Some art forms aren’t collaborative. You could argue that the audience’s participation is always collaborative, but that part of the process usually doesn’t kick in until the work is done. Painting alone in a studio, writing alone at a desk, self-directing a solo show—these efforts benefit from unity of vision, if the artist has done the challenging work of clarifying their vision. The audience gets to see the world through a very specific lens.
When the art form is collaborative, each person’s vision is carried into the piece. With division of labor comes multiple viewpoints. The purpose of the collaboration is not to compress separate visions into one viewpoint, but to focus them individually in ways that complement each other. Each voice is honored, while serving a common purpose.
In a great collaboration, each person brings their expertise to a clearly defined role and are given autonomy and honest, generous, kind feedback from others. A director and two actors work on a scene together—each actor adjusting their approach in response to the other, with the director asking questions and making observations to help shape the dynamic and trajectory of the scene. Two writers find where their viewpoints intersect and create something that highlights both skill sets and worldviews, coalescing into a consistent, but multidimensional, piece.
Musical theatre has to be collaborative, and that work only starts with the writing. Once it arrives in the hands of producer, director, music director, choreographer, technical director, orchestrator, designer, actor, musician, copyist, there are as many viewpoints as participants. With an infinite number of decisions to be made, from acting beats to lighting gels, communication and trust keep the process efficient, joyful, and artistically fulfilling.
To have communication and trust requires that each participant sharpens both their vision and their skills. That’s partially because it’s easier to trust someone to do something when they're good at doing it, and when they can give you a sense of how they plan to approach it. It’s also because when we develop skills and vision, we connect them with industry jargon, giving us communication shortcuts. As a music director, I trust a choreographer a lot more when I know they read music, because we’re less likely to get communication wires tripped up when the music doesn’t fit into nice chunks of 8 counts. Choreographers appreciate a music director who understands dance language and counts so the choreographer can focus on on the dancers, while the music director quietly makes their own notes on the score.
When the skills and communication are deeper, the work gets more specific. When the work gets more specific, magic happens. But our systems of high level musical theatre collaboration are inaccessible to most people—the kind where the work is divided among brilliant artists who are given the time to dive deep into their skills and develop complementary visions. That means we never find out what these fledgling musicals could become. We don’t develop our writers, who need the support and feedback of producers, directors, actors, and music directors to make the magic happen.
No Lacamoire, Kail, Blankenbuehler, Seller, Furman, original cast, etc., no Hamilton.
This pandemic has given me the opportunity to dive deeper into all the skills I’m interested in—writing, music notation, orchestration, music direction, keyboard playing, keyboard programming, audio editing, and project management—and taught me a valuable lesson. I can’t do more than a couple of those at a time. Working on contracts and spreadsheets puts me in a headspace that makes keyboard programming and orchestration inaccessible. I can’t edit audio and write music notation at the same time. I’ve been going in sprints of one thing at a time. It’s really inefficient, because a project often needs multiple processes running in parallel. The solitary parts of the process can be lonely and tiring, and they don’t offer the delight and challenge of syncing collaborative visions.
I’ve also worked with some incredible collaborators during the pandemic. Those sessions give me joy, fuel, ideas, and they make my own work better. It's a more accurate science than meteorology.
So how do we expect musical theatre writers to hand us shows ready to workshop, when our systems require them to write alone, produce the demos themselves, organize, and finance the concerts. Developing and juggling all those skills is great for the writer, but it’s only sustainable, joyful, and efficient when its collaborative. Collaboration depends on shared space and time. Shared space and time rely on financial means. The goal of inclusion requires funding those who lack financial means. Most writers do.
I proposed a system for developing and distributing shows that were already ready for workshopping in my series on Expanding Musical Theatre Development. That system would give us a wider avenue for writing investments to pay off, but we need to go further in supporting writers before that point. We do have some festivals, workshops, university programs, Musical Theatre Factory, online portfolio hubs, and a community that donates time to each others’ developing projects, when we can. It’s still not enough—they're underfunded and they generally aren't catered to connecting writers with diverse backgrounds directly to their communities. We need better systems.
A YouTube channel that assembles (and pays) creative teams to produce high quality video demos of songs from new shows, on behalf of and in collaboration with the writers? Funded by corporate sponsors via ads?
An Instragram #letshearitforthechoice-style compendium of moments from new shows?
A reality show on Disney + where 8 development teams are filmed over the course of a year, culminating in one hour labs of their creations?
A sabbatical tradition, where top industry pros schedule a year away from major Broadway endeavors to participate in R&D conferences, workshops, labs, conversations, collaborations, etc?
Let’s figure it out.
With all the love to whoever you are,
And if you don't know,