So, when a friend asked me recently, "Who is your audience?" I immediately thought of my death. Then, I gave the question some serious consideration. For whom are my songs written? High school kids? Housewives in Nyack? Musicologists? The question has two implications: one, who do I think will find enjoyment in the music I write, and two, who will pay for it?
Who is it that my songs must appeal to and to what end? If I'm writing on Broadway, my songs are, by tradition, required to generate business--to make money for the show, for myself, the producers, the publishers, the record companies. That comes with the territory. It's expected. When a critic writes "great score," that generates business. If Rosie plugs your song on her show and if the CD gets to the Top Forty, that makes money.
When my music does not generate business or make money, some people take that to meant that I have not found an audience. But the truth is that very few of the people who descend on the New Forty-Second Street today are flocking to the work of any one particular songwriter. For the most part, that doesn't happen anymore--although any new (or old) musical by Stephen Sondheim is an event, and Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Elton John and Mr. Frank Wildhorn most certainly have their admirers. But the name recognition of a songwriter isn't enough to keep a show running, as evidenced by Paul Simon's The Capeman.
On the Great White Way, art is tolerated only if it makes money. What makes a work of art is debatable, but what makes a work of art survive on Broadway is a matter of luck--e.g., is Ben Brantley in a good mood?--and brilliant commercial maneuvers. Audiences can be found for the most accessible and, likewise, the most inaccessible theater dished out on a Broadway stage, but they must be enticed and cajoled and sometimes admonished to pay money for it. If a show I write doesn't meet with good luck--e.g., if Ben Brantley is in a bad mood--and doesn't have a good team of commercial strategists behind it, I will have no audience. I will have a very concerned accountant.
Things are no different Off-Broadway, except in a few extraordinary cases, because musicals produced there today carry with them into development the burden of commercial expectation. A musical project often has the onus of being the money-making event of an Off-Broadway theater's season; very often it's the apple dangled in front of the maws of the subscriber audience. It's the curse of A Chorus Line: Every Off-Broadway musical produced since that show has been saddled with high expectations, and not only on the part of producers and board of directors. It's the mindset of the community. A few exceptions stand out among not-for-profit theaters; the Vineyard Theatre and Lincoln Center Theater, in particular, dare to buck the mindset with unconventional musicals. But most others produce with an eye toward a money-making hit for their organization, and why not? The bigger the hit, the bigger the subscription base for the following seasons.