Broadway Hits the Middle School Circuit (New York Times Feature)

February 16, 2021

ATLANTA — Inside the Cobb Galleria Centre, a vast conference hall here, David Scott, the licensing director for Disney Theatrical Productions, reached across a chest-high cube for a round, golden sticker. He handed it to Brynn Hall, a 13-year-old actor with the Forsyth Academy of Performing Arts, a youth theater group in Cumming, Ga.

“Write down your wish and stick it on the cube,” Mr. Scott instructed.

“What is your wish?” he asked as Ms. Hall jotted a few lines on the sticker. “Do you want to be on Broadway?”

“Yes,” she said.

“That’s a good wish,” he said,

“I know, right,” she replied as she put the sticker up next to hundreds of others.

Ms. Hall was attending the Junior Theater Festival, an annual celebration of musical theater that attracts nearly 6,000 attendees, including 3,200 middle school students. It is organized by iTheatrics, a company that adapts Broadway musicals for the youth market.

Educational theater is big business. Fifty million people saw a high school play or musical last year, according to the Educational Theatre Association. The market has grown so large that it is increasingly important to the people who create, produce and license theater in the United States.

Plays have long been licensed for professional tours, community theater and other adult groups. But the recent growth in licensing to the youth market has increased long-term revenue for writers, composers and producers in a business where millions of dollars are risked (and frequently lost) to stage a production. Though deals vary, producers of a Broadway show often receive 30 to 40 percent of licensing revenue for 18 years after a show closes on Broadway.

“It is a substantial source of revenue,” said Barry Weissler, a Broadway producer who has had some of his shows, including “Seussical” and “Fiddler on the Roof” adapted for the school market.

Sean Patrick Flahaven, the chief executive office of the Musical Company, a partnership between Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and Concord Music, said a successful title in the youth market can generate $1 million or more a year in licensing revenue. The show “Annie,” for example, has been licensed in various versions around the world over 13,000 times in the last five years.

In 2012, high schools spent about $300 million on theatrical productions, according to the most recent figures from the Educational Theatre Association. No one closely tracks this market, but licensers say that high schools are the largest portion of the educational market, while middle schools have grown the most. Over the last decade, middle school membership in the International Thespian Society, an honor society for theater arts students, has doubled to 7,000.

Mr. Flahaven says that roughly a decade ago, licenses sold to elementary and middle schools made up about 10 percent of revenue for many licensing firms. Now it can be closer to 25 percent.

ITheatrics works with the composers, writers or license holders to create simpler, shorter versions of musicals that are appropriate for elementary and middle schools.

“Annie,” when performed on Broadway, for example, is a two-act, 2.5 hourlong musical with eight principal roles and an ensemble. The middle school version is 60 minutes long and has 25 speaking roles plus the ensemble. The 30-minute elementary school version has 20 speaking roles plus the ensemble. ITheatrics’ charges customers about $200,000 for its two-year-long adaptation process and has around 18 musicals in some phase of adaptation at any given time. (The adaptation kits then sold to schools usually cost between about $400 for elementary schools and $1,000 or more for high schools.)

Today nearly every licensing company offers musicals tailored to this market. Theatrical Rights Worldwide has a School Edition for high school and Young@Part for middle and elementary school. Rodgers & Hammerstein offers a Getting to Know Series, Samuel French licenses 101 School Editions, Tams-Witmark has a Young Performers’ Edition and Disney licenses Disney JR and Disney Kids versions.

Freddie Gershon, the co-chairman of the licensing firm Music Theatre International, created this business more than 20 years ago when he worked with Stephen Sondheim, who was concerned about aging Broadway audiences, to adapt “Into the Woods” for schools. After more than a decade of adapting its own shows, MTI spun off iTheatrics in 2007 to do the same for other licensing firms.

“I thought Freddie was nuts,” says Timothy Allen McDonald, iTheaterics’ founding chairman. “But he understood that it would never take on a life of it own unless there was a ‘Sound of Music’ adaptation and others. It should be industrywide.” Mr. Gershon received a special Tony Award in 2012 in part for creating these adaptations.

“It has been a wonderful way to inject a lot of adrenaline into the company — making old titles, or those that did not get their due, more valuable,” Mr. Gershon said.

Finding the Next Generation

Inside the Atlanta convention center, a line of middle school students waited giddily for a chance to have their picture taken with an unlikely celebrity: Tyler Mount. Until 2015 Mr. Mount was an anonymous Broadway stage manager. Now he is a star, at least among the tween theater crowd. He interviews Broadway personalities for a show he distributes on YouTube. More than 3 million people have viewed his show.

Last February, he began partnering with Playbill. The 134-year-old theater publication saw an opportunity in Mr. Mount’s audience: 12- to 24-year-olds who live for Broadway.

“It’s great to have Tyler and his energy aboard,” said Alex Birsh, vice president of Playbill. “He helps us communicate with the next generation of theater-obsessed people.”

Playbill is not just hoping for future readers. It also licenses software called Playbillder that lets schools and theater groups create a Playbill for their shows. Schools can use it to sell ads to raise money and bring in services. In 2017, according to the company, about 2 million Playbills were produced using its software. About 85 percent of its licenses are sold to schools and about 40 percent of those are middle and elementary schools.

A broad range of businesses target this youth market. According to the Educational Theatre Association, about 27 percent of a school’s budget goes toward licensing the material. Sets are another 19 percent. Costumes are 17 percent. Last year nearly 4,000 high school students attended the organization’s International Thespian Festival, which featured vendors offering everything from a costume inventory database to stage makeup, lighting and ticketing software.

Broadway Media Distribution, a company that provides projected digital scenery, works directly with Music Theatre International and Theatrical Rights Worldwide to create backgrounds tailored to their shows. They can cost anywhere from $250 to $995 depending on the production. About 85 percent of the company’s customers are middle and high schools.

On a Saturday evening at the festival, young actors from Spotlight Theatre Productions in Sarasota, Fla., wearing purple and blue billowing pants and golden vests, held hands in a circle. They passed a hand squeeze from one to another as they prepared to go on stage. They were about to perform songs from a new version of “Aladdin JR.” in front of nearly 6,000 theater-obsessed students, parents and theater directors.

“Aladdin JR.” had an unusual path to its debut here. “Aladdin,” the highest grossing movie of 1992, was adapted as a school musical in 2004. Its success there inspired Disney to stage it on Broadway in 2014. Now it has again been adapted for schools.

The success of musicals in this market is upending traditions in theatrical licensing, said Mr. Flahaven. Historically, musicals would not be released to the educational market until the Broadway production closed. Licensers were afraid that it would cannibalize business. But that is changing. “Aladdin JR.” is available even though the original show remains on Broadway. And at the direction of Andrew Lloyd Webber, licenses for his production of “School of Rock” are available to schools while it too is still on Broadway. “The idea is to put it out there and to see if it drives business toward seeing the Broadway show or the tour,” said Mr. Flahaven.

Educational licensing has reversed the fortunes of some shows. “Seussical: The Musical” lost $10 million in six months when it debuted on Broadway in 2000. The writers reworked it and it had a successful national tour. Mr. McDonald adapted it for schools and it remains one of the most-produced school musicals in the country. In the 2016-17 season, Music Theatre International issued more than 2,500 licenses for middle and elementary school “Seussical” adaptations.

“For a show like ‘Seussical,’ the educational market is the most important piece of the marketplace,” said Mr. Weissler, one of the show’s producers. Thanks to licensing revenue, he said that he has paid back millions in loans and paid down some of the show’s original investment.

But musicals don’t sell themselves. In the beginning, Mr. McDonald flew to teacher conferences to pitch these shows. But his approach has changed. “The more we can make the marketing experiential, the more successful it is,” he said.

And so this conference is a rousing celebration of theater. Crowds participate in mass singalongs to songs from “Shrek The Musical.” Students perform songs from musicals and are critiqued by company representatives. Students congratulate each other on their performances, talk shop and shriek at the sight of Stephen Schwartz, the composer for “Godspell” and “Wicked.” All that excitement is woven into education, marketing, networking and tween dance parties.

Students from Bravo, the performing arts program at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, Ill., who performed songs from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang JR.,” also workshopped the production last year for iTheatrics, which was adapting the musical for the educational market. (The school has worked on about a dozen plays for iTheatrics). Executives from the company traveled to the school, watched the students perform and incorporated feedback into the adaptation.

“The people here are tastemakers,” said Mr. Scott. “They go back to their communities, people say, ‘Hey, what is Bravo doing?’ And they say ‘Wow, we want to do that.’ It has a trickle-down effect.”

Copyright: NY Times