Dear Sharon (and Rob)…

With the passing of a journalistic female icon this week, Ms. Pauline Phillips who created and wrote her “Dear Abby” column until it was taken over my her daughter, I’ve decided to start a new series.  Yes, you guessed it, Dear Sharon.  I get questions all the time.  Sometimes in Facebook messages, more frequently in responses to this blog, and even in person.  I’m never going to claim to have all the answers but if I don’t know I’ll find someone who does know.  Or I’ll make up something really creative.  In all honesty, I love to answer questions so this suits me well.  Let’s try it!

In all honesty the idea was not mine.  I heard from a reader named Rick on my Contact Me page and he gave me the idea.  So Rick, here is your letter reprinted and answered in the best way I can.  Rob will weigh in, too.

Dear Sharon,

I’ve enjoyed the blog, blogisodes, and “what I liked about” posts for over a year now. And I missed reading during the summer slowdown, BTW, but I guess everyone is entitled to a vacation now and then, just don’t make a habit of it.

Sharon: I did take a long break.  And then some more breaks.  I’m sorry about that, but I’ll tell you what I learned in my first year of blogging….it’s all about blog burnout prevention and it is a very real thing. In my first year I wrote 182 posts and averaged 1,500 words per post.  This adds up to 273,000 words in a year. To give you a picture of this, the final (and longest) of the Harry Potter books (Deathly Hallows) has 198,227 words so I out-wrote Ms. Rowlings by about 75,000 words (and that book took 2 movies!).  I needed a break and I needed to slow down or I was going to burn out quickly.

For future moments when you have, er, a moment:

1) You go to tons of shows. You take your kids to tons of shows. Do you get special prices on tickets, or even freebies because you are in the business? Do you want to adopt a son? I’m only 66.

I get to go to a lot of shows because I am a voter for the TONY awards and I get two free tickets to every show that opens on Broadway.  I could never, ever attend all the theater I attend without these free tickets and to say that I am grateful for the honor is a gigantic understatement.  It’s funny, when I was growing up I had a swimming pool because my Dad owned a swimming pool company.  I always hoped people would want to be my friend because I had a pool, and I feel the same way about these tickets.  I try to take as many different people as I can but certainly my husband and my kids are the biggest beneficiaries.  Free tickets to shows are hard to come by, but there are services like TDF and other online companies who provide discounted tickets for a small joining fee.  Most people I know who do this are very happy with the results.  Additionally, in slow times (like September and January-March shows will “paper” their audiences and pass out free tickets.  Sometimes they go to local theater schools, sometimes other shows on their days off, but overall free tickets to Broadway shows are pretty rare. 
2) Why would Disney decide to risk a Broadway musical on source material like Newsies that was a big flop? (We enjoyed the show, never saw the film.) Who can explain what gets produced and what doesn’t?

This answer comes from across the couch, Rob Meffe, who piped up and said, “I actually know the answer to that.”

According to Rob (but I am still typing because it was long and I am paraphrasing), Newsies was a very touchy project from the beginning.  It is an obvious musical–but because it was a tough fight to get the movie made and then the movie flopped, no one wanted to touch the material.  Legend has it that everyone at Disney who worked on the film version of Newsies was fired. 

Fast forward many years and cut to Alan Menken’s two daughters who are die hard fans of the movie and constantly badgered him to turn it into a musical.  Apparently Menken ran into Harvey Fierstein one day and Fierstein says, “Why don’t you turn Newsies into a musical?” Fierstein says he’ll write the book, gets Disney to agree to greenlight the project, but only on a small-ish scale, not to Broadway, but to a regional theater, The Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey.  The rest is history.  It opened to standing ovations, huge crowds and great reviews.  But even then, they moved the show to a small theater on Broadway with a limited run (it is now an open run). 

Everything gets produced for different reasons, but as with all business, follow the money.

3) Since you do ‘swing’, how would that work for a show like “Once”, where performers have to sing – and dance – and play their own instruments? They can’t really have a whole backup cast standing around, but they can’t just pull from the usual swing players either, can they? (Maybe this is a question for Rob?)

Not to brag (I can’t be bragging, I don’t have a job right now), but swings are some of the most talented people on Broadway.  They do it all.  Including at Once. And no, there is not a one understudy per playing actor quota, there is usually two, but most of the time one or both of the understudies are also in the show in smaller roles.  There are also off stage understudies (swings) who can go on for one of several people and when they go on part of the deal is that they do the whole show, so at Once you are looking at a group of swings and understudies who play a plethora of instruments, and they sing and dance.  Crazy, right?

4) We bought the DVD of “Memphis”, which is a professionally videographed performance of the Broadway show. a) why did they do that rather than a movie, and b) why don’t other shows which have little chance of becoming a movie do that too? (I’ve seen a bootleg of a show from a handheld camera by some guy in the balcony (at “Drowsy Chaperone”) – and it’s gross – but I would happily pay for a real video of many of the shows that I have seen. Wouldn’t you?)

Money, money, money.  It’s all about money.  Memphis ran for four days in limited release in movie theaters and then was released on DVD.  Occasionally shows are recorded for PBS, but filming for DVD is rare.  Whether or not it becomes more common place depends on sales, but I’m sure their ears pricked up when you said you’d be happy to pay for it. [Rob chiming in here]: The company that produced Memphis is called “Direct From Broadway” and they distribute several other filmed stage musicals, including Jekyll & Hyde starring David Hasselhoff, Smokey Joe’s Cafe and Putting It Together.  Sharon is right that it has to do with money. Owners of the rights to musicals are not always convinced that distributing filmed versions of their product does not cut into the ticket sales of live performances of their product.

5) If the original Les Mis was produced with almost all the parts being ‘chorus’, how does that work? Who decides what’s chorus and what’s featured? And what are the minimum salaries for each?

Les Miserables being mostly chorus contracts is a bit of an anomaly and one that Actors’ Equity Association would probably like to forget.  To answer specifically, Actors’ Equity Association is the ruling party on what kind of contract an actor will be placed on (although the producer can–and will–campaign for a certain kind of contract).  The reason the Les Mis actors were put on chorus contracts has to do with how they start the show.  If you start the show as your principal character you are just that–a principal contract.  This is usually not a problem because why would a person appear as anything BUT their character?  In a show as big as Les Miz they wanted as many actors onstage as they could get from the beginning of the show.  Only Jean Val Jean, Javert and Fantine (and the kids) start as their named characters.  Cosette, Marius, the Thenardiers, Enjolras and Eponine all appear as unnamed ensemble members in the group scenes until they “breakaway” at various points in the show to get ready for their principal roles.  Because they START the show as ensemble, they are placed on ensemble contracts. 

Funnily enough, because of the way the riders work on the contracts (you get more money to understudy a role) the understudies for these roles often make more money than the people playing them.  What is the minimum pay?  That used to be an easy answer but now there are “tiered” payments to tours so most of the tours make different salaries.  The minimum chorus contract on Broadway is $1,754.

6) How about a once a week column – we ask questions, you give answers? A Dear Abby kind of thing? I’ve already started. Now your turn.

I did it!  Now you guys have to keep it going.  You don’t have to ask as many questions as Rick did (he got us off to a nice start) because I can always combine questions in a post.  Let’s see what kind of questions I get and then we’ll see how often we can run this!  Place questions in the comments section, or email them to me at

Thanks for playing.


More of the LIFETIME series later this week!



About Sharon Wheatley

I'm a mother, an actress and a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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3 Responses to Dear Sharon (and Rob)…

  1. Jessica Fielder says:

    Dear Sharon (and Rob), genius! I see many questions from me in your future. I'm always hunting down answers for students and their parents about college and beyond in MT. Love your blogs!
    Jessica Carver-Fielder

  2. oliviacw says:

    Dear Sharon (and Rob) – I love this! One question – will you ever finish the School Daze blogisode? I so want to learn how Charlotte ended up at her high school!

  3. Rick Starr says:

    Two more: the young actresses from "Matilda" were not nominated for a Tony because (from what I read) there are four of them who do the show in rotation, so how could Tony voters see them all to judge? Well, OK, then how did three young boys get nominated (and win!) for a "Billy Elliott" just a few years ago?

    Same show, different question: when my wife and I saw "Newsies" one of the dancers was injured during one of the acrobatic dance numbers (kicked in the head! Not serious!) and was replaced. At intermission they made an announcement that "so-and-so will play the part of thus-and-such during the second act." (Names elude me, sorry.) OK, there's an understudy or swing standing by just in case. What happens when it's the lead, particularly when it's a child and presumably not at the theater every night?

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