Earlier this month there was quite a bit of teeth-gnashing about playwrights working in film and TV because they can’t make a living from their playwriting. Tony Kushner set off this latest wave of groans. I piled on with a “Playwrights In the Poorhouse” post. I felt qualified to comment since in thirteen years of writing plays my earnings total less than $2,000.
Amidst all this sackcloth and ashes, I glimpsed two other events out of the corner of my eye.
On June 8 there was an announcement that a new stage musical, Big Fish, is being produced, based on the 2003 movie of the same name. The movie (screenplay by John August, directed by Tim Burton, adapted from Daniel Wallace’s novel) was widely acclaimed and received many awards. This screen-to-stage project has been under steady (and highly discreet) development for six years. August has written the book, Andrew Lippa the music and lyrics, and Susan Stroman will choreograph and direct. Plans are to open Big Fish on Broadway in spring 2012.
A few days later another musical, this one developed by two guys who found fame and fortune in TV and film, cleaned up at a small ceremony in New York. The musical that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (along with Robert Lopez) championed and created, The Book of Mormon, won nine Tony Awards, including “Best Musical.” Their show is nigh impossible to get a ticket to right now. (Local footnote: Trey Parker is from Seattle and South Park is a blue collar-neighborhood here.)
So questions arise. If indigent playwrights are going to L.A. to put food on the table, why are these established and materially more-than-comfortable L.A. creatives working their tails off on musicals and spending so much time chasing New York dreams? And let’s not overlook recent successful straight plays produced on Broadway that were written by Hollywood stalwarts Aaron Sorkin and John Logan.
Theatre offers these writers and musicians opportunities for creative expression and control that are absent in film and TV. John August says as much in a recent post on his blog: “Broadway is a completely different world than Hollywood, a parallel universe in which many things are better for writers – but also more complicated.” (I added the bold face.)
Film and TV are not superior to the stage. Each medium has its virtues. Money happens to be more plentiful in film and TV. But if we conclude that money is the ultimate measure of a medium’s value, haven’t we just bought into what is so wrong so often about America? Chasing the dollar does not produce a satisfying existence.
I for one am wishing John August and company every success. May their big fish fill their boat.