber has received a lot of unjustified criticism. It’s important to distinguish his music from the kind of trite “music” we hear these days. A few years back there was a composer who had three musicals on Broadway at the same time, but his music is strictly 1-4-5 pop stuff. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, on the other hand, happens to be sophisticated. Take the score of “Phantom” for example. This is a prime example of something you rarely hear anymore, that is, a truly integrated score. He weaves interrelated themes and motifs throughout, and connects the individual songs organically to create an integral whole, instead of the kind of piecemeal hodge-podge that usually prevails. His music has form and structure, his harmonies are far above the pop composers, and he knows how to utilize counterpoint to good effect. All this plays no small part in his success, because even if audiences are not aware of the underlying technical proficiency, it still has its proper effect upon them in terms of enhancing the drama. And these charges of “pseudo Puccini” are absurd. There is a difference between genuinely good melody and saccharine melody. If he’s a fine melodist, does that make him a bad composer? It's the old knee-jerk reaction to excellence, the way they used to criticize Heifitz’s perfection as “cold.” It’s all nonsense.
CST: Is there general advice you give to your clients?
HC: Yes. The first thing to do is write a comprehensive libretto outline with fully developed characters. Write a synopsis of every scene. Then manipulate the structure while everything is still in outline and synopsis form. That way you can organize and revise the scenes and structure before you have gone too far. All this must be done without any reference to music or musicalization. Only when you are satisfied with the overall libretto do you study it to find the dramatic highlights that should be enhanced with music. By always having the skeleton in front of you, you can flesh it out properly. And since music imposes time limitations, it has to fulfill the same functions as dialogue. So you can save the trouble of writing dialogue that would only be ultimately replaced by lyrics. And should be replaced. Frequently you hear a song that merely reiterates what we have just heard in dialogue. Next, you must make certain that every song functions. I constantly hear songs that serve no purpose, as though the author said, “This seems like a nice place to put a song in.” There’s a lot more, but we don’t have sufficient time.