“I Wanna Be a Producer”: 10 Q & A’s with a Tony Award-Winning Producer

Written by: Alex Muscaro

Date: October 14th, 2019

Some of the essential players in the theatre-making process are the producers. The producers are the off-stage stars who oversee the entire production, facilitate the development of new works, and much more.  We asked you, the Performer Stuff fanbase, what questions you would have for a Broadway Producer, and I had the opportunity to sit down and ask those questions to Van Dean. Van is a Tony® Award and Grammy® Award-winning producer and the president of Broadway Records.

1.) Where did you go to college, and what was your major?

“I went to Syracuse University, and I studied Television, Radio, and Film Production. But I kind of created my own major. Where I still did that as a core, but they had a thing where if you were an honors student, you could take unlimited credits. I ended up taking about 186 credits in four years! Essentially two free years of classes. I took a lot of classes in theatre, and I took a lot in the music industry and music composition. I had a minor in Psychology, some other courses in business entrepreneurship. I even took a graphic design class, all of these different things.

The interesting thing I will say about all of this is that if you look at the path I took after graduating college. All of the different classes I ended up taking laid the seeds for the path of my career. All of the different things that I have done: starting my own record label, producing theatre, or starting my own business, can be traced back to the different classes I took when I was in college.”

2.) What made you want to go into producing?

“Well, if you go back to high school where I was reading biographies of Rodgers and Hammerstein and stuff like that, I saw that they wrote tons of shows. They started becoming extremely successful when producing Annie Get Your Gun for Irving Berlin, and they began producing other stuff too. I wanted to be a writer at the time, so I thought okay I’ll write and if I become successful enough I can produce for other people too. If you’re a writer these days, you’re lucky if you get two or three things produced a decade because it is just such a process. So I thought, okay producing is just another way for me to get involved with theatre.

Initially, when I started producing, it was a way to get my writing produced, I then became too busy that I didn’t have time to write anymore. I had to decide that this was okay because I got to be creatively involved in so much more. Now I have probably touched around three-hundred different theatre-related projects, maybe more in my career. And to be able to have that type of impact in an industry is pretty great. So for me, it was a path that made a lot of sense, speaking to my talents. My writing past helps inform my producing in a lot of ways, because as a producer, it is crucial to understand the writing process, how writers think, and how to help support them.”

3.) How did you get into the producing business?

“Well, the first thing was an Off-Broadway musical in 2005. A friend of mine knew a producer who was doing this Off-Broadway musical. If we put in a small investment, she would agree to let us be a ‘fly on the wall’ to learn about the process. It was the lowest level you could get on a show, but I thought it is worth that if I could get an education. That friend and I ended up forming a production company with which we ran for five years.

Interestingly enough, we did the project, and that weekend I went to a barbecue where I was networking with some different people. I met someone who was talking about a show he was producing at NYMF. He heard I was producing this Off-Broadway show, and said would you have any interest in helping to produce the show at NYMF. So basically, I then just jumped in full force, and I had no time to be the fly on the wall in that production. However small my previous role was on that first show, I probably would have never gotten to work on the NYMF show. If I didn’t have that as a talking point. Working on a festival, I learned even more. It is similar to producing Broadway just at a smaller level. It’s a lot of the same ideas that go into it. Because of that, it proved to be a great experience. I learned that the path I wanted to take was producing musicals regionally, and then moving into broadway once I gained enough experience.”

4.) What is your favorite project you have worked on to date?

“That’s a tough one! I love Anastasia, I love Matilda, but my work in Newtown has been probably the most emotionally meaningful. We did an original musical called A Rockin Midsummer Night’s Dream. So to me, producing that show to help contribute to this community and help in their healing process is the most meaningful project to me. To be able to bring what I have learned from Broadway and then be able to try and do some good for those who need it. I was just one of many on that project, but to be able to contribute in that kind of way meant a lot.”

The cast of the NewArts world premiere production of “A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

5.) What are the upcoming projects that you are allowed to disclose at this time?

The Lightning Thief, Marie, Dancing Still, and Jagged Little Pill.”

6.) What advice would you give young theatre students who are considering a career in producing?

“Well, in general, I think knowing about the craft. As a producer, it is essential to know about all the different people who work on a show. What everyone does, what they go through, and what they need to make their job easier. Working on a show at a festival level, you wear many hats, but on Broadway, you delegate a lot. But to delegate appropriately, you need to know a bit about what everyone does.

I also think knowing about theatre history, just because being interesting and being able to hold your own in a conversation is vital for networking. And networking is critical because you can’t produce without being a good networker…but, yeah, to be able to hold your own is incredibly important. I mean, it’s not all just Hamilton. Hamilton is, of course, fantastic, but there is so much more history before that. It’s important to have an appreciation for how we got to where we are. It’s valuable because people want to know when they are considering working with you that you are passionate, not only for the process but the effort that goes into the craft, and especially the history behind it. That’s my perspective; everyone might not feel the same.”

7.) What do you look for in a show when considering it as a possible project?

“Well, there are two sides to it: there is art and commerce.

Artistically, it needs to be satisfying to me. I need to think it has an Intriguing voice, well crafted, or it has something to say. It’s a story that needs to be told.

And then on the commerce side, it needs to make financial sense. The cost to create it and the cost to run it need to be reasonable for what it is. It can cost more if its a prominent commercial property like a Moulin Rouge. You can justify the higher cost because it is such a popular brand and has a built-in fanbase. But if it’s something no one has ever heard of, it can’t cost what Moulin Rouge costs because it’ll never work. So we have to look at it for what it is.

On the one hand, you want to be ahead of the curve, and obviously, that’s the challenge. But that’s how you get to be successful if you can anticipate what people will want in the future. And you don’t want to be following trends. You want to be blazing the path. But you also don’t want to do something that is so far off- maybe something from another era that might not work now. It’s tough because there are so many amazing pieces being written. Something that perhaps would have been considerable successes in the 80s, but might not work now. It’s knowing the market and knowing what it will support. Having an understanding of what people want to see now versus what they wanted to see twenty or thirty years ago.”

8.) What was your first Broadway producing job, and how many years was that after you started producing?

Catch Me If You Can was my first as a co-producer, and it was two years later that I began to lead produce on Broadway. I did end up doing about five to six shows in my first year of producing if you count London. When I first began producing I had the time to move at such a fast pace, but since starting Broadway Records, I have since slowed down a bit. But that’s why I did so much so early on.”

9.) What qualities do you look for when deciding to work with someone?

“I want someone who is nice number one. Life is too short to work with people you don’t like talking to, be respectful. Someone easy to get along with and passionate about what they do. Who cares about the craft and cares enough to learn about it.

But yeah, I think those are the main things. People want to work with people who they look forward to spending their time with. When you are producing a show with somebody, it’s almost like a mini-marriage. You know, if that show is successful you could be working with that person for a long time. So you want to make sure you want to be in the room with them for years to come if it goes well.”

10.) Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?

“Well, several different things that I’m already laying down the groundwork. More film, I have some film projects I’m trying to get off the ground. The label, I think, will be a much bigger force than it is now. Right now, we have only about seven and a half years of history, so imagine where we will be in another ten.

On the theatre side, more lead producing definitely. There are several projects I’m working on. Leading and generating more creative projects both in theatre and film, potentially some T.V. as well.

And I am definitely starting a family. Hopefully, in ten years, I will have a couple of kids. I look forward to the day that I can take them to see a show that I produced. It’ll be a while, you know, but it’ll happen one day.”

Bonus Question 11: What advice would you give your younger self?

“Have a path in mind, but don’t be so rigid about it. You know there are so many things in my life that took a left turn or a right turn, and it led to something so much more interesting. I didn’t set out to be a producer. I set out to be a writer, but when I got the opportunity, it brought me much bigger things than I could have imagined. There are so many examples in my life where I took a risk, I followed a path that might not have seemed obvious, and turned into something really great. It has happened many many times. I think that’s the biggest lesson. Keep an open mind. It makes life more exciting when you open yourself up to the possibilities.”

Need some advice? We’ve got you covered.

Alexandra Muscaro has been a member of the Performer Stuff team since 2017. Alexandra recently graduated from Marymount Manhattan College where she studied Musical Theatre and Dramaturgy. In addition to being an actress, Alexandra is the Playwriting Consultant for the New York New Works Theatre Festival. She is also a proud member of the Recording Academy. For more information about Alexandra please visit www.alexandramuscaro.com and www.purplependramaturgy.com.

Photo credits: 

American Theatre, Van Dean, Alex Muscaro