Watching the Audience
Michael John LaChiusa, the music man behind Broadway's The Wild Party and Marie Christine, looks at who's listening.
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.
Subscribers rightly expect to be served what they've gotten in the past. If they've enjoyed hit musicals that began on that tiny stage they've funded, they expect another one. Yet, to be fair, they are often the most forgiving of audiences. To be a part of the process of making a new show is exciting to some; it's an intimacy rarely found during Broadway previews, and that intimacy keeps me from straying too far from the not-for-profit world. This audience for whom I write can become friends of the work, and will protect it. A Broadway audience is like a new lover every night, and that can be dangerously exciting. But a subscriber audience knows you.
After the cast album of a show is released, a different audience is met. They don't have bodies that arrive late. They don't have voices. I can't hear them applauding or laughing or crying or coughing. I don't know how old they are, or what their race or gender is. They are not sitting in a theater as they listen to my score; they are a mobile audience. They might be speeding down the Hudson or lurching up the Belt Parkway, walking their dogs or vacuuming. Through headphones, they experience the show I've written for the theater in a gym or on the subway. They sing along, loudly. They can repeat favorite songs over and over again, or turn the damn thing off. If they didn't see the show itself, they imagine their own version of the stage production.
Those who did see the show sometimes like the score better after hearing it on the album, because they discover things they hadn't heard before. You can't use the rewind button on your remote during a live performance; part of a songwriter's craft, whether writing for musicals or otherwise, is to grab the listener's ear during the first listen. That doesn't necessarily mean creating an immediately "hummable" tune, because only the very best musician can hear a melody once and hum it back; everybody else, whether they will admit it or not, needs to hear a refrain at least twice before they can go up the aisles singing it. But a song does have to immediately interest the listener, and the listening experience can be enriched by repeated visits to the songscape.
The audience for the cast albums for my shows isn't large; around the time the country singer Jewel's album of poetry readings went platinum, Audra McDonald's Way Back to Paradise--which features some of my songs--sold its 20,000th unit. I was delighted, no, awed. This audience is small and, it seems, discerning. But I can't watch them as I do a live audience.