Podcast Episode 22 Transcript – Kevin McCollum
Ken: You’re listening to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. This week, the show is sponsored by Hand to God, the most Tony-nominated new American play on Broadway. The New York Times calls it “flat out hilarious” and the Huffington Post raves “It’s the best play of the season.” For tickets, visit Telecharge.com. And now, on with the show!
Ken: Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I’m Ken Davenport, thanks for listening. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the thick of the Tony race right now and today’s guest has two shows in the heat. Welcome to the producer of Something Rotten! and Hand to God, Kevin McCollum!
Kevin: Hey, thanks, Ken. It’s great to be here.
Ken: Kevin is no stranger to Tony time, having won the Best Musical Tony Award three times, for Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights. He is also the producer of Motown, The Drowsy Chaperone, the revivals of West Side Story, Ragtime, Private Lives, another Tony winner, and a bunch more. In addition to picking shows that get lots of trophies, Kevin’s shows have had a tremendous track record at the box office as well. In an industry where you’re lucky to recoup one out of five shows, Kevin is crushing that average, especially on his new musicals. Last week, Something Rotten! . . . which is a totally original American musical, that rare breed, not based on a movie or a book . . . grossed over $1 million, joining the $1 million club, and is well on its way to recoupment. So, Kevin, let’s start right there. You obviously have a knack for choosing new musicals that resonate with the theatergoing public. How do you choose a show to get involved in?
Kevin: I’m a great believer that musicals, especially, are not based on any formula. I think people go to the theater to be surprised. I typically look for a musical vocabulary and a theatricality. The Drowsy Chaperone starts with him putting a record on this record player, and the musical comes to life. If you read that show, it doesn’t jump off the page. But because I love theater and I love theatricality, I’m all about how you tell that story in a surprising way, and it started with the lights being in a blackout and the first line is, “I hate theater,” and the whole audience starts to laugh. So it’s all about that initial contract, I look for that initial contract. If it’s a line that I can understand that I haven’t heard before, in terms of describing the show, that helps. Something Rotten! was actually initially called Shakespeare’s Omelet and then we changed it to Bottom Brothers, but then it made the agents giggle too much, so we then thought, “Let’s call it Something Rotten!” And that came out of the fact that it was a musical about the very first musical ever written, and how you stumble with form. I’m a great believer in form and I try not to do things that say “commercial.” I try to do things that are surprising and my belief is, if it’s something that we haven’t seen before, it’s my job to put it forth and I think people want surprises in theater and then it becomes commercial, because they discover something new and fresh.
Ken: You mentioned Drowsy, that you couldn’t read it on the page, but in seeing it, it comes to life. What have been your first exposures to some of these shows? Do you see things in a reading form and then get involved? Do you read things? How does it happen?
Kevin: It’s been a myriad of different ways. One being Rent . . . I saw a workshop that, really, was great music, but the storytelling was not honed. It was done at the New York Theatre Workshop as a workshop production . . . they did it over a weekend . . . and I loved the music enough to get behind it. Then, when they committed to the full production and Michael got to work longer with Jonathan, the show really came to life. But what it did have was “Will You Light My Candle?” and “Seasons of Love,” and I felt, “Boy, if an author can write those two songs” . . . and those two songs, verbatim, remained in the show . . . “then this is somebody that I need to back.” Producing, for me, is about taking writers to lunch and really getting behind writers. Because the primary relationship, and why our industry is a little bit broken, is the producer and the author, because we are on the same side. We are all about building a stronger copyright and a better story and then, oftentimes, a director will come in, sometimes a director is already attached. If the show is completely written and with a whole creative team, I don’t think you need me. I think, then, that’s whoever’s project that is. I might invest, I might be a cheerleader, but I’m probably not going to be the producer on it. Avenue Q was three songs and a script that was more written for television, and we had to let that scriptwriter go, we found Jeff Whitty. I also think sometimes when the writers that write the music and then the author, the librettist, come together and they start to argue, that’s usually when it’s time to bring in the director because conflict, I think, creates better storytelling. If two elements are in conflict, that’s often an opportunity to break through into a new place, and so I’m not afraid of that. I’ll work with just writers for a long time before bringing in a director. So, typically, for my shows, the writer is the motor. With In the Heights that was certainly true. I went to a reading where Usnavi was a much smaller role and there were two protagonists, and that was a reading. I saw the whole show but that show was nothing like the final show, but I heard Lin perform as a minor character and then the shift happened in the show and Usnavi became truly the narrator and the driving force of the show. Those are just three examples of how different it is. The Drowsy Chaperone I did not read for a year. It sat on my floor because the title was The Drowsy Chaperone and Roy Miller brought that to me, a dear friend of mine who, of course, has passed away. It sat on my floor for a year and then, finally, he saw me one evening after Avenue Q and he said, “Look, I’m doing 45 minutes, will you come to that?” And I said, “Okay,” so I came to a NAMT festival and saw 45 minutes and that’s when Bob Martin uttered those lines in the dark, “I hate theater. It’s so disappointing, isn’t it?” The whole crowd laughed and I just went silent because when I see things that are very funny I start to do the math. I actually don’t laugh a lot, but inside I’m thrilled because I started to see how he set the tone, that this is about loving musicals. Because growing up I got teased a lot because I liked musicals and I went to a very sports-driven high school, after growing up in Hawaii where, all through grade school, it was cool to perform because, in Hawaii, it’s a great, supported thing. In 1976 I find myself in Chicago, freshman year, a Chicago suburb, and I feel like I’m in an episode of Glee, the first season. It’s the most uncool thing. In fact, when Glee opened, I was like, “Darn, I should have done that show! That’s my high school!” So I’m used to being a contrarian, so to answer your question in a very long way, and I apologize to the listeners, I try not to think of formulas. I try to be contrarian. I’m driven primarily by music vocabulary or a great idea that is about today, no matter what time period it takes place in. So Something Rotten! is really about Broadway today through the filter of 1595. The idea is you’ve got these writers who are competing like anything to get a hit because Shakespeare is taking all the glory. And even though it takes place in 1595 during the Renaissance, during the Renaissance they felt as modern as we feel today, given the appliances . . . they had just invented the mousetrap and they had a scale, they had all kinds of new stuff, and that was the equivalent of our iPhone. So I’m having fun with form, I do really well with backstage musicals, and a lot of my shows have had a backstage musical element.
Ken: Hal Prince once said to me, “Ken, if you want a musical to happen, get me to direct it, you’ll raise the money, it will be fine,” and I think he was speaking to going to people with track records, it will be a little bit easier. In one of the first blogs I ever wrote I took a look at your career specifically and with Rent and Avenue Q and In the Heights, those three musicals, I noticed a trend. It was the Broadway debut of the book writer, the composer, the lyricist and the director, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom, certainly for our industry, but actually probably for any industry, to go with brand new people that have never stepped foot on a stage in that way before, where the risks are so great. Was this a choice of yours? Did it just happen?
Kevin: I’m an only child and I think I have a face-pressed-to-the-glass mentality . . . will they let me in the room? So it gives me great joy to let people in the room if I have the ability to do that and they’re talented. Thank you for noticing that, that’s why one of the reasons why I also did [title of show], as well as even Motown . . . Barry Gordy was a first time book writer and Charles Randolph-Wright was a first time big musical director.
Ken: And Drowsy too, right?
Kevin: Drowsy as well, and now this one, with the exception of Casey, who’s obviously the most established director and choreographer, and I take great pride that I was able to work with him on his first directing/choreography job in Drowsy, but the Kirkpatrick brothers . . . I’ve known Karey Kirkpatrick for close to 28 years, when I was doing a show called Broadway at the Top at the Contemporary Hotel in Orlando, Florida, working for Disney, and he was doing street theater at Epcot, so isn’t it interesting 28 years later, no, 31 years later actually, I am doing a show about Broadway fused with Renaissance street theater, because they were doing Shakespeare, they were doing commedia dell’arte, they were doing a lot of things, improv on the street, and Something Rotten! is sort of a mashup of those two cultures – Broadway culture and also the Shakespeare culture. So to work with them as brothers, and also John O’Farrell, who’s British, and Karey and John did Chicken Run but none of them had written a musical before. But here’s the thing that happens when you’re working with first time authors on Broadway . . . they’re open for collaboration. Nobody gets stuck in their track record. My goal is to never be an expert, because once you’re an expert you feel you have something to protect. I look at myself as sort of a facilitator, a coach, a shepherd. I’m a really good audience member. I love the form and I am knowledgeable about the form, so when I hear melody . . . I went to a musical school. I understand what it takes, like what someone like Glen Kelly adds to a score, and I understand that Wayne Kirkpatrick, who came from Nashville, wrote great melodies for some of the biggest stars we have in the recording industry and won a Grammy for Song of the Year and then John O’Farrell, who’s a novelist as well, primarily, in London, you get the energy of those three people. My company is called Alchemation. Why? Alchemy is creation, it’s not formulae. I’m not creating formulas, I’m creating rooms where everyone is giving permission to everyone else to be vulnerable. I think vulnerability, and you see it in my advertising as well, is the most important ingredient if you’re going to create. As soon as somebody says, “Well I’m doing this. I’m just this. Don’t touch that lyric. Don’t talk about my staging . . .” If we can’t get our hands dirty with each other we should not do a musical because it is the most collaborative, messiest and joyous experience you can have and my job is to keep it joyous.
Ken: So let’s go back a little bit to how you got started producing. You were a performer growing up, a little bit. What made you want to leap to the other side of the table? How did that start?
Kevin: It was very organic, and I think part of the reason why I am a producer who remains happy producing is I’ve done many jobs. I’ve been an actor, I’ve worked crew, I’ve written lyrics, I’ve written a libretto. Like yourself, Ken, I don’t apologize for my love of the form and I want to promote it. Even if I don’t have a success being a lyricist I need to know what being a lyricist feels like so that I can understand and be empathetic to the process. So I was performing and I got to be about 25, 26, and I must have played so many productions of Joseph, I was Arpad, I was Mordred, I was still 16 years old on stage when I was 25 or 26. I’m an only child, my mom died, who I was raised by, when I was 14, so I’ve always had a survivor instinct and it got to the point where I was tired of waiting for someone to call me to do something where I wouldn’t grow. I had done that. I had played a 16 year old, I had played a 17 year old, and I loved the theater far more than film. And I found myself in Los Angeles and I applied to the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing program at USC and I got in. I was one of two from the other category. I got in because I had done a show called Broadway at the Top that Michael Eisner, when he took over from Disney, had seen and he brought it out to LA to perform when I was still living in Florida. And during the day, I was getting my real estate license while I was doing the show at night, because that’s just who I am. So backstage, I’m talking and I said, “I’m applying to the Peter Stark Program,” and he said, “That’s a great program,” and I said, “You don’t know me but I’d love a letter of recommendation,” and he agreed and I went in to talk to him and he turned me on to his head of staff, Art Levitt, and they wrote a letter of recommendation for me to get into the Stark Program. And, again, that is another lesson for anyone listening, don’t be afraid to take the moment. You are in charge of your own destiny. Don’t wait for permission. I got into the program. I actually auditioned, I got down to the wire as Marius in the national tour that started in LA, so they called, they had me on record, and I went in and I sang for Cameron for Miss Saigon and it was the first time I had an audition. Cameron was in the room and I was singing for Chris, they were coming to Broadway, and as I was singing, it had been a couple of years since I had auditioned because I was going to film school. I realized my voice had kind of lost its pitch that it used to have and so I finished and I was thinking I was average, and Cameron . . . now we know each other and I’ve told him the story . . . he looked up and he said, “It’s been a while since you’ve done a show,” and I said, “Yes, I’ve been in film school,” and he goes, “Oh, where?” “The Stark Program. Actually I’m working at Disney on the film side,” and he said, “Oh, that’s so much better than being an actor.” He did it with love, because he loves actors too, but full circle, it’s 1996, who shows up saying, “Let’s do this in London,” this little show called Rent, but Cameron Mackintosh, and we did Avenue Q together, we did Rent in Australia together. I have great admiration for him and I love the fact that it was only a few years, because I graduated grad school in 1988, it was 1986-88, and then, seven years later, we’re talking about Rent. So if you’re in the business, don’t be afraid to cross-discipline. It’s something I loved. I still love performing, I perform every day because I have to get people excited about my show, and it’s not false. I am playing a producer every day, but it’s so organic to me. It’s probably best I don’t understand it. It just defines me, and when you find something that defines you, it’s hard to call it work.
Ken: That’s a great, great tip and I’m a little speechless because it is, of course, exactly how I feel when I get up and, having witnessed you get people passionate about shows, and having also watched you perform at galas . . .
Kevin: Do you have a gig for me? I’m available, I’m cheap. So much cheaper than Hugh Jackman!
Ken: Oh, I’d love to see you host the Tony Awards. How about that? Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Kevin McCollum.
Kevin: Dear Charlotte St. Martin . . .
Ken: Now, look, you’ve had an incredible success rate, but not everyone can be perfect. Sometimes shows do not work. With someone who is as passionate as you are, who throws everything behind their shows, how do you deal with something that doesn’t work?
Kevin: I always say to people that this is why you have to love the material or love the people making the material, because I don’t go into shows saying, “Oh, people lose their money in the theater.” I actually think people can make great sums of money in the theater and also be very social with their money. Where else can you contribute to something that has never been done before and actually kind of contribute to culture and actually get a return on your money and have it be a living and breathing thing and change lives? For me, it’s really powerful stuff. But when it doesn’t work . . . and one that doesn’t work that I was very proud of, because, again, it was first time authors, was Tom Kitt and Amanda Green’s High Fidelity. And this is where I think I’ve stumbled twice on similar material. The other was Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, which is going to be revived and I’m very excited because I think that that show is one of the greatest shows yet to be a hit.
Ken: I agree.
Kevin: I think it’s a hit just waiting to happen and I’m still very close to Andrew and I’m helping where I can on that show and having Sutton doing it is going to be very exciting. That show, Brian d’Arcy James was in it, Idina Menzel, Julia Murney, Taye Diggs, it was a fantastic show at MTC that Jeffrey Seller and I enhanced and supported from the very beginning. But those two shows failed. They both came from literature, they were not completely original ideas. My success has been completely original material. And films are a little easier than books sometimes, and both of those were kind of internal monologues. And I have sort of done the math to say internal monologues are interesting literature, because you can “as if” yourself in the monologue, but it’s hard to make dramatically active. Things happen, but the point of view is a point of view of being isolated, in one perspective. And musicals are really about a contract with the audience that are more active. In High Fidelity, as a book it’s great. He defines himself through music, which is a very singular experience, and at the same time, because that’s so interesting in the detail, he doesn’t really grow that much in the book. But he realizes he’s now ready to attach. In a musical, the “I want” song acknowledges the need to attach and usually the beginning of the attachment happens fairly soon. It’s very hard to have anti-heroes in musicals. Tommy did a great job, but that’s an opera. Just like there is no revenge in musicals, but there is plenty of revenge in opera. So you start to understand the form and function, so even though there’s no formula in story there are some tent poles in how we connect to our protagonist. Both of those pieces of source material, I was so seduced by my love for the artists, for Nick Hornby, for Tom, for Amanda, that I never really looked at the DNA of the source material, and I think that’s often where shows stumble. Not because it is badly produced or badly written or badly directed, although that happens as well, it’s the DNA. Are the stakes going to be high enough? And the need to connect, to allow you to sing, which is why most of my shows, including Something Rotten!, are about neighborhoods and they’re about finding your family within that neighborhood against all odds. The show starts with an earthly problem. How am I going to pay the rent? What do you do with a BA in English? I hate theater. God, I hate Shakespeare. Two nobodies in New York. These earthly problems that we all, as the audience that paid for the parking and overpaid for our glass of wine to sit in a rather uncomfortable theater for the price, nothing against the theaters, they were built at a time when we were shorter, I guess. But, that being said, they have to solve their earthly problem of, “I’ve got to get a job,” or, “I’ve got to be able to pay the rent,” but actually the answer is . . . and it takes the whole show to answer it, but not too long, under two and a half hours, preferably, please, because people have trains . . . it wasn’t about their earthly problem, it’s that . . . I didn’t have love. I didn’t find my family, I didn’t have my family so those problems became paramount but, through song, we start to realize that it’s about finding our family and all of that paying the rent and what you do with a BA in English, that becomes secondary to how you love and how you connect, and that’s aspirational and that’s why we sing. So that’s what I look for.
Ken: I was just thinking about that blog that I wrote earlier about your career and that’s what I noticed about those three shows, first of all, all of them took place in neighborhoods in New York, Avenue Q, Rent and, of course, In the Heights. I’m sure at this point raising money is a bit easier for you now than it was at the beginning of your career . . .
Kevin: Yes and no, actually. There’s something that’s shifted. At the beginning of my career there were something called angels. Now there’s something called producing partners. I love them all but now everybody is syndicating deals. I keep saying that how we raised money is we all pass around the same $25,000 check, that and benefits, but really what happens is, I think because one in five shows do make it, the reason why it’s one in five is maybe because those other four should not have been produced. There’s a lot of capital right now, but the capital comes with a lot more baggage than it did before, like there needs to be a lot more hand holding, a lot more social events, a lot more meetings. And that’s great on one level because you’re building your community and I think this business needs to be more of a community, and you’ve done a great job giving people access, like this is a very interesting place to be. At the same time, there are only so many hours in a day and so many decisions have to be made by the producer and I look at Something Rotten! and Hand to God and I have two very discrete businesses that are being run. And I look at my producing partners as collaborators and partners, but deciding whether we need to order more salt for the shows, there has to be someone in charge of that, so I’m very clear with my investors and producing partners that I kind of have to be in charge of that and if you think I’m doing anything wrong, please call me, but you have to let me run with it. I think sometimes, if there are five general partners . . . I’ve been on shows with as many as three, that’s the most I’ve ever had, and I think three works at the max. My two shows currently, I am the sole general partner. I’ve been able to create campaigns and stay true to message and be able to do two shows because I’m not losing a lot of time. I have to give my producing partners a lot of credit. They have great faith in me, I’m very accessible to them, but I like to do things on the phone and in person. I think once a meeting gets over ten people it’s not a meeting, it’s a buffet.
Ken: I so agree with you. I’m so thankful for all of the co-producers that have come into the business recently.
Kevin: But it’s different.
Ken: Yeah, it’s just time. You need to be able to make decisions fast. I’m a big believer that some shows fail just because it takes too long to make a decision.
Kevin: Or sometimes the shows are too big and people will say, “Why are they still using that advertisement?” And I’ll say, “It’s an aircraft carrier,” and they’ll say, “What do you mean?” I’ll say, “I look at producing as being in a speedboat because it’s all about deadlines. They’re in an aircraft carrier. It’s easier to just stay the course and hit the rock, because if you turn it around, someone’s going to try to turn it around, not be able to turn it around, and then they’ll blame that person.” So there’s a very interesting dynamic at play. No one wants to be the captain of a ship when it’s running aground, but if you’re the captain of a speedboat you still might run it aground but you’d better turn that sucker around quickly. I kind of believe that, but I also don’t know what I believe because I keep learning every day, which is why my goal is to never be an expert.
Ken: Do you think, looking ahead into the future, I know the final performance of Rent was telecast, is streaming something you’re looking into for your own shows?
Kevin: Yes, I am, but there’s nothing like the live experience. I don’t look at it is a big juggernaut of income. I look at it as an extension of marketing. I was around when Copperfield was touring. When I had a booking business I always dreamed of having a Copperfield. “Please give me a Copperfield!” They gave me Rent instead, which was magic every night. What Jonathan wrote was truly gorgeous and is just as strong today as it was when it was written. But why I said magic show is that magic shows are very interesting. They’re still very popular on television, and yet you still come and see it live. And I think that’s kind of what a musical is. We have a wonderful number in Something Rotten! called “It’s a Musical,” and it’s a love letter to everything we love about musicals and people say, “Don’t you think that’s too inside?” and my question is, “Do you mean too inside for people who buy tickets to go to the theater? Aren’t I doing it in a theater? Don’t people who are there like going to the theater?” And if that gets broadcast, it’s going to be wonderful, but it’s not going to take away from the magic trick of being in the theater watching a song called “It’s a Musical.” Part of the reason for my neighborhoods in New York is, if I do shows about New York, as soon as an audience comes in, they’ve experienced the feeling of New York. The subtext is prepared of the obstacles, whether it’s in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s or a fictitious street called Avenue Q, they know how difficult it is for an African American to get a cab because they’ve seen it. Whether they’re white or black, it doesn’t matter, they understand the environment in which we’re in. So going back to my feelings on how the industry has changed and how to get people in the show, I just think television and streaming is part of the tool of marketing, just like the cast album. I think cast albums are eventually going to be video albums, because why not? We are learning that seeing it in two dimensions, or even with 3D glasses, is not like being at the show. And also the reason why some forms don’t work as musicals is many movies rely on close ups, chases, reaction shots. In the theater, there’s no such thing as a reaction shot, really. There’s a take. Because we can’t focus our eye on a close up. So one of the things . . . seeing “It’s a Musical” on the Tony Awards, there will be close ups and you’ll see Brad’s face close up and they’ll show the tapping feet. I’m sure cameras are going to be sweeping and swooning and, as exciting as that is, it doesn’t compare to the excitement of you sitting back, looking at the proscenium and you deciding where your eyes look. That is what is so human and messy and wonderful about the theater and why you have to show up. I’ll take it from another brand, when they talk about the theater, if somebody’s like, “What’s so different about it than being in any other industry?” I say, “We make the donuts daily. We are a research and development business every night, but we’re masquerading and structured like manufacturing,” and I think that’s also part of the problem with some of our rules of working in the theater. We have to be better structured, the risk/reward ratio has to be better structured, almost like a scientist’s laboratory where we’re inventing electricity for the first time or a pharmaceutical that makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up, because if I can get the hair on the back on your neck to stand up five times during a show, I probably have a hit, because that’s magic and it only happens in a darkened room with strangers and you leave a couple of hours later as a family.
Ken: Speaking of standing up, when I saw Something’s Rotten! . . .
Kevin: It’s “Something,” I have to correct you, it’s “Something.” Something Rotten! You always put a plural on it, which I find interesting, but the actual quote is, “Something rotten in the state of Denmark.” It’s not possessive, unless we win a Tony, then we can be possessive. Then you can call us anything you want.
Ken: When I saw the show, the audience leapt to their feet after the number “It’s a Musical.”
Kevin: Which happens in Act One.
Ken: I assume you’re going to do that number on a telecast. That number in the show, though, is like 87 minutes long.
Kevin: They’ve given us 60 minutes.
Ken: I was going say, you could have a whole telecast.
Kevin: I will say this . . . cutting that number to the time they wanted was difficult and I have to be very grateful to the Tony Awards because they recognized that the DNA of that number couldn’t be cut to what they thought they had time for, and we found some other time, so I guess all of the hosts are going to talk very, very fast so that we can get that number in.
Ken: I’m sure that was quite a negotiation for you, getting every second you could.
Kevin: I want to applaud White Cherry, because I’ve known Ricky and Glenn for a long time and ever since we let them be in charge of creating the best television show, I think Broadway has never looked better. So, again, to recognize what the mediums do and are is also what has changed in the business. That’s been a real positive change, I don’t want to talk only about the negative changes of isolating different income streams. But one of the positives is we’re becoming a global business. Television has helped us become a global business. Our numbers, from a growth standpoint, have gone up again this year, but I promise you, from a profitability standpoint, to the actual person taking the risk, our margins are getting squeezed. That’s why we have to change it. I’m not trying to take money out of anyone’s pocket. I’m trying to make our risk-taking healthier because if we have a healthier environment of risk-taking we’ll have belter shows and the talent that deserves to be on Broadway will get to Broadway.
Ken: A young producer comes to you today, or a wannabe producer knocks on the door, and says, “Kevin, what should I do? I want to do what you do, I want to have the success you have. What should I do today to be where you are tomorrow?”
Kevin: Take writers to lunch and keep your sense of humor, because everyone is going to tell you it’s impossible and, when they do that, understand that they’re coming from their own fear and, if you believe in yourself enough, laugh, take their advice and do what you need to do. But it’s about relationships. I sometimes feel very alone as a producer because I have to make decisions before anyone’s on board to help me. That’s the riskiest time, when you only have a few songs. I think young producers should make sure they have enough money. Not from themselves, but make sure you have the $50,000 to make sure that you can actually acquire the rights and do a 29 hour reading. Just because you put in $15,000 and it’s not working doesn’t mean you have to then raise $500,000. Producing is not just producing. Producing is knowing when you think it can actually be commercial. Invite people like me to your readings. I try to be very open. If it’s a musical, have an ability to show some of the music, whether it’s live or a tape, and that doesn’t cost very much money. Enthusiasm, humor, and just try to connect with people. When somebody asks your advice and you disagree with it, and you’re a new producer, make note of it, don’t try to argue it, because you asked. “No, you don’t understand,” and I’m like, “I’m sure I don’t.” I get a lot of that and I’m like, “Look, I kind of do understand. I don’t understand specifically but, given my 30 years of producing, this is my instinct of what you’re telling me. It sounds like we’ve seen that, or this music doesn’t have enough melody to it.” Another thing a producer does, and I remind young producers of this, they say, “I went to high school with these kids and college together and we wrote this musical. I’m going to be the director and this is it.” Oftentimes the person bringing it to me is the person that needs to be removed. Sometimes it’s a composer, sometimes it’s a lyricist, and I say that because, sometimes in a relationship, the one who actually has more talent than the other is just creating, and the person who’s trying to stay close to that person starts to become the business person and, unfortunately, being a producer, I sometimes have to cause creative divorces because I’ll say, “That lyricist is brilliant, that music is ordinary.” And I’ll say, “If I got involved, you probably shouldn’t bring it to me because if I got involved I’d probably encourage you both to write separately, because together it’s good but it’s not quite good enough, at least on this piece.” And oftentimes those people will then go on to ASCAP or BMI and hook up with other people and, all of a sudden, start doing better things. I don’t think a young author should say, “We went to college together and we’re only going to write together.” I think that limits growth, and we’re only here for so long. So those are some things, but I try to remain open and get a lot of unsolicited stuff. I have agents around the country who call and say, “You might want to go and see this.” I’m developing a show that I know you also knew about that’s now going to Chicago Shakes called Ride the Cyclone, and it’s just different, it is so different. It doesn’t say “commercial” at all but it’s so intriguing and it’s inexpensive enough that I think it could be commercial in the right way. It’s a sort of mix of Glee meets Forever Plaid meets a little Rocky Horror, and yet it’s completely its own thing. And it’s about finding your family as well. It happens to be about a swing choir that dies on a Cyclone at an amusement park and that’s the opening sequence and they live in spirit and they really reflect on their lives but it’s done with humor and grace and redemption. And the question it asks and answers, you know, as in the Kaddish, is, “Are you really ever gone if you contributed at all here?” I’m a great believer in that. I’m driven by death, because my folks died when I was very young and I’m very aware of the ticking clock, which is why I love the theater, because it dies the minute we make it, and that gives me great comfort that we’re all in this together. There will never be enough money, you will never be good looking enough, you will never accomplish enough, but if you make people laugh and you create something that wasn’t there before, you’ve have a good life. So stay in interesting rooms and keep your sense of humor.
Ken: Okay, last question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to your office now. Right after the young producer, Genie knocks on your door and says, “Kevin, you have been that person. You have made unbelievable contributions to the art form, at the same time as you’ve made a lot of people a lot of money. You’ve had a very good producing life and I want to grant you one wish.” What is the one thing that drives you so crazy about this business that you would ask this genie to do and make disappear with the snap of a finger? The thing that keeps you up at night. Now, having been in a room with you for negotiations, and having been your general manager on Q, I know there are a lot of things that drive you crazy. What is the one thing that you would love to have vanish just like that?
Kevin: It’s actually not on Broadway, it’s in our culture. I would like to remind school boards and politicians that America, the country and the ethic of America, is based on great storytelling. It was not based on sports. So I would love to see our educational systems and our politicians start to act in a collaborative arts manner, like putting on a musical. Everybody has a say and it’s all about the show. It’s not about who gets their line in the show. I see our politics and our school systems becoming sports models of winning or losing. If we’re going to educate the youth I’d love to see the Shubert Organization say to every public high school, “If you want to do a musical, we will pay for the rights,” so there’s no excuse. Have the baseball team, but let everybody do Bye, Bye Birdie and let it be for free. If we can get arts mandatorily back in our school systems we will create better people who govern, we will create better parents, and we will create a better civilization. The secret to the world? Put on a show. Put on a show, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what I wish, in junior high and high school, to be part of our education system, and the rest will take care of itself.
Ken: I wish Kevin was actually holding a microphone because he could drop it right there and walk off. What a great way to end. Thank you so much for this masterclass in producing. Everyone out there, go see Hand to God, go see Something Rotten! Good luck on Tony night and thank you so much.
Kevin: Ken, we’ll see you there. I am so grateful that you take the time to contribute and communicate what we’re all trying to do on this little piece of land called Broadway.
Ken: Thanks, everybody. See you next time!
Ken: You’ve been listening to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast, hosted by me, Ken Davenport. This episode was sponsored by the Tony-nominated play Hand to God. New York Magazine says “Hand to God is irresistible, intelligent and heartbreaking. It’s Broadway’s unlikeliest new must-see play.” Get tickets to Hand to God at Telecharge.com.
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.