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On New Musical Development. Because, Graphs.

Welp. This is it. My first-ever blog entry. A small step for Sam, end of sentence. What's more, in it, I promise to use both graphs and The Scientific Method to talk about my theories concerning New Musical Development, because why not? So, blog. First ever. And it all started with the word "Welp."

Question of the Day: There are several incredible, necessary, foundational programs that exist solely to develop and champion new musicals and new musical theatre writers; however, a surprisingly low percentage of the projects that percolate through the "Development Process" ever reach full production. Why?

Background: Every production worth its salt has been Developed in some way or another. A lot of the big, commercial shows (and even a large percentage of the non-profit shows) are developed "top-down"; i.e., a producer might option the rights for a property and pay out of his/her corporate pocket to have a team mount a few workshops, or a major theater might commission a piece and do a handful of in-house readings before incorporating the piece into its mainstage season.

What if you're a writer, though? -- what if you've a brand new script that you've been crafting yourself, in your pajamas, in your 3BR share? What are your options? It's no small task to get a producing entity to jump on the bandwagon with an idea they didn't generate themselves, especially when that idea is completely untested and involves risking the producer's hard-earned dollars.

From this, the writer's perspective, the most affable and receptive potential audience are the Developers. Ah, Developers!, those wondrous beings who spend their professional currency taking risks on new voices, who offer open season on submissions, thereby extending an olive branch, as if to exclaim: "Come! You have a roughly 1% chance of acceptance into our line-up this season, but it is a chance!"

It's a massive coup and professional cap-feather for a writer to be accepted into a Development opportunity (by comparison, Harvard's 2014 acceptance rate was 5.9%). Why, then, does Development signify the end of the road for so many projects?

Hypothesis: We as a community (specifically writers and producers) have conditioned ourselves to put undue import on The Development Process, and our differing (yet equally skewed) perspectives about the significance of this juncture can result in an uncomfortable producorial stalemate.

Experiments and Data Analysis: Let's talk "incontrovertible facts" (just go with it), and graph them. We agree that it takes time to make a musical, yes?

Ok. In this graph, the x-axis, per mathematical/scientific standard, represents (T), time. I propose we refer to the y-axis as (L), or "The Likability Factor", essentially how much it is possible for an aggregate audience to "like" your show. Ergo, this graph charts how much more Likable your show is as per the time you've spent working on it.

N.B. - this graph does not have units. Some shows have much, much longer journeys to fruition than others (+/- T). Some shows are just more likable than others (insert {your own examples}, +/- L). Although the units herein are variable, I posit that the premise remains intact.

N.B. #2 - this graph charts "Likability", not "How Empirically Well-Written Your Show Is." While I believe the outcomes to be similar, in terms of the graph, I do not believe that these two categories are always equivalently aligned.

The Maximum Likability Factor

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is a maximal amount to how much an audience can possibly like your show (you know, somewhere short of everyone in the audience passing out from pleasure, like this dog does). The dotted line above acts as an asymptote: a value of (L) that simply cannot be reached no matter how hard you work on your show, a Sisyphean paradigm that we writers and producers and developers are wont to conveniently ignore because of those irritating, über-outlier-y, seemingly "perfect" shows like Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. You just can't get everyone to unilaterally like your shit. #facts.

Math would indicate that, because of the asymptote, the graph of Likability vs. Time progresses thusly: steeply at first, but gradually flattening as it approaches (and never reaches) the asymptote.

So far so good?


(0, 0) is an amazing, vital, magnificent point -- in those first seconds, we witness the inception of...

The Idea.

Look how much Likability spikes immediately upon having The Idea!

The Idea consists of two major components: 1) The topic of your show and 2) The fact that you, as a writer, are writing about the topic -- you probably have certain technical skills, tonal assets, "happy places" wherein your work shines, and those skills should go hand-in-hand with your topic -- e.g., I, Sam Willmott, am better predisposed to write shows about kids self-actualizing than I am to write about The Realities of the Black Experience.

The Idea can best be exemplified by the way people respond to your pitch. Does the pitch resonate with people fast (in which case, you may very well be working with bigger units of L)? Or are you really scrounging to get people to believe in your conceit? No matter what, every member of the theatrical in-crowd will undoubtedly have a strong opinion about your show at this point.

Let's label the Likability of The Idea at Point (I). By virtue of having had The Idea, in a relatively short amount of time, you have jumped from L=0 to L=I -- a profound step towards the asymptote!

The next step in the sequence of Time is (E): General Execution.

You've made it through a draft of the show, top-to-bottom. Did you put the songs in the right place? Are they the best songs you could have possibly written? Does the story generally make sense?

I'd like to suggest that the graph is accurate here, too; only in extremely rare cases will an audience of in-the-know theatre folk take a look at a first draft of something and say either 1) "Shit. I thought this was going to be GREAT and it's TERRIBLE" or 2) "Shit. I thought this was going to be TERRIBLE and it's GREAT." More often than not, the first draft goes to prove the instincts they had from the initial pitch of The Idea. They probably even like it a little more than what they'd expected, now that they can see the piece's potential manifested in front of them. (And yes, this particular phenomenon may be entirely due to vanity and/or self-fulfilling prophecies, but the results remain consistent.)

As (T) progresses, the next point is (D), Development.

At this point, for better or for worse, you're kinda getting closer to the show you're gonna get. You can flip plot beats around, you can excise/add/replace songs/characters, you can retitle the whole damn thing -- and yes, all of these adjustments can majorly impact the overall Well-Written-ness of your show -- but how much are they actually changing the Likability Factor? Do the changes equal the difference from "No Idea" to "Idea"? Or the distance, even, from "Idea, But No Draft" to "Draft"? At its heart, your show is still your show, no matter how it dyes its hair or changes its clothes, as your prior decisions (The Idea, Execution) have already established many of the fundamental tenets of its inherent Likability.

In fact, the graph indicates that, the longer you spend working on your show, the more you will experience diminishing returns in terms of the show's Likability.

This is it, kids -- the witching hour -- the time frame wherein many pieces meet the end of their journeys. Is it because writers have a hard time seeing all the way ahead towards a production from their bedrooms, and curtail their aspirations accordingly as the piece begins to "settle"? Is it because producers experience a degree of Not-Invented-Here-Syndrome when they attend these developmental readings/workshops, believe that their future involvement and continued development will somehow greatly shift the asymptote upwards? Either explanation may be (and is, in many cases) valid and important to understanding a show's pre-production demise.

So, to both groups, I say: Beware. The allure of Development is strong -- we love the safety it affords (both artistic and financial) -- we love the bucolic, writers-colony environments with which it is unilaterally associated, but lo! Thou shalt not linger here, else thou shalt encounterest the dreaded P.N.R. ...

The P.N.R., or the Point of No Return, is where everyone involved in the creation of a piece forgets what gorgeous quirks, eccentricities, and idiosyncrasies drew them to the work in the first place. The show begins to fray and splinter and the piece drifts, uncontrollably, away from the asymptote and toward mediocrity.

What may, at the outset, appear to be ample time to continue developing the show may, in fact, be bringing everyone irrevocably closer to the P.N.R. It is therefore imperative that, if the piece is to be produced at all, production occur prior to the P.N.R., as it is nearly impossible to recover any artistic or creative control over the show once such control has been relinquished.

Conclusion: Development is a frought juncture in the creative process. To the writers, it can seem like an endgame in and of itself, wherein the diminishing returns of Likability (and the mere virtue of being selected for the Development in the first place) contribute to a feeling of satisfaction with a project that is still incubating. On the flip side, the producers who witness a piece for the first time in Development may look at it as an entirely fledgling enterprise, thinking the piece has more potential to be changed than it does. A writer feeling like a producer is pushing for something beyond the scope of the play is a bad thing -- and a producer feeling like a writer is unwilling or unable to make changes is also a bad thing -- and existing in this stalemate sends everyone hurtling towards the P.N.R., at which point the whole piece is kaput.

To the writers, I say this... first off, when you take a show into Development, you cannot adopt the onus of changing your piece into something it's not -- NOR SHOULD YOU. You have been selected for your solid ideas, your thoughtful execution, and Development exists solely to help you refine work that people already inherently like. But secondly, do not rest on your laurels by virtue of having achieved a coveted Development slot -- you owe it to the Developers (as well as to yourself, your producers, and your forthcoming, eager audiences) to make a production materialize and do everyone proud. Go out and make it happen!

To the producer-types, I say this... if you see a show in Development, yes, you can absolutely have an impact on the show, and on all the following steps along the journey. But it's also important to realize that, if you enter a process at this (relatively late) stage (as opposed to a project you have been with since inception), the piece has already been gestating for a while. Any extensive additional Development is not likely to drastically change the overall Likability of the piece from that which you are already experiencing. If you like what you see enough to want to take it to the next level, have faith that others will see the same inherent virtues of the material, as well.

K? K. Let's go make musicals.

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