Podcast Episode 49 Transcript – Drew Cohen
Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Obviously a lot of the chatter here on the podcast, as well as on my blog, is about what happens here on Broadway. But we often forget that what happens here on Broadway ripples through the rest of the country and the rest of the world in productions and theaters of all sizes, and that’s a huge business. And that’s the business of my guest today. Welcome to the podcast the president of Music Theatre International, Mr. Drew Cohen. Welcome, Drew!
Drew: Thanks, Ken.
Ken: So, just to give you an example of how big this business is, I just toured the office here at MTI and it took like an hour and a half because the place is so big. But Drew, a lot of people out there may not know exactly what it is a music licensing company does, so here’s my Wichita cocktail question. I want you to imagine that you’re at a cocktail party in east Wichita with a bunch of people who have never heard of the theater before and one of them says, “What do you do?” What would you say?
Drew: I would say, what we do is I work for Music Theatre International, which is a licensing house that represents the rights to Broadway shows. There’s usually a moment where they get excited and think that I’ll be able to get them tickets for the show, that we are producing the show. That’s not the case, so I dispel that right away and say that we represent the show for all productions other than Broadway. And, of course, in a more general sense, for your listeners, it’s everything other than first class productions, generally. So we don’t license the show in the West End, we don’t license the show in New York. But for anyone who wants to do a show that has played on Broadway or on the West End in their own theater . . . which could be a professional theater, it could be a community theater, it could be a high school or church group or even a summer camp . . . they would come to us, as the authors’ representative, to get the rights to put on that show. And the response that usually comes from that is, “Oh, people have to pay for that? When they do a high school production?” Sometimes when I say, “Yes, they do,” there’s outrage. “What do you mean, they can’t just do Guys and Dolls for free?” And I point out, “Look, they pay for their software, they pay for their books, they pay for other intellectual property.” It’s one of the challenges, actually, explaining to people that, yes, these are property rights of the authors who have worked many years, in most cases, on these shows and they deserve to be compensated when the property is used.
Ken: They can do Shakespeare for free, if they want.
Drew: That’s right, and authors have often said that. That’s, frankly, why shows like A Christmas Carol get done every year. It’s obviously a great piece of work, but there’s no royalties to be paid on that or Shakespeare.
Ken: That cocktail question, actually, is a difficult one for your job, because many people I talk to have never been to Broadway before. I say, “I’m a Broadway producer,” and they don’t have any clue. But most people went to high school in this country, and most high schools have drama departments or do a musical. Is it all of them? Do you know what the percentage is?
Drew: I don’t know what the percentage is. There are somewhere around 30,000 public high schools in the country. We’ve done business with close to 25,000 of them at one time or another, so most schools have some kind of arts program. It’s a shame that, even with regular talk about arts programs being cut all the time, there are many schools that have never had an arts program. MTI actually does a lot of outreach to introduce arts programs to those schools, for self-serving purposes but also for the good of the community. The good news is, for authors and for companies like MTI, there is a tradition in this country of there being a spring musical in high schools, or a spring show, so even schools that have a modest budget allocated, they’ll often find a way to do a show either on a shoestring budget or, a lot of times, it will be that the PTA will raise the money outside of the budget. So even in difficult times, like in 2008 and 2009, where we expected that we would have a decline in the number of productions, we found that, while schools expressed to us their financial difficulties, they said, “We’re figuring out a way. The kids are raising money by doing a car wash,” or by selling t-shirts or something like that. Once they experience the culture of having a musical or a show in their schools, they’re reluctant to give it up.
Ken: So 30,000 high schools across the country, and you’ve done business with about 25,000 of them. So that means there’s about 20,000 or so high school productions every year?
Drew: I wouldn’t know how many there are total because there are other companies that do what we do but, yes, there should be around that amount every year. And also, one thing that has happened in the last, I would say ten years or so, is there has been a growth of non-school organizations that are putting on musicals. So it’s after school programs, it could be like “Ken’s Backyard Theater.” It’s an after school program the way you might have sports after school programs that are outside of the school organization. There are these mom and pop things that might be in a shopping mall, they might be in a vacant performing arts center or an empty movie theater during matinees. When they’re not showing movies they’ll rent out that space and put on their own shows. So we’re seeing non-school, non-institutional organizations that are stepping up and benefiting from the fact that musicals have become more popular.
Ken: I’m going to have to dig in and see if I can figure out the gross of high school musicals in the year compared to Broadway. That’s a lot of tickets! So tell us about your path. How did you get to be sitting in the big chair you’re in now, as the president of MTI?
Drew: My background is a little bit varied. I always say I have a checkered past. I worked as a lawyer for several years at a big New York law firm, then transitioned to the music business and worked for a startup record company called Glass Notes Records, which was a startup founded by the former president of Universal Records, Chrysalis Records, and he had worked at EMI as well. After working there for a few years I decided to go back and get my business degree, because I realized I had not been practicing law anymore. I was just doing general management, and I really wanted to formalize my business training, my business education. I always say I went back late in life, because I was 29 when I went back to business school. Now that doesn’t seem so late in life! I did that, I worked in the world of finance for a while. I actually did some investing for a wealthy family. Unfortunately it wasn’t my family that was the wealthy family. So I continued there. But it was after that that Freddie Gershon, who’s the CEO of MTI, who I had known for many years . . . I had known him for about nine years . . . approached me and thought that it was a good opportunity, a good time for the company, to bring in someone who had the legal background to in-house serve the legal function, but also to work on the business development and strategic planning for the future of the company. As Freddie always points out, the life of a copyright is much longer than the life of an author and, certainly, as he always says, longer than his life. And the authors who we serve need to know that there is a long-term future, it’s not just about one person. Freddie was and is very much the face of MTI and has pioneered so much in this business, from Broadway Junior to . . . I give him most of the credit for a lot of the growth of the licensing industry because he saw the opportunity to have a Johnny Appleseed approach of introducing musicals to the younger kids, knowing that when they get older and get to high school or become adults, they’ll be performers in shows, but they’ll also be part of your audience that now will go to see a show because, “Oh, I was in a show once. I know what this is.” You mentioned people not knowing what Broadway is. Well a lot of people don’t even know what the local theater scene is, and if they don’t have a program in their middle school they’re certainly not going to pick it up in high school, and that’s been a big part of the growth of this industry, in our view. I met Freddie, he thought it was a good idea to inject MTI with a younger generation who could share his vision and learn from him, which I have done, and also bring new ideas to the table as to how we can continue to grow the market.
Ken: To give the listeners out there just an idea of some of the authors you represent . . . I was just touring the office, as I said . . . we’re talking Les Mis, The Fantasticks, Guys and Dolls. These are just some of the great classic shows that you handle.
Drew: Just a little history on the company . . . it was co-founded by Frank Loesser, who your listeners probably know very well, and Don Walker, the orchestrator, so it has a nice heritage, and it’s actually especially meaningful to me because my first favorite show that I remember, without even ever having seen a production of it, was Guys and Dolls, because my father would play that recording for me over and over and I just loved it, so to be sitting here representing the legacy of Frank Loesser is particularly meaningful to me. But in addition to Frank Loesser’s shows we represent The Music Man. Meredith Willson was actually friends with Frank Loesser, so we have that. We represent almost all of the Sondheim collection, including West Side Story. We represent Stephen Schwartz’s musicals, including your late-produced Godspell, Pippin. We represent many newer shows like Mamma Mia!, The Producers, Spring Awakening . . . another of yours. You’re really helping with our marketing and promotion so we appreciate that . . . and newer shows like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. And then smaller, Off-Broadway shows we take on, things like Murder Ballad, we have the rights to Violet, which is one of the staff favorites here and one of my favorites. It’s a pretty broad catalogue. There are over 400 shows, musicals, and a lot of people have said, “I didn’t even know there were that many musicals!” And a lot of them you would not have heard of. But our job, which we take very seriously, is to perpetuate the lifespan of these shows. And some you won’t ever hear of. You can’t force people to a) license them or b) customers to come and see the show, but we certainly want to give them every opportunity to see it and hear it and have the opportunity to judge it themselves.
Ken: So how do you pick a show to be included in that catalogue of 400?
Drew: Some of them are very obvious. Any show that makes it to Broadway is going to come under our scrutiny, if you will. It’s not really “scrutiny,” but we will go and see it and we will judge it. Some are obvious. When a show like Mamma Mia! becomes a global hit you think, “Well, that would be nice to have in the catalogue. Everyone’s going to want to do that.” So, for the most part, that’s what we’re looking at, shows that have been produced somewhere. If it’s been produced at a local high school only, meaning someone has written a show and they’ve put it up somewhere in a small part of the country or somewhere else, it’s very hard for us to take it on. We might track it the way a record company might say, “That band in rural Georgia seems to be getting some traction.” We’ll keep an eye on shows and see if there’s a trajectory of growth for it, but for us, it’s very hard to take on a show that nobody has ever heard of and convince them that, by listening to a recording, if there is one . . . and we all know how expensive those are . . . and reading the script, “Oh, that’s the show they should license, instead of something that their audience is going to recognize instantly.” So, in a general sense, it’s about branding and the recognition factor of the Broadway shows. But there are also shows that are branded differently. So, for example, we have a collection of kids’ shows that are based on The Magic Tree House book series, which people who don’t have kids or aren’t young may not have heard of, but the series has sold over 100 million copies. It’s constantly on the New York Times bestseller list. Every kid in America has heard of the protagonists in The Magic Tree House, Jack and Annie, and they’re wonderful stories that actually have an inherent educational component to them. So we thought, “Well, let’s see if there’s a way to develop musicals based on these stories that the teachers know, because the teachers love these books, the kids will know and they have an educational component so in a middle school they’ll want to put it on.” And there are three titles from that series that are off and running for the last two years or so and are doing very well. They’re holding their own with other junior and kids’ shows like a Guys and Dolls or an Annie Junior because of the branding. It’s not dissimilar from what I think goes into a producers thinking. You want quality shows and there are shows we will take on even if they have failed on Broadway . . . I say “failed.” Financially have failed on Broadway . . . and an example would be something like Caroline, or Change, for example, a show that we all love, love, love here, and I hate to say we love two Jeanine Tesori shows but we are big fans of hers. Caroline, or Change was not a financial success. It has implicit challenges in terms of casting if high schools wanted to do it, or even community theaters, but it’s a show that we felt, if we took it on, we could at least shine a spotlight on the show to get people to consider it. And it’s doing just fine. It’s not going to make the kind of money that another show that Jeanine wrote, Shrek, will do, but we take very seriously our own mandate to preserve musical theater, in a way. Not to sound too self-important about it, but a lot of times a show will open, it will close, the materials get scattered all over. Even in today’s digital world sometimes it’s hard to locate the orchestrations or the final script, and we take seriously our responsibility as custodians of the shows we represent to preserve them and then also to promote them for future audiences and generations. But in terms of getting back to your question, as I meander around, we’ll look at a show, and certainly there are ones where the authors have always been represented by another company. Probably we’re not going to push too hard to go after that. If there are other shows where we represent the author, even if it’s not going to be a gangbuster show, we certainly extend a professional courtesy to them because they want their collection all in the same place. But, for the most part, then it comes down to, “What do we think of the show as a licensable property?” It’s something that took me a couple of years to learn that, as an audience member now, you’re not just going to enjoy the show, but you’re looking and you’re saying, “Okay, this was a great show. Are schools going to be able to do this?” Because schools are a big part, volume-wise, of our market. “Are community theaters going to be able to do this? Will they want to do it? Does this appeal only to a New York audience? To a New York-centric audience?” People, at one point, were concerned that The Producers was too “inside,” too New York-centric, and The Producers has proved to be an outstanding success for us, not just in the US, but around the world, including in Germany, which was a funny experience to attend. It’s about looking at . . . demographics is not the right word, but the elements of a show to say, “Is this something schools will want to do?” If you look at Spring Awakening, which is a show obviously running on Broadway right now that you’ve revived very successfully, a great production, one of our concerns when we first started speaking to the authors about it . . . and this became kind of the running joke of it . . . was, “So there are three groups of adults in the show. There’s parents, there’s clergy and there are teachers, and they’re all made to look sort of foolish in their behavior, and those are the three groups that choose which show gets done in an organization. How are we going to convince these people?” But we looked deeper and we said, “Schools do read the play. It is young people in the show,” and one thing we’ve learned here is that young performers love playing young roles. So West Side Story plays very well because that’s right in the perfect age group. Spelling Bee plays really well because they’re playing high school students. But then you look at it and you say, “Well, there’s a lot of explicit sexuality in it. There are issues about church, there are issues about religion. Let’s talk to the authors about this,” because what we never want to do is encourage someone to neuter or somehow sterilize their show, but there may be certain tweaks that can be made that will make it more accessible to our audiences around the country. So, for example, in Spring Awakening, we had a high school group in Pennsylvania that did a production of it, and we asked the teacher, “We would like you to let us know what changes you would make to the show that would allow your school board and your parent-teacher organization and everyone to accept this.” And it was a pretty open-minded community. He’s actually reputed for that, a teacher named Lou Volpe, who a book called Drama High was written about a couple of years ago. He was reluctant to do it. He said, “I read my contract. I’m not allowed to change the music, the lyrics, anything.” We said, “We’re giving you permission. You’re going to be submitting this directly to Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.” Then he got very nervous because he said he respected the piece so much, but he was kind enough to go through it and there were about ten or eleven things where he said, “If I can get rid of this language here, obviously there’s this song ‘Totally F-ed,’” which he didn’t have concerns about but he thought other schools might and that was a very obvious one. But most of the things in the show ended up being more directorial about scenes that had explicit sexuality. Could you have this happen off-stage while they’re saying these lines? Could you have it behind a screen, that last scene of the first act? And the authors were very amenable to it. There were a couple of things where they said, “We would do this differently. We don’t think we should say ‘totally stuck.’ it didn’t work when we saw that done once,” and we came up with a list of variations approved by the authors . . . we’re never going to do something without their approval . . . that, if schools ask for, we can offer them, and that made it a more marketable show. It didn’t change Spring Awakening. We’re never looking to change the themes, the spirit of it, but it’s just about understanding that where MTI lives is sort of the intersection of art and commerce because you’re going to be relinquishing your control over the piece, so you can’t worry too much about how good it’s going to be when a high school in Kansas City does it, but you’re getting the show out there and you’re letting your work breathe. Those are the kind of considerations we have when taking on a show. There are some that just shout out at you. When you see a show like Spelling Bee, it’s like, “This is perfect. This is wonderful.” but what’s interesting is the concerns that an audience might have on Broadway or on tour are different than when they’re putting on the show themselves. What I mean by that is when we met with the authors and producer of Spelling Bee, we pointed out that there’s a song that involves an erection. We said, “That’s going to be a problem,” and they said, “No, actually we’ve noticed that in the audience when we have our tour going around there are plenty of young people there. They’re there with their parents and things like that. It’s not a problem.” What we realized is it’s not a problem for many parents taking their kids to see something, but it’s different when their child is in the show and saying those things and doing those things. That becomes more difficult. One little anecdote I’ll tell you is I remember getting a call when we released the school edition of Les Misérables and a parent called and said, “This is wonderful. You’ve made it accessible for high schools to do it. It’s two hours and five minutes. I didn’t know that that was a shortened version, but it’s played so well and I just wanted to thank you. Last year my daughter was Pepper in Annie and now she’s Prostitute Number Three, so thank you very much!” So you get calls like that sometimes, which highlight the concerns of a lot of the country. I mentioned about removing obstacles, and one specific example was when we took on the show Little Shop of Horrors, which is actually one of our top shows and it’s one of the top performed shows in high schools these days. It wasn’t doing particularly well and no one really knew why. They knew the show was very good, it hadn’t been a Broadway show yet but was successful Off-Broadway. It had been a film so people knew the title. It’s a fun title. And nobody could figure it out. One of our staff here . . . and I should mention most of our staff have backgrounds in theater and either currently or in the past have been writers, directors, performers, composers. One of them had been a performer who had done what are called “skip and wave” shows, with those big foam heads, and he had been Garfield the cat at these parade shows and things like that and he said, “I know the problem with Little Shop. It’s the plant. You’ve got the little plant, you’ve got the bigger plant, you’ve got a very big plant and then you’ve got the gigantic one at the end that someone’s got to be inside of. That’s really hard for schools or community theaters to build. It’s very expensive, they don’t have the materials to do it, it’s very heavy and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to deal with that.’” But he said, “There’s someone I know in Pennsylvania who makes those foam heads that are very lightweight. I bet she could make these plants for us.” We looked at it . . . this was actually before my time so I shouldn’t say “we.” It’s the royal “we.” MTI looked at it and asked her, “Could you create a set of these plants?” She said, “Sure, here’s how much it’s going to cost.” We said, “That’s fine, we’ll do it as a pilot,” and the thing was utilized something like 40 weeks out of 52 weeks the first year. We said, “We need four more sets. We need ten more sets,” and now I know it’s in the teens, the number of sets there are that we don’t really make any money on because we don’t touch them. She ships them out, takes them back, cleans them out because the kids are wearing these on their heads and there are health restrictions and all that, but what it’s done is it’s increased the licensing activity on that show by over 400%. So it’s really, like I said, coming in and saying, “What are the obstacles that someone will have to do a show and, in particular, this show?” Some of them you can’t remove. It could be casting issues. If it’s an all-male show and they’ve got an all-girl cast I’m not going to be able to convince them. Sometimes there’s race-specific casting that they can’t do. You can’t necessarily solve that. But we certainly speak with the authors, we speak internally about it, and we try to figure out ways to make it just that much easier and take away the reasons to say no so that our authors’ shows will be out there a little bit more.
Ken: What’s been the biggest surprise title for you of the last several years, where you were like, “We’re going to take this because of our relationship,” or, “We think it’s important but we don’t think it’s going to license that well,” that has surprised you the most?
Drew: One of them is Spelling Bee, not that we didn’t think it was going to do so well, but it ended up being one of our top three shows the year that it was released. It was in such demand, and it continues to be, that that was a surprise only because it ran for a nice run on Broadway, it was Off-Broadway before that . . . we just didn’t know how well known the title was around the country. And we did a big marketing push for it, but I think that it’s as good an indication as we’ve seen that the title of a show does matter. And The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee sounds like something that’s fun. I remember hearing about it when it was up at Barrington and thinking, “That sounds like something I’d want to see,” just as a casual observer. That really played very well. Another one that did very well, I’m not sure it’s a surprise because it is well branded, was Shrek, because people would look at that and say, “Well, that show really didn’t do well financially on Broadway. It didn’t play very long,” but, frankly, the audiences that I saw in the theater were really enjoying the show. And David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine worked very hard to give us the tightest version of it that was available, and it also just showed the power of brand, because the Shrek movies are just so well branded. You know as well as I do that, when we work in theater, particularly in New York, you’re inundated with all of the messaging about Broadway and so one might assume, “Oh, the whole world knows what this is,” and a show that could play many years here, you might go to Nevada, run into someone and say, “Hey, what did you hear about The Book of Mormon?” and, until the tour went around, they may not have even heard of it, even though it was this huge hit. Or Hamilton. I guarantee you that there are people, even causal theatergoers, perhaps, or subscribers, who may have heard of Hamilton but if they’re not living in New York, or if they’re living under a rock, maybe, at this point, have never heard of it. So the virtues that I think producers see in movie titles are not false virtues. There is a head start that you get, whereas if we try to convince people about this show about an ogre that had never been a motion picture, even if it had merit of its own, it would be very hard.
Ken: How long have you been here now? How many years?
Drew: 13 years.
Ken: So in your 13 years have you seen an increase in the number of licenses? Are more shows getting done around the world than when you started?
Drew: Yeah, both domestically and around the world. There’s definitely a growth in the amateur market. You mentioned the high schools and we focus on that a little bit, but there are also 12,000 community theaters around the country, which is a huge part of the market, and also bigger dollars for each license in terms of royalties because they’re charging, generally, admission for the tickets, whereas a lot of schools don’t. They play longer runs than a high school might, which might only play a few performances over a couple of weekends. One of the things that’s interesting, from the amateur side especially, is this growth, we think, dates way, way back to ten years ago when High School Musical came out. High School Musical was this juggernaut of a cultural phenomenon in terms of Disney and the Disney Channel, but then it became motion pictures, live concerts, an ice show, a tour, everything having to do with High School Musical. In my limited experience, it happened when Titanic the movie came out. That was just a cultural phenomenon. It was on the radio, it was in the movies, people were seeing it ten times. High School Musical was the same thing. It seems like these things go every ten years or so. Frozen is another example of that, and those two happen to be Disney properties. But High School Musical was such a huge phenomenon that what it did, in my view, was, because of its themes of, “Here’s this jock who is also a singer, and that’s okay,” and some of the themes in there are just about generally accepting each other for who they are, but there’s this history . . . I remember The Brady Bunch, growing up watching that, there was one episode where Bobby, or I think it might have been Peter, wanted to be a singer and everyone kept calling him a sissy for being a singer and there’s this history of that. I think everyone who knows theater knows that. High School Musical, all of a sudden, opened the door for young people, especially male performers, to say, “Hey, I can be a Zac Efron and get up there on stage and be in my musical.” Glee certainly helped it, America’s Got Talent and, before that, American Idol, The Voice now, all of these shows have guys up there singing, and have added to the acceptance factor of performing. And I think we can talk more broadly about the social media and everyone’s performing for everyone, they’re putting on some kind of show through Instagram or through Facebook or whatever media they’re using to play a part. It could be the part of themselves or, in these instances, it’s an opportunity for people to get up on stage and not feel like they’re going to be made fun of. So I think there’s definitely been more of an acceptance of it, which leads more people to want to do it, which leads to more organizations wanting to do it and there’s been a growth on that side. Internationally, I feel that the Broadway market has done a great job of promoting itself internationally and, as your blog has pointed out, the number of tourists that are coming to see shows, the percentage, has continued to grow. It’s a very large percentage. Those people go home having seen American musical theater and then they’re going to want to see it at home also, so that’s really helped us because we license in about 55 countries each year. It’s helped us internationally.
Ken: The typical path to a license seems to be, when I’ve done a new show on Broadway, it opens and then we start talking to all of the licensing companies . . . if there’s a relationship, if there’s not a relationship . . . then a deal is made and then the big question is, “When are we going to release those rights?” Of course the licensing company, hopefully for the producer and investors, just paid a giant advance for it and they want to start recouping that advance and getting it out there to the world. And traditionally producers are like, “No, no, no. You can’t release those rights. It’s too soon, we’re still running.” What do you think is the right period of time? Can a show release when it’s running on Broadway or Off-Broadway? Should it? Should it wait?
Drew: Well actually, not to use a cliché, but it’s an age-old question. And the conventional wisdom is you want to be the only game in town. And some of those conventional wisdoms make a lot of sense and some of them have been a little bit turned on their heads, so not to get off the subject but just as an example, the conventional wisdom for a producer or even a theater owner is, “Don’t let a movie be made of your show while it’s still running,” because in the old days, why would you pay $40 for a ticket when you can pay $3 for a movie ticket? Chicago was probably a big one that turned that on its head. Even Phantom, which was not a movie that was particularly well received, boosted the box office on Broadway and for their tour. So there are those conventional wisdoms we stick to because that’s what we did the last time, but sometimes they don’t necessarily hold up over time. So with regard to what you just asked, the timing of releasing the rights, the conventional wisdom is yes, you want to be the only game in town, either here in this town or whatever town is on your tour route. The answer to your question is it varies based on the show. Obviously a lot of shows close quickly. You want to get the show out there as quickly as possible, licensing-wise, because you want to carry the halo. There will be a little bit of a black eye from it closing quickly on Broadway, but you want to carry the halo of the Broadway marketing to say, “Straight from Broadway we can now make this available to you.” But what we’ve also found . . . and this is a really important point, especially in light of recent events where I saw that they’re going to licensing . . . I don’t know if you know this . . . School of Rock to high schools before it opens on Broadway, and they made that announcement and we thought that was just a wonderful, wonderful idea. We did something similar when . . . Les Mis was beyond a juggernaut and it was touring around the country and about 15 years ago the idea came up, “What if we made this available to high schools? Only high schools,” with a lot of restrictions, so you couldn’t have Actors’ Equity performers in it, even if they were high school age. There was an age limitation, a limit on the number of seats, number of performances, so no one could take a loophole and then run it at the Ahmanson or something like that. But for high schools to do Les Mis. The tour was still out and Alan Wasser, who was the general manager of that tour, was concerned, understandably, because he said, “You’re going to cannibalize my tour. My presenters are not going to like having a high school down the block having done this. It’s going to be a disaster.” And Cameron Mackintosh and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg thought more about it and said, “Well let’s just try it. Let’s just see what happens,” and we did create this school edition that started to license, and Alan Wasser became a very quick convert and he always says, “If you ever need someone to testify, I will stand up like Nicely Nicely and give testimony.” He said that the tour ended up running a lot longer because the high schools that did it became a feeder because the students who were in it wanted to go and see the show done professionally in their market. They brought their parents because they wanted to point out to their parents, “Wasn’t I better as Javert than this guy?” And it built an audience for them. So based on that experience, at the tail end of, I think it was the last part of the Rent tour that Kevin and Jeffrey put out, they said to us, “We want you to start licensing Rent in those markets where we’re going to be going because we think that that will promote ticket sales,” and I think it did. So the answer is there’s no right time. I think for most shows you have the Broadway run, you’ll have the tour. The Broadway run could be running concurrently with the tour, but a lot of times Broadway will close and the tour will then follow that. Every show has its own lifeline. But what we’ll usually do is we’ll have a smooth handoff with the tour producer or the producers of the Broadway production to say, “You know, you’re finishing up on Broadway. You announced you’re closing. If we do a significant production in California, let’s say, or somewhere that’s not right near here, within 100 miles of New York City, it’s not going to cannibalize your audience for the next six months if you know that the end is near.” Or if a tour is finishing up in the Pacific Northwest and we have an opportunity to license Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables, Florida, it’s in the show’s best interest to have that production go forward, because that could be a significant royalty for the authors, a good way to kick off licensing of the show and it won’t interfere with the tour. So one thing I will point out to you is you talk about the advance that we pay. Some shows there is no advance, some shows it’s sizeable. Of course we want to make that advance back, but we’re not particularly eager or aggressive about that, because one thing that authors that we work with realize is that we’re in this for the very long term, often much longer than the producers are in it. We’re in it for probably 20 years. We are interested in the long-term best interest of that property, so if we jump ahead and do something that would hurt a tour, well the word’s going to get out that the tour didn’t do well and that hurts the property, even if it might have made $100,000 of royalties. On the other hand, if a tour is going around, kind of limping around, and they say, “We’re hoping against hope that we might get Philadelphia for a weekend. Can you hold that for us?” and we might have an opportunity to do a production at Walnut Street. Instead of that tour going there we would say to them, “Let’s talk to the rights holders and see which they would rather have, because this could be a multi-$100,000 license that would play in Philadelphia and at a reputable theater, not just reputable but a highly regarded theater like Walnut Street. And if they do it, other regionals will say, ‘Oh, this is a show that didn’t do great on tour but, look, Walnut Street did it. Their audiences loved it, it was a tremendous financial success. I’m going to take a second look at this show,’” and that has happened. So there’s no hard, fast answer. You’re right, usually you want to let the producer have the exclusive rights to it, but it’s also a discussion that most producers are eager to engage in because, keeping in mind something you and I discussed earlier, the producer continues to participate, in most cases, as a subsidiary rights participant. So when MTI licenses the show the producer will share in that revenue along with the authors.
Ken: When I was 18 years old and did a community theater production of No, No, Nanette at the Theatre at the Mount in Gardner, Massachusetts . . . big shout out there . . . I got a score and a script that looked like it had been around for about 65 years. There were pencil marks that had been attempted to be erased that weren’t, and that’s all that I got. I got this crappy little thing, and then we were told we had to erase . . . it was a mess. Technology has obviously changed a lot and it seems to me that the resources that you can provide now are different. Talk to me about what a typical package for me, if I’m a community theater renting Hairspray, for example, is available now.
Drew: Well, first of all, the good news is that it sounds like, because you had erased pencil marks, it was at least a licensed production. Because usually someone will say, “I did a production of Fiddler in camp and it was on mimeographed paper.” The first question is, “Where did you get a mimeograph machine?” So I’m glad it was licensed. What we provide is what we call the MTI standard set of materials. So first of all, the materials are taken from the authors and the pit, often, and they really need to be cleaned up a lot because, as you’ve seen, during rehearsals, during previews, even during the run of the show, there are changes made, notations made, and the materials are often a mess. And we work with the copyists to get them into pristine form because, unlike first class productions, you don’t have the authors’ ear. You don’t necessarily even have a music director or anyone that can decipher all of those materials. So we really take pride in how the materials look. Depending on the cast size . . . let’s say it’s Hairspray and let’s just say it’s a cast of 24 people . . . we’ll send out libretto vocal books, which each of the actors is given, along with a piano vocal score or a piano conductor’s score, or both. For some shows we have a full score, which I didn’t know what that was, not being a musician, but the page that has all of the parts on each page, for your listeners who also are ignorant and don’t want to admit it. And then we will have the individual orchestral parts, so it might be a 12 piece orchestration or a 14 piece orchestration and we’ll send those out. Those are a different size than the scripts. Those are rented, so they do need to be taken care of and not written on in ink or magic marker. You’re not supposed to lay your tuna fish sandwich on it during lunch. So yes, those do need to be returned. But what we’ve been able to do, acknowledging the world we live in and that people want fast, now and free for most things, or at least fast and now, or high quality and fast, we realized that digital distribution is going to be in the future. It is in our future, whether that’s one year, five years or ten years. It’s not going to be ten years. It’s going to be less than that, but where we’re a little bit different than the other media, like books or music or movies, is that the preparation for a show requires walking around on stage with this thing. It’s not something you do privately in your room or in your office and you hold a Kindle. A lot of people don’t have tablet yet, as much as the prices are coming down. Amazon just announced a $50 one. Someday soon people will have them. The other thing is, even if they had them, right now the technology for writing and making notes on them is not particularly good, so for performers we haven’t had a lot of demand for scripts to be available for kids . . . I say “kids,” but for any performers, professional theaters or anyone . . . to have it digitally in their hands right now. Musicians, I’ve noticed, do have a special kind of tablet that they use, more when I’ve seen piano players doing it, not full orchestras. But when I’ve seen a cabaret show a piano player might have it for that song set, but where we do see that people want it is for perusals. Perusals are where we send people a viewing copy of the script. And it used to be that we mailed it to them, one or two or three copies of different shows so that they could review it and then share it with their artistic directors, with their board or whoever are the decision makers, and those, there’s no reason not to give it to them right away because they’re sitting behind their desks, so we’ve made available for the last few years electronic perusals so if someone wants it right now and they call up we send them a link. They can look at it. They’re not able to print it unless they get special permission. Part of that is trying to keep control of the intellectual property. Nothing is more gratifying than when an author says, “I tried to find a copy of my show’s script online. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Can you send me a copy?” It’s like, “Oh, good, we’re keeping tabs on these things. Keeping them under wraps a little bit,” but it’s also finding the balance between keeping it under wraps but also wanting people to read these things. We don’t charge a lot of money. A lot of shows, when we’re really trying to promote them, will have free perusals because we say, “Just read it. You’re going to love this show. We’re willing to give the perusal for free electronically or we’ll mail it to you,” so when we do a new release, we often have a window of time where we say, “Just take it and read it. We want you to examine this, like a no-risk offer that you see on late night television.” You may never have heard of Murder Ballad. You may never have heard of Scottsboro Boys.” There are a lot of people who, when they do read it, will say either, “That was really interesting. No thank you, but I really like these authors,” or they may say, “This is really interesting. I didn’t think of it for my mainstage, but I also have a black box theater. This would be perfect for it.” Our job, as I’ve said, is you can’t force someone to like something, but what I learned from the music business is you do everything you can to give them a chance to make a decision about it, and I think that’s where MTI distinguishes itself, is through its marketing and getting the word of these titles out there so that people will consider them.
Ken: What about marketing? I think of every production of my show as a mini-franchise. So if I put up the mothership McDonald’s I want the other ones, ideally, to look somewhat like mine, onstage and off, and one of the things that I’ve been disappointed with is when I’ve seen logos of my shows or marketing materials that don’t at all represent what we worked so hard, tested so much, spent so much money on getting just right. Do you help these productions with some of the marketing, provide logos, blurbs?
Drew: We do. Our job, every day that we come in, is we say, “How can we help remove the obstacles that people have to putting on a show?” This is not like buying a CD or downloading an album or buying a book. That’s simple and, if you regret it later, you spent $10 and too bad. This is an endeavor that takes a lot of work, a lot of people, a lot of time, a lot of money. I wish it was easier sometimes but you can’t just force people to say, “Oh, I want to put on a show,” and they know what they’re biting off when they do that, so we want to remove all of the obstacles, and one of the obstacles, which you just pointed out, is, “How do I get a logo for this thing? Do we have to make it?” Some people want to make their own. I’m glad you brought it up because it’s something that I would like producers to be aware of. A lot of things that we deal with are considered way down the road when you and other producers are producing a show on Broadway, so there are shows that use catalogue songs and when you get the rights you get them for Broadway and maybe a producer says, “Oh, I don’t need them for the stock and amateur market. I’m not going to deal with the music publishers on that right now.” When it gets to us it’s time to pay the piper and it’s, “Wait, you never got the rights for those songs?” Or even on the logo . . . you may have got the rights from your marketing company to use it on Broadway and on tour, but you don’t own the logo . . . which I would encourage every producer to own their logo, or the producer and the authors to own the logo somehow, outright, upfront, because when it comes to us, that logo may have become iconic at that point, and if we then go to the marketing company and say, “We want this logo,” they may charge a significant fee for it, which is unfortunate. Also, a lot of these logos, I’ve discovered, often have multiple components, so there’s the title treatment that the marketing company may have created, but there may be a background photograph of a park scene. There may be faces of people in there that are not the actors in the show but there are faces for some reasons. Those rights are all controlled in a limited way sometimes so that it comes to us and they say, “Oh, well we don’t have the right to that photograph in the background.” Why didn’t you get that upfront? And the marketing company doesn’t even have the rights to it so it becomes another negotiation. That’s more detail than anyone who’s listening would probably want but the short answer is two things. One is we do try to get the logos from the producers and we deliver them to the customers so they can use them in their production. It’s also helpful to us in marketing the show so that when someone opens our catalogue and they see the Mamma Mia! logo they recognize that it’s the Mamma Mia! logo. But the other part of it is, whether it’s logos, considering the rights and music materials, orchestrators, arrangers have certain ongoing rights sometimes that are negotiated, a lot of those things, I think what goes through people’s minds is, “We’re trying to get the Broadway show up and running. These other things, fine, we’ll deal with it later.” And, as you know, a lot of agreements don’t even get signed by the time a Broadway show opens. It’s, “We’ll deal with it later.” The good news is we’re all dealing with the same group of people, very often, so hopefully everyone’s dealing honorably with each other and it does get done, but the more things you can look at and say, “Am I going to need this down the road? Am I going to need the logo? Am I going to need a design that’s this? Am I going to need those music materials down the road and should we buy them out now?” The answer is often, at least from our point of view, yes, so I would encourage all producers and authors to think about those things carefully upfront rather than having to deal with it later on.
Ken: Very, very wise words. I will reiterate that . . . own your logo. I have not owned my logo a few times and gotten into some trouble so it’s one of the things I insist on, going forward, with all my shows. Okay, last question, my genie question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin . . . you represent all the Disney properties, right?
Drew: We do, yes.
Ken: So at some point the genie from Aladdin will be in this office, and he’s going to come and say, “Thank you so much, Drew, for doing such great work in getting me out into the world and generating lots of revenue for my parent company and for my authors and for that original investor, Mickey Mouse himself. I want to grant you one wish.” One wish . . . what’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you angry, that can keep you up at night, that you would want this genie to change with the snap of a finger? You only get one thing. What would you wish for that genie to change?
Drew: You can’t wish for more wishes, right? Is that the general rule?
Ken: No wishing for more wishes. I’m not even going to tell you who did that. Samuel French asked for more wishes. We didn’t let that happen. Anything about the ecosystem of Broadway that you would want to change.
Drew: I think I got it. Can I articulate after I give you the wish why I said that?
Ken: Yes, of course, please.
Drew: I guess the wish that I would have, based on the experience I’ve had here at MTI and also just as a theatergoer, growing up my whole life here in New York, is that every person, particularly young people, would have the opportunity to step foot in a theater and see a live show at any point, because, in my own experience, I’ve seen the entertainment that it brings, but I’ve also seen, through the licensing . . . because we do see a lot of the productions that we license, and some of them are wonderful and some of them are terrible but all of them have one thing in common and that is that they change people’s lives, the audience that sees it, as well as the people who are in it. And performing on stage is something that’s very rare. It’s something that’s done collaboratively by kids as well as adults. It’s done collaboratively in a non-competitive way. Like the other collaboration that most people experience in school, for example, is sports. That’s generally not co-ed and it’s usually competitive. This is a great opportunity for people to enjoy the show, to learn from the show. People learn through experiential learning. When they do a show like Annie they are actually learning about the Great Depression. They don’t realize that they’re learning about who Herbert Hoover was, but they are, and FDR. And they’re taking positive risks. So I think that if that wish were granted that it’s kind of the “try it, you’ll like it” kind of thing. People don’t even realize how much they’re gaining from musical theater and theater in general and, not to be too philosophical, but with young kids of my own I also see the lack of live connection that people have because of the digital world that we live in. The importance of the connection that people have with live performers, with each other and with audiences has become more and more vital to people, whether they consciously realize it or not, whether it’s going to live concerts or live performances of musical theater. I think just getting someone in the door once will make a lifelong theatergoer of them.
Ken: I totally agree and was just sitting here thinking about that comment about the comparison to sports, yet, the theater isn’t competitive like sports are competitive, so it’s that same collaborative feeling but a totally different one. A very insightful comment there. I want to thank you so much for this, and thank you also for the incredible work that you do. We talk a lot about audience development in many a conference room in this business. How do we get more people going to the theater in the future? And the number one answer is really what you just said, getting people to do shows as young people. Getting people to participate, as the NEA study has said time and time again, is the number one way to create theater goers in the future. So thank you for everything you’re doing to continue to get more and more shows happening.
Drew: My pleasure.
Ken: Thanks to all of you for listening. We will see you next time!
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
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.