BWW Interview: You Win Some, You Lose Some: MSMT's Quest to Obtain Musical Theatre Rights
"You win some, you lose some; you have to roll with the punches!" Maine State Music Theatre's Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark says with a broad smile. He is talking about the process of acquiring the theatrical rights to produce the shows he does each year - a process which is the inevitable and crucial departure point for any theatrical season. And yet, despite Clark's seemingly sanguine attitude toward these negotiations, the reality is that crafting the sensational seasons he has each year for the company is anything but a game of chance. It is the product of planning, strategy, hard work, and the increasing respect in which MSMT is held by the industry.
Clark admits that the process is hugely dependent on building relationships. "It's a lot like the sales industry. I go to quite a few conferences; I rub elbows with the people who hold the rights to the shows; I do my best to build trust and relationships. The onus is completely on us at the theatre. If we are successful in acquiring a property we want, I feel very, very good, but more often than not we don't."
I point out that in recent years MSMT has received an increasing share of "prime" theatrical properties and been able to present a number of prestigious regional premieres of highly desirable titles like Mamma Mia!, Sister Act, Ghost The Musical, and Newsies. In Maine, MSMT and Ogunquit Playhouse are the two companies who vie for the big titles (Ogunquit has also produced a number of premieres and "big titles" in recent years), and Clark says, "We each get our share." But he agrees that MSMT continues to be a major "player" in the rights game, adding, "Part of that is due to the fact that the number of tickets we sell is incredibly high - in fact, in the past couple seasons we have sold ALL of our tickets - and that means more money in royalties for the rights houses - something they naturally like!" But achieving this kind of status for a theatre company is a long, arduous, and ongoing process. Clark describes the intricacies of what is entailed before he and his partner, Managing Director Stephanie Dupal, can even announce and begin to plan a season.
"We work with all the major rights houses - Music Theatre International, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Theatrical Rights Worldwide, Tams Witmark, Samuel French, Dramatists Publishing Company. Sometimes it can take years to acquire the rights to a property we are keen to produce." As an example, Clark recounts the story of MSMT's twenty-one year pursuit of the rights to Mamma Mia!, a goal he finally achieved in 2016. "MSMT applied for those rights from the moment the show opened on Broadway, and we continued to ask them every single year. When I assumed my position in 2013, I made this show a real priority, and I devoted a lot of time at conferences and in telephone calls bugging them. Finally, we succeeded, and it proved well worth the wait!"
Clark goes on to explain that acquiring the license is only the first step. There are strict rules and requirements that hold for every contract. You must produce the show "as written," which means you cannot add anything that is not in the original, and any cuts or changes you might want to make have to be carefully negotiated.
"Typically, the rights houses are unbending in the big cities like New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia, but in a regional house like ours in Maine, if we offer them good reasons, they will often be accommodating. For example, I cannot run a show for 3 hours and 15 minutes; our audience won't sit that long, and then there is the technical issue that on two show days, the cast and crew need the stipulated break time. So in a case like that, they will work with us."
"Technically, we are not allowed to change language, but usually, if we request permission for a viable reason - for example, the permission to cut a few words that might be offensive to our audience - they will work with us. They allowed us in The Full Monty to cut some of the most aggressive language because we knew that even though this language wasn't gratuitous - it is how this group of characters from Buffalo would actually talk - it would turn our MSMT audience off and that would impact our ticket sales."
Clark continues with another example of how in the 2015 MSMT production of The Music Man, director/choreographer Marc Robin wanted to add a big finale that didn't exist in the original. He wanted to bring out the entire cast in band uniforms and sing one more verse. Since we weren't cutting anything and since this would take place after the bows as a kind of grand coda, they gave us permission, and it proved to be a big hit with our audience."
As with so many other things in business, decisions are made based on financial prudence and trust. While few theatrical rights houses sell "exclusive rights" per se any more, Clark says, he has built excellent relationships with the rights executives, and "I know that when we enter into an agreement, I can count on them to make happen what they have said will happen, and if for some reason it doesn't, I know they will find a way to make it right." As for the financial factors in the equation, Clark says "MSMT pays the same royalty percentage as any other professional theatre or the national tours. The royalty is fixed at a certain percentage for a specific show; the rights houses collect that sum, take their share and then distribute the rest among the authors and other people who own portions of the theatrical property. So for example, if the royalty is set at 13%, for each ticket sold, the rights house collects that 13%; thus the more tickets sold and the more seats in a house will substantially increase the amount of money the rights houses and authors make. So they are extremely happy with theatres that have robust ticket sales!"
Asked how the practical realities of show availability impacts the artistic planning of a season, Clark replies, " Usually, we have a list of shows that we know will make great season anchors, and once we are successful in obtaining the rights to one of these, then we line everything up around that. If, for some reason something were to change with that anchoring show before we announced our season, we might have to change everything else." Clark explains his "formula" for architecting a winning season: "I expect MSMT to provide a wide range of repertoire to satisfy a wide range of tastes in the Midcoast region and one designed to keep the subscription numbers as high as possible. The way to do that is to make sure people are getting what they want to see."
For the 2018 season, MSMT's 60th anniversary, Clark and Dupal chose Singin' in the Rain as their anchor. Asked why that choice, he replies immediately, "It has not been done much in this region, and it is a show that speaks to old and young alike. It is in the top five most recognized titles in the world with widespread popularity among all demographics. You can be in London; it starts to rain, and someone will start to sing I'm singin' in the rain. It is one of those feel good shows that people will be afraid to miss, and so they will become subscribers. Then we packaged some other really good main stage shows around it," Clark says referring to Million Dollar Quartet, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and Saturday Night Fever, not to mention the special events which include Bye Bye Birdie and Gerswin's I Love a Piano.
Such an attractive repertoire selection has proved highly successful in recent years, as MSMT continues to increase its subscription sales each year for the past three. And while Clark is thrilled with the results, he says he still likes to dream about what THE ideal season would be if rights were available for any show he wanted. With a broad grin, he says, "Currently, I'd love to do Jersey Boys, Wicked, Hamilton, and Come from Away. If we had those four shows in one season, I cannot imagine anyone not subscribing!"
While that lineup may be a fantasy, given the industry realities, the ambitious, breadth of the concept is emblematic of MSMT's vision. Asked what his artistic goals are for MSMT in the coming years, Clark replies: "I want to keep the train moving forward on the main stage. I think we've hit on a formula that has struck a chord with our audience. At the same time I would love to find a smaller space where MSMT could produce some of the shows we can't do on the Pickard stage - for example, the Sondheim canon or some of the darker shows I really like that do speak to a segment of the population but do not sell well enough to produce eight times a week on the main stage."
I ask how Clark, who has just finished his fifth season as the Artistic Director at MSMT, has managed to get the pulse of the Midcoast community so quickly and get it so right? "I had been here for a number of years before as an actor, and I had seen what worked and what didn't. When I got here, I made it a point to immerse myself in the community. I know what I get praised for and what I don't, and the things people praise are indicators of what they want to see in the theatre. It's my goal to give this community reasons to get off the couch and come to the theatre, to go out, go to a restaurant, say hello to one another and not stare at their phone all day long. Once they do, they find they really enjoy themselves."
Clark pauses a moment to reflect and then adds: "Life is mixing it up; it's getting out into the world, rubbing elbows with others, seeing people you don't love and seeing people you do love. It's about being out there and taking it all in."
This all-embracing, dynamic philosophy surely lies at the heart of MSMT's artistic achievement, and the underlying energy, enthusiasm, and openness must account in large measure for MSMT's successful navigating of the world of theatrical rights. "You win some, you lose some..." But happily for the Midcoast community, it seems that MSMT is on a strong winning streak!