Musicals pose unique challenges

Large-scale musicals such as “Once Upon a Mattress” are too expensive to be produced on the CPA budget.
Large-scale musicals such as “Once Upon a Mattress” are too expensive to be produced on the CPA budget. Photo by Sarah Eckinger.

Yesterday, the Dramat mainstage musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” opened for its four-day run. An 18-person cast and roughly 100-person crew are working on what will be the largest dramatic production of the semester.

Dramat musicals typically have “a pretty hefty budget,” said Dramat President Meredith Davis ’13, who declined to provide specific estimates of “Drowsy’s” expenses. Davis explained that musicals are significantly more expensive to stage than plays due to factors including larger casts and more complicated microphones and sound equipment. And while both plays and musicals outside of the public domain require producers to apply for rights, the rights to plays are typically about half the price than those of musicals. The companies that hold musical rights, including Musical Theatre International, also charge a fee for supplying materials necessary to do the show itself: the scripts, scores and librettos a team needs just to begin rehearsals.

In part due to these expenses, even the Dramat, which has by far the greatest financial resources of any theater organization on campus, does not stage more than two musicals of their seven total shows a year, Davis said.

But staging just a single musical can be a challenge for students who work independently of the Dramat, usually with the help of the Creative and Performing Arts Awards administered by the Council of Masters. Undergraduate students can apply for these grants — which support everything from art exhibitions and film productions to dance and theater projects — at the beginning of each semester through their residential colleges.

Seven of nine students interviewed who have worked on CPA-funded musicals said they found themselves encountering financial difficulties due to the cost of rights. Javier Cienfuegos ’15 said the CPA Award budget cannot realistically cover the costs of the show’s staging once producers purchase rights.

“A lot of people express initial interest [in working on musicals] and get put off by how bureaucratic and expensive it is,” Cienfuegos said.

‘Through the Back Door’

When Cienfuegos staged the musical “Urinetown” last spring, he needed $1,400 — the exact cost of the CPA’s maximum $1,200 grant and $200 supplement for purchasing rights — to cover start-up expenses like rights and materials. And four students interviewed who have worked on CPA-funded musicals said the award’s reimbursement system, which refunds expenses after a show’s completion, made the process of acquiring rights more difficult. Ezra Stiles College Master Stephen Pitti said that the university adopts this system to ensure that CPA awards fund “shows that actually happen.”

But this reimbursement process causes students to feel as though they need $1,200 up front just to begin working on shows, said Nathaniel Dolquist ’14, who directed the musical “Once Upon a Mattress” last semester.

“It’s one thing to lose sleep or be really stressed about a show, but to feel like you need to spend money on a show you don’t have … that just shouldn’t be asked of us,” said Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick ’15, who directed the musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!” this semester.

Despite the difficulties posed by the CPA reimbursement process, Hoyt-Disick ’15 said the grant was ultimately just enough to pay for her production — as long as she kept it to a smaller scale. When she decided to direct her first show to go up this October, she and producer Laurel German ’15 looked carefully for a musical to stage on a limited scale, in part due to the enormous cost of rights. Hoyt-Disick said she and German settled on “Tick, Tick … Boom!” because the three-person musical lent itself well to “scrounging” on the design side, with costumes costing roughly $50 in total and a set composed largely of pre-existing pieces.

But the limited cost of staging “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is extremely unusual for musicals, most of which call for larger casts — and more costumes — due to the chorus as well as more complex staging and sound equipment. Accordingly, working within the CPA budget is simply not an option, said Andrew Bezek ’13, who produced the larger-scale musical “Once Upon a Mattress” that Dolquist directed.

When Bezek began producing “Mattress,” he said he knew from the beginning that the CPA grant would not be sufficient — the rights and materials alone added up to around $1,000.

He added that because he was a member of the board of the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee, now known as the Undergraduate Organizations Committee, he understood the methods of obtaining funding through the organization. The UOC generally funds year-round student organizations including a cappella and dance groups. With theater, on the other hand, “each production is a mini, temporary organization,” Bezek said, because “[UOC] doesn’t readily fund shows.”

Obtaining UOC funding for “Mattress” meant jumping through “a couple of strange hoops,” Dolquist explained. The team formed the Rodgers and Hammerstein Appreciation Coalition, which was largely comprised of the cast. The performance was then billed as a “Rodgers and Hammerstein event,” he said.

“It was a little through the back door,” Dolquist said. “But you do what you got to do.”

UOC is not the only source of alternative funding students have found ways to tap.

Cole Florey ’14, who produced “Cabaret” last spring, said in a Wednesday email that the show was partially supported by the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, which has a fund for arts projects with themes affecting Judaism. Another musical — the student-written “Glass Act” — worked out a sponsorship deal with the Gant clothing store on York St., Cienfuegos, who directed the show, said. Yale Drama Coalition President Irene Casey ’14 added that students staging senior projects are also eligible for Mellon funding.

Dolquist, who is directing “Into the Woods” this April, said he is considering trying to secure funds through UOC once more. He is also investigating the possibility of making the show an academic project and receiving funding from the Theater Studies department.

“We will keep looking for secret places where money is being held,” Dolquist said.

Still, in many cases where shows have failed to pull together sufficient funding, students have simply contributed their own money, Cienfuegos said. Students working on musicals are especially likely to pay out of pocket, he explained, adding that he personally spent $400 on “Urinetown.”

Dolquist said that while he is aware that other students contribute funding to theater projects out of pocket, this is not a universal solution.

“I don’t have that kind of money, and my family doesn’t have that kind of money,” Dolquist said.

Searching for transparency  

Despite these challenges, Bezek said he does not think the CPA program should feel pressure to “give everyone everything,” since Yale is dealing with finite resources and a potentially infinite amount of requests.

Additionally, residential colleges such as Ezra Stiles and Calhoun sometimes reimburse producers for initial costs such as materials upfront, and Pitti said he regularly approves requests to buy the rights to shows. Differences in the way each college administers the award, however, means the process of applying for funding in advance could be unclear to some students. Casey said that unifying residential colleges policies regarding upfront payment could help address some of this confusion.

Bezek said sources of supplementary funding should also be more transparent, adding that first-time producers in particular may find searching for funding in various places “daunting.”

“You know about these ways, or you don’t — there’s no codified system,” Hoyt-Disick said. “[Finding alternative funding] is viewed as kind of sneaky. That’s just not the way it should be.”

Casey said she is working with both Cahan and Undergraduate Production to brainstorm possible ways of reforming the current system to prevent students from having to pursue funds not meant for shows. While Cahan said she understands that gathering funds from various sources is a logical strategy for shows, students who do so “risk compromising the intent of the donors.”

Casey said the YDC is working on a proposal to increase the maximum amount of money CPA Awards can provide and is collecting information on how much students have spent on rights in past years. Increasing the amount of the award would not only prevent people from pursuing alternative funding routes, but would also even the playing field of producing theater at Yale, she added.

“We should all have the same options open to us in terms of where we’re getting funding,” Casey said.

Cahan and Head of UP Kate Krier DRA ’07 meet weekly with YDC leaders and annually with a broader group of students from the undergraduate theater community. Krier said she is “optimistic” and “very excited” about the ideas that will come out of the upcoming meetings, but noted that any changes made to the CPA program will have to be made by the residential colleges.

“Everything that has occurred in terms of [extracurricular] theater development at Yale College has occurred as a result of student input,” Cahan said. “That’s what drives us.”

Casey said the YDC has met with great success in the past by collaborating with administrators. Recently, these meetings have resulted in initiatives such as simplifying the process for reserving classrooms as theater rehearsal spaces through the Provost’s Office, lengthening the time span in which a CPA Award can be used and centralizing the residential college theater reservation system.

Nevertheless, Casey admitted she is uncertain that the proposal to expand the funding for musicals will be met with success.

“It’s a big thing to ask for, and it may not be possible,” Casey said.

Raphael Shapiro ’13 said that the quality and quantity of shows at Yale is one of the reasons he came to Yale, but that students should understand “everything is limited.”

“If musical theater is what you want to work on here, be aware of what kind of shows you can do,” Shapiro said.

Hoyt-Disick largely agreed, saying the limits imposed by CPA Awards train production crews how to creatively produce serious theater on a budget. But when funding and logistical concerns become a deterrent from staging musicals, she said administrators need to begin reforming the CPA award process or establishing consistent sources of alternative funding.

“We need to look at the system and ask how it can be fixed,” Hoyt-Disick said.

Clarification: Nov. 12, 2012

A previous version of this article seemed to suggest that Bezek used his position on the UOFC board to work around the organization’s policies surrounding funding. In fact, Bezek worked within the UOFC’s guidelines to register his organization prior to applying for funding.

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