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“First-Time Producer? Me Too!”: From Musical Theatre Writing to Producing at 54 Below

By Joely Zuker

First-time producer? Me too!

I’ve always identified creatively as a composer, lyricist, songwriter, arranger, and musical theatre writer, but I never thought of myself as a producer – well, that is before now. So when the idea of producing a new works showcase came up, I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone and go for it.

Brandon Fillette and me at our April presentation of our new musical, J.O.Y. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

How it started

I was accepted into the inaugural cohort of BerkleeNYC’s Writing and Design for Musical Theater (WDMT) program in 2021 and started classes that fall. (Fun fact for our Maestra community: the program is headed by Maestra Julianne Wick Davis, taught by Maestra professors Faye Chiao and Rona Siddiqui, and our cohort included eight student Maestras!)

In my second semester, all WDMT students took a business class taught by the trifecta of Broadway producers we affectionately call “The BOBs” – Heather Shields, Erica Rotstein, and Rachel Sussman – for their work with “The Business of Broadway”. Our final project was to pitch a business endeavor or theatre-related event we were passionate about in the field. I pitched “a one-night-only event at 54 Below for all of my classmates to showcase an original song.” 

My classmate, now co-producer, Mason Emmert had a similar idea, so we combined our ideas and teamed up to make the first-ever BerkleeNYC Alumni musical theatre showcase a reality. Now, it’s happening: we’re co-producing the upcoming showcase of Berklee NYC’s Steppin’ Out: Original Songs from New Musicals at 54 Below!

The inaugural BerkleeNYC WDMT cohort meeting for the first time with Program Director Julianne Wick Davis at student orientation in 2021. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

A Passion Project

There is something special about being part of the first cohort of an entirely new writing program. Giving myself and these other writers (who have practically become family) the chance to get their meaningful work on a stage is truly not a hard thing to be passionate about. 

Our show stands out because it features new and original works from transformative, unique, and original ideas of up-and-coming musical theatre creators. I was able to watch shows grow from seeds of an idea into fully-realized musicals, so the connection I have to each of these shows makes producing this showcase all the more meaningful and important to me. Every song in this setlist tells a story worth sharing, and I am so excited for our audience to experience them for the very first time.

A mother-son duet in the musical Forestine by Maestra Ashley Hazzard, showcased at BerkleeNYC. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

But where does a new producer even start?

What is a producer? Well, the actual definition can vary, but long story short, a producer oversees every aspect of theatre production. Catherine Schreiber (award-winning producer of The Play That Goes Wrong) told Playbill, “The producer is sort of the mother or father; the producer takes a project and gives it life.” 

Producing a Broadway show, of course, entails a lot more than producing an hour-long showcase where you have most of the creative and logistical control. Nonetheless, producing involves zooming out and thinking about every single aspect that goes into this show, honing in on each element as needed.

If you’re interested in learning more about producing, the first thing I’ll say is knowledge is power, as are partnerships and research. For a more thorough definition of the breakdown of roles and a more in depth look at what a producer is, I would recommend looking at the many resources offers.

Behind the scenes in tech rehearsal for the showcase of Stevie and the Infinite Scroll by Maestra Kristen Goodman and Eddie Bean. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

What does producing at 54 Below entail?

Logistically, producing this show at 54 Below entails being in constant communication with your team, sending a million and one clear emails, coordinating with the varying members of the 54 Below team, coming up with promotional marketing strategies, reviewing contracts, finding a rehearsal space for the rehearsal that is needed prior to show day, hiring a rhythm section (of all-star Berklee alumni), making sure the writers are in the loop when they need to be, and ensuring that everyone feels heard. Specifically, for me, it also means connecting with the Berklee alumni office to bridge the gap between Berklee and 54 Below.

On top of this, it’s a constant act of balancing our wishlist with our actual budget. This requires remaining simultaneously ambitious yet realistic. Perhaps one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that people will inevitably have questions, so clarity in answers is absolutely vital. If you don’t know the answer, that’s okay – respond as best you can and say you’ll find out and get back to them.

Maestra Alexandra Maria Vollero and MUSE member Dionne Hendricks speaking to their musical A Great Day in Harlem in front of the photograph that inspired their show, Harlem 1958. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

Drawing inspiration from other new writers

As a writer first, I have a lot to say – but I’m not the only one who does. My fellow new writers inspire me with the plethora of differing perspectives, themes and originality they incorporate into their work: from a piece of historical fiction based on the famous photo, “Harlem 1958” (A Great Day in Harlem by Alexandra Maria Vollero and Dionne Hendricks) to an autobiographical story of one writer’s experience with gender, race, and life between two cultures (Shadow in the Sun by Sio Tepper). 

Those are just two examples of the many topics, genres, and themes discussed in the work of the seven writing duos and four solo writers in this showcase.

A moment from J.O.Y. by Brandon Fillette and me. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

The Greatest Joys of Producing

I can summarize the most exciting parts about co-producing this showcase in two aspects.  

Firstly, working with the phenomenal band has been an absolute joy. There really is nothing better than working with musicians you trust and respect. We are also very lucky to have Maestra Elena Bonomo, a true rockstar, drumming for us. With eleven songs in the lineup, each telling a different story, encompassing contrasting tones, and representing various musical genres, finding musicians who could do it all was important — and we did just that.

Secondly, I have loved being a resource for my fellow writers. Being able to rely on and trust my producers has always made me feel a sense of ease in the past, so being able to do this for others has been incredible. As a writer myself, I can empathize with our writer’s needs and wants.

However, this process has been rewarding on a more personal level. Being in workshops with these writers and their shows throughout the entirety of grad school has allowed me to build a personal connection to each of them. Having a front row seat to these shows’ development from seeds of ideas to fully fleshed-out drafts has been extremely powerful.

Umi confronting her shadow in a song from A Shadow in the Sun by Maestra Sio Tepper. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

The Greatest Challenges of Producing

The biggest challenge as a co-producer has been separating my writer brain from my producer brain. My writer brain might want, for example, piano, drums, bass, guitar, trumpet, and trombone on stage playing a song to really capture the intended overall tone. However, my producer brain knows that hiring seven different musicians is going to max out the given budget. It’s important to find the balance between pipe dreams and reality. 

Having collaborators that you can bounce ideas off of has been a game-changer every step of the way as we’ve set each decision in stone. Great collaboration is key, and it helps you feel a little less insane.

A pause in tech rehearsal for Through the Frame by Maestra Alexis Idarose Kesselman and Jake Weinstein. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

Holding space as a female producer

I think the perception of who a writer or producer is, who they “should” be, and who they historically and famously have been is the root of any damaging bias or discriminatory attitude I’ve encountered in my life. 

I’m so grateful to be a part of Maestra because the organization and all of its members are deeply dedicated to holding spaces for female and nonbinary artists to share their voices. As I’ve said many times throughout this article, support and fellowship on this front makes all the difference in the world. 

As a producer, I’ve learned that it’s also my responsibility to hold space in the same way I would want space held for me as a writer, and I am grateful that I have not come up against these perceptions throughout this process. However, I have an even more increased respect for the female producers in this industry fighting against preconceived notions and biases while being absolute badasses.

Maestra Mo Yeh reviewing rhythm section charts with Maestra Sheela Ramesh in tech rehearsal. Image courtesy of Ryan Nava Media.

So now what?

Five years ago, the thought of having one of my own songs performed and played at the biggest cabaret space in New York City would have felt pretty surreal. So if you’re passionate about seeing something on a stage, you can make it happen! 

Wondering how to set yourself up for success? Have a team you trust and be open-minded. This means being willing to compromise when need be. Reach out to venues, use your network, and keep establishing new goals for yourself. 

Now, instead of my original goal of a “one-night-only event at 54 Below,” my co-producer and I have set a new goal of presenting this same show at a variety of musical theatre spaces in New York City. Moving forward, this plan will help us continue to challenge ourselves, reach more people with our stories, and more importantly, share fresh messages that the world needs to hear.

The BerkleeNYC WDMT graduating class of 2022 after their commencement at Jazz at Lincoln Center featuring Maestra faculty Julianne Wick Davis and Rona Siddiqui.

2 thoughts on ““First-Time Producer? Me Too!”: From Musical Theatre Writing to Producing at 54 Below

  1. Good for you, Joely, for stepping outside your comfort zone and making this happen! Congrats! And all the best as you present this showcase at additional venues and continue the work on your own new piece.

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