Select Page

The Early Life of a Musical

When developing a new Broadway musical we traditionally keep our product, or as many people would say “our musical” or “our show”, hidden during the early developmental stages. Following tradition, a small group of people work creatively on a story. Once the book and music reach a certain point, authors decide to share the story, usually in a reading with music stands and a cast of actors who sing the music and read the script.

Readings should answer one question. Does the story resonate?

After the reading, we face a number of distinct paths. If a palpable buzz fills the room, the show moves forward perhaps to another reading or a small production. From there it may go on to a bigger, out-of-town production before finally arriving on Broadway.

On the flip side, the reading may bring home the realization that the show needs serious work. The authors may then abandon the piece or bring it back inside and rework the fundamental concept.

Many shows die at this point. They never get past the first reading because of the exhausting amount of time needed to rewrite and refine the show. Some people may not be up for the challenge or they may realize that they want to move on to another project. Or maybe the story simply does not resonate.

When this happens, the small group makes most or all of the decisions regarding the show and its creative viability and potential.

For those shows that live on we create a path.

Often we don’t begin to look at a show’s brand or supportive marketing strategies until it arrives on Broadway. There may however be earlier marketing efforts if the show plays at an out-of-town enhancement production at a larger theatre like The Fifth Avenue Theatre or LaJolla Playhouse.

These larger theatres have their own built-in audience and this can muddy the waters, making it difficult to know why people are coming to the show. Are people coming because they love it? Or are they coming because they have a subscription?

At this point the show may also be reviewed, and decisions are often made on what these early reviews say. If the show receives a poor review, the creatives either go all the way back and start the process all over again or they decide to end it and let the show die.

Of course, if the show dies all the money that’s been spent up to that point evaporates.

You might think that a positive review would be good to have at this point, but a positive review may create a bigger problem. With a good review in hand, creatives and investors may think the show is ready for Broadway, and while that may well be the case, the reality is that the show hasn’t really been tested for a Broadway market.


Nurturing Your Show in Early Life: The Why and the Who

Fortunately, you can increase your chances of avoiding these pitfalls by understanding the following:

  • Brand and Product Market Fit
  • Growth hacking your audience. Growth hacking is simply a term for how to build your audience of supporters, evangelists, or fans. In short, assembling all the people who are part of your collective tribe or who you want to invite into your collective tribe. (We’ll talk more about growth hacking in the next session.)
  • These two concepts are related to each other in that you can’t really growth hack without knowing your brand and product market fit. That’s why you should look at Brand and Product Market Fit first and then get into growth hacking.
  • Product Market Fit originates in the lean startup methodology current in the technology world and advocated by Eric Ries. Product market fit simply means:
  • We have a product.
  • What is the size of the consumer market that this product fits?
  • And most importantly who are the people who make up this consumer market?

Creatives may be tempted to say, “Oh my show is for everybody.”

Some shows are for everybody, for example “The Lion King” crosses multiple generations touching people from young to old but not all shows have that potential.

Definitely not for the younger generation or for people who are sensitive to its content, “The Book of Mormon” found a very strong audience willing to pay top dollar to see the show.

The key is knowing who makes up the market for your show? Who makes up your audience?

In the past, some shows have run small advertising campaigns to gather initial reactions while others have run focus groups.

A focus group can provide some good information but focus groups don’t scale well. You set it up by hiring someone who picks a subset of the population on the assumption that this subset represents a good cross-section of your audience. The focus group then views a video or pictures and listens to select musical pieces providing feedback on how they connect with the show’s material.

Today technology offers you a lot of tools and approaches to help you find your market and audience earlier than has ever been possible before.

You must understand at the deepest level:

  • Your show’s theme
  • Your show’s execution and how it relates to generational fit


Theme – The Why

To better understand execution and its nuances, let’s take an example of a show with the theme “love conquers all.”

This is a fairly universal theme but if you execute this theme as a satirical zombie musical your generational fit shrinks.

Execution impacts how an audience connects with your theme. This speaks to “why.” Why does someone connect to your story as a human being? They want and need to understand the emotional connection. In this example, why would someone connect to love conquers all in a satirical zombie environment?

Whether you are using traditional methods or new technologies to understand and reach your audience you must understand the theme of your story.


Personas – The Who

Once you understand the theme you break it down and estimate who and how many people make up the potential audience across multiple demographic boundaries.

By looking at multiple characteristics like age, geography, socio-economic status, you’ll develop a snapshot of the people or “personas” who might be interested in the theme of your show.

Use your imagination here to try to identify as many characteristics as you can.

Your theme can cross multiple groups or it can be specific to one group.

For example, you might have a theme that’s relevant to a teenager. This doesn’t mean that an older person won’t enjoy your show though they may not connect to it as closely as a younger person. An older person may nostalgically connect to your show but it might not resonate with them as deeply as it does to somebody currently in the younger age group.

What about execution? How are you telling your story? What does the music sound like? What is the language in your show? Is it skewed younger or older? Does the show include profanity or is it squeaky clean? What is the music style? Is it rock music like “American Idiot” with Green Day? Is it classical Gershwin? Is it contemporary like Sting or Elton John? Or is it in the style of Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Weber?

The music style and tone aid in delineating audience. Some people like jazz. Some people dislike jazz. Some people like hip-hop. Others prefer music from the 80s or they prefer a classical approach. You can match your style to other musicals and test against those same demographics as a starting point.

For example, Cyndi Lauper wrote the music and lyrics for Kinky Boots crossing over from the 80s pop world into writing a musical score. She benefitted from a lot of guidance and did an amazing job, going on to win a Tony Award by developing her style into a score that reached a wide musical theatre audience.


The Why and The Who – The Hamilton Example

Now let’s take a look at a practical example where this kind of analysis can lead you down the wrong track. Of course, we’re talking about “Hamilton.”

Obviously a smash success and a subject for future Ph.D.s, “Hamilton” crosses multiple dimensions.

It crosses age. People from young to old like the show.

It crosses boundaries of traditional theatergoers, from people who have never seen a Broadway show to people who are willing to spend a great deal of money to attend this event.

Break it down analytically and you’re looking at a musical about rapping dead politicians.

Hand that line to a marketing agency and see if anyone jumps up to declare you’ve got a smash hit in the making.

That’s why you must dig deeper. First, based on a New York Times Best-Selling biography by an already celebrated author you gain some clout. Secondly, Hamilton tells an incredibly compelling story and not just about dead presidents either. Dig into the theme and you’ll find an underdog, a scrappy fighter looking to make a name in this world.

All of sudden your theme becomes universal and relatable reaching way beyond the plot.

And it’s not just rap music either. This is Lin Manuel Miranda who is almost a genre unto himself. He’s been crafting his style for many years, blending classical street rap hip-hop with a true traditional musical theatre narrative in an incredible feat of storytelling.

Step back to “In the Heights,” one of his major successes, and you’ll find a genius in the making who’s able to instantly connect an audience with characters.

I bring him up because though he’s almost a brand unto himself it didn’t guarantee instant success. He’s had projects that have not been anywhere near as successful as “Hamilton” but he continues to work and refine his product.

Thinking in terms of Product Market Fit, Miranda crafted “Hamilton” and built it up through the off-Broadway route, creating an incredible buzz at the Public Theater where it sold out.

“Hamilton” had great momentum when it came to Broadway partly because Miranda believes in sharing the development process with his audience. He uses social media to create authentic connections between himself and his audience, or perhaps more accurately his colleagues, as he invites the audience into a collaborative development relationship that he truly enjoys. He cultivates a relationship with people, inviting them in to emotionally connect with the work as he’s creating it.

Do you see where we’re going with this?

Miranda’s process of developing and sharing his work follows the principles of growth hacking but before we get into the nitty-gritty of growth hacking we need to talk about timing.


Last but Not Least – The When

As we’ve said previously, most shows wait to do the work of finding their audience. This work doesn’t begin until the show has gone through many incarnations and hopefully knows itself.

In THEatre ACCELERATOR, we move this process up in the equation because working to find your audience helps you understand where you are and what you’re building. In fact, I advocate that even when you’re at the reading stage or earlier you should, at the very least, be coming up with thoughts about your product market fit and your brand.

You should be asking the big “W” questions? Who? Why?

Who are you? Why do people care?

This brings you back to your theme and how you execute your theme.

Have these discussions and run numbers to see how many people and who your story can reach. At the very least you’ll be giving yourself a valid estimate. You’ll also know that if you’re aiming for the largest possible audience then your theme should be as universal as possible as should the execution.

If you’re aiming for a smaller audience take a close look at your budget and analyze how you can reach the people you want while keeping your show profitable. Some of the most beautiful shows are pieces that were written for smaller audiences and then popped to much bigger audiences. That can be the best thing in the world because it means you’ve been fiscally responsible while creating an amazing show that’s incredibly popular.


A Note on Unicorns

Can you have a hit without doing any of this? Yes, you can.

In fact, some people would argue that what we’re proposing isn’t the right way to go about creating a show. Some people advocate that you should concentrate on making the most amazing show you can and the rest will fall into place. There is some truth to that.

Some shows are so amazing that word-of-mouth carries them all the way to a Tony. It doesn’t even matter how you advertise a show like this because people leave the show so moved that they are willing to tell everybody, “you must see this show.” That’s not the majority of the shows.

In the tech world, we call these types of exceptional occurrences “unicorns.” Unicorns are the events/shows/companies that are so successful and so exceptional they redefine some of the rules. We’re trying to come up with a working model that helps everybody but you can apply our model to unicorns also. Find the product market fit early for a unicorn and watch how the unicorn’s horn will grow faster because when it’s ready for its first flight you’ll have a number of the components in place. (In a future blog we’ll talk about specific tools you can use and the practical aspects of this.)

Finally, it’s time to move on. You’ve got your theme. You have an idea of who your audience is and where you might find them.

Now, how do you go out there and growth hack? How do you get those people to come aboard and take this journey with you?