In the New York City musical theater community, Sheri Sanders has carved a niche for herself as the go-to repertoire coach for all things pop/rock — an increasingly profitable specialty as more new musicals lean in that direction, many with composers from the pop/rock world (i.e. the upcoming SpongeBob SquarePants musical). With her audition workshop Rock the Audition, Sanders has traveled across the country to 62 colleges teaching budding actors how to audition for contemporary musicals with popular music.
Enter Theatrical Rights Worldwide CEO, Steve Spiegel, who over the past few years has assembled a team to come up with the best way to create new content that could be easily distributed to theater organizations around the globe. He turned to Sanders to curate the music that would go into a new project they are now calling Rock the Musical, which will ultimately become a new, direct-to-licensing musical (without a plan for an Off-Broadway or Broadway run). The show will feature a book centered around social issues in the ‘60s, as well as music from the catalogues of The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and more.
As they embarked on the creation process, Sanders and Spiegel chatted with Billboard about their new partnership and what they hope will come of their unconventional project.
The idea of creating “jukebox musicals” isn’t necessarily new. What sparked the idea for this particular partnership at this time?
Spiegel: Being huge fans of popular music and rock and roll music, [we looked at] what would be easy for us to put into the marketplace quickly. At the same time, we were listening to what our buyers wanted. The people who are now running theater companies have grown up embracing rock and roll and popular music; it’s the music of their lives. Combined with my love for this music and my knowledge on how to distribute and sell it, we’ve assembled a team to evaluate how to grow our business in a fashion that doesn’t just wait for Broadway shows, which can [take years to develop].
So we were thinking, how can we build content, grow our catalogue, service what our customers want, and get there quickly with authorized creators and people who are recognized as experts in this world. [My colleague] suggested Sheri [and Rock the Audition]. I said, “Anything that has the word ‘rock’ in its name, let’s get it on board!” It’s very popular right now to have rock artists contributing [on Broadway], like Cyndi Lauper [who composed the score for Kinky Boots]. We felt that the marketplace was asking for it.
We thought about creating something that goes directly to release and distribution. Tribute acts are already popular, so we wanted to create something that was more dramatic in nature and feel that the audience will embrace it immediately because it’s mirroring their lives. It’s “de-risk,” which I think is an important part of this. If you’re going to use your dollars to go out and see a show, don’t you want it to be “de-risk,” where you can go in, know you’re going to have fun and be entertained? We were thrilled that Sheri, who is the goddess of this world, embraced us and wanted to work with us. It’s a great opening to what we hope will be several products, not just one.
So you see this project as only the beginning?
Sanders: We’re starting with the ‘60s musical; that’s our home base. [There are] great musicals that use the music from that time period, but I wondered if any “jukebox musicals” were talking about what was happening historically at the time. The ‘60s were a time of race issues, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. Can we have it be about real life and what was going on in that time period, and at the same time, can we use a contemporary palette of people? I want to see gender nonconforming actors, mixed-race people, people on the autism spectrum — those are the kinds of people who exist now. I want to see the people of today telling the stories of what went on then. We want to be able to give young people inspiration, hope, and ideas of what they can do with their energy, and allow their parents and grandparents to enjoy the music of their lives.
What do you hope the actors who participate in this project will gain from the experience?
Spiegel: The purpose of a song in a musical is two-fold: songs are meant to move the plot, but also, lyrics in songs can be worded differently than when you speak them. They’re more elevated. Songwriting in the ‘60s became much deeper and emotional, and I believe that’s the platform that all great songs are based on today. It’ll be a beneficial experience for both the audience and performers to hear these songs in this dramatic context.
Sanders: Why I love popular music so much is that it’s open for interpretation. Because of that, many people can listen to a song and feel a certain way about it, and they’re all correct. The goal for the performers of this production is that they can identify what their feelings are about the time periods they’re studying, implement consciousness and empathy [when discussing social issues], and build their craft as artists while making them stronger human beings. We need great leaders, and if there’s an opportunity for people to find out what kind of leaders they are while they’re performing and being reflective in this way, that’s the ultimate goal for me.