Phantom of the Opera: the perfect team production
Why is Phantom of the Opera
the most successful musical of all time? If it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music that accounts for more than $3 billion of box office receipts then how come Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves
sank without a trace?
Why is Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story
a classic when another musical by Bernstein Candide
closed after a miserable 73 performances? And how did Rogers and Hammerstein - the duo who created the Sound of Music
- manage the unenviable distinction of Broadway’s greatest flop – a show you have almost certainly never heard of called Pipe Dreams
The answer may lie in how well the creative team knew one another and whether they were connected through the kind of network that makes people who have just met compare who they know and exclaim, "It’s a small world!"
This is news that will be music to the ears of arts practitioners looking to justify late night schmoozing in sundry bars. Apparently you really are building your creative capacity when you work the room with a cocktail in hand rather than labouring alone over a script or score.
The evidence suggests creativity is not a lonely endeavour but depends heavily on building a dream team of creative professionals who spark off one another to enhance originality around a particular show. Six degrees of separation may be too many but one or two may not be enough to get the most out of your people power.
A pair of American sociologists have studied the relationships between the people who made every Broadway musical from Carousel
in 1945 to Miss Saigon
in 1989 – 474 shows that made it to the stage and another 49 shows that died in pre-production.
They concluded you can measure the likely success of a show according to how often the director,producer, composer, choreographer, scriptwriter and lyricist have worked together and whether they have connections in common.
Teams are most creatively successful when the individuals are connected but not too enmeshed.
Brian Uzzi and Janet Spiro wanted to find out how the social connections between people affect their creativity. They chose musicals because their success can be easily measured –both through commercial success and through critical notices – and because they depend on a creative team.
The old myth of the lonely creative genius has been exploded by studies of the lives of highly creative people from perennial classical favourite Beethoven to bassist Jamie Jamison—who co-wrote more number-one hit songs than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and Elvis combined. These biographical studies show highly creative people were typically embedded in a network of artists or scientists who shared ideas and acted as both critics and fans for each other.
Uzzi and Spiro have invented a measure of connectedness they called Q – which allowed them created a complex mathematical model to measure whether someone was a known collaborator, a friend of a friend or a complete outsider.
Their academic paper, 58 pages that turn The Pajama Game
and A Chorus Line
into a series of numbers and graphs, is published in the American Journal of Sociology
They found there is an ideal "Q" for creativity not too low, nor too high. Working with people a second or third time is valuable because you develop the understanding of each other’s work and the confidence to push original ideas.
Working with someone who has worked with someone you have worked with before is great too. It helps develop cohesive ties that spread fresh ideas and make work more creative. (Full marks for the 1920s' song "I’ve danced with a man who’s danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales.")
But repeatedly working with the same people or being part of a small world that circulates the same composers or directors through too limited a number of projects can have the reverse effect.
It homogenises creative material, decreasing artists’ ability to break out of conventional ideas or styles that worked in the past to do something original.
There is no certain formula for a hit but the Q factor work suggests creative can increase the chances of a show that will work by building a team that will spark together, lowering the risk of experimentation, introducing fresh ideas and making the team hospitable to creativity.
If you are a director who has worked with a choreographer several times, consider switching in a different choreographer who worked with your composer on the last show you were not
If you are a producer, who thinks you have found a great writing team, mix them up with different composers but rather than a complete outsider find someone who moves in the same world and will have brushed up against their ideas.
The secret is to keep your creative team loose and mobile, switching people in and out and keeping a good eye on what they are doing when they are not with you. The people in your team can amplify or stifle your creativity just by being too familiar or not familiar enough.
That’s something worth chatting about over another drink.