Around The Town

How To Survive a Killer Musical

By: Alix Cohen

September 20, 2023: Douglas J. Cohen’s title might’ve omitted the word “killer” and been equally apt. Any fledgling theater author creating, nurturing, and shepherding his “child” from learning to walk/workshop through production – in this case, multiple productions – will moan their way through this manual with trepidation and excitement.

By: Alix Cohen

September 20, 2023: Douglas J. Cohen’s title might’ve omitted the word “killer” and been equally apt. Any fledgling theater author creating, nurturing, and shepherding his “child” from learning to walk/workshop through production – in this case, multiple productions – will moan their way through this manual with trepidation and excitement.

Make no mistake, this is a manual. A reader must be conversant with theater as Cohen names everyone with apparent expectation that we’ll know who the people are and how they fit into a hierarchy. Someone at the start of this journey would be advised to take notes. Of course, you have to have Cohen’s determination, resiliency and talent. (It wouldn’t hurt to emulate the author’s good nature either.) Narration segues back and forth from real time diary excerpts to the book’s later recollection. It bulges at the seams with detail. Some of what occurred was luck, of course, but how and when to approach whom with what (including attitude) can only be helpful.

Cohen wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the musical in question, No Way to Treat a Lady. Based on a chance viewing of the 1968 Rod Steiger/Lee Remick film, which was in turn was based on a 1964 William Goldman novel, the story is a psychological thriller with comic overtones. “The novel was a blueprint. I would find a tone closer to the movie,” he writes.

How this author “heard” a musical in this material is a wonder, but then he’s always had unique imagination. Disclosure: We were in The BMI Musical Theater Workshop at the same time  MANY years ago. Cohen went on to the ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop with the piece. There it was heard by a panel consisting of composer/lyricists Charles Strouse, Stephen Schwartz, Burton Lane, and critic Frank Rich. He then managed to get both an agent and a Richard Rodgers Development Award. Well, not right away. 

At first entirely skeptical while allowing the work to proceed, Goldman got on board along the route. “I never thought I’d say this, but it’s a fucking musical,” expressed his surprise. The Rodgers check facilitated a workshop and further important encounters – with composer/lyricists Stephen Sondheim, William Finn, Ed Kleban, Jonathan Larsen…Many of you are now salivating.  Much rewriting occurred, including, at one point, to his astonishment, the participation of Goldman himself.

Productions varied wildly. Creative personnel is listed and described. Emotions rode a roller-coaster. Excerpts from reviews and advice are quoted. One ill fated preview included an actress getting stabbed. One of his directors- a quadriplegic, came out of retirement, another went ballistic during the process. Frank Gilroy who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning The Subject Was Roses told Cohen, “You can control the effort, not the results.”

A deal worked out with the now deceased Goldman has enabled Cohen to pursue other projects. “For the next twenty plus years, my income was below that figure (a number originally requested) except for two years when an Italian tour and a major production at The Village Theater in Issaquah, Washington gave me a taste of what successful writers experience.” As he writes in the book, John Anderson, the playwright who penned Tea and Sympathy, once observed “I have always felt it was too bad that you could make a killing, but not a living in the theater.”

Productions of No Way to Treat a Lady began in 1987 and have continued around the world through 2023. Living in what he calls financial “middle ground,” Douglas J. Cohen manages to be productive and to stay in the business he loves dearly. Kudos.

How to Survive a Killer Musical-Agony and Ecstasy on the Road to Broadway
Douglas J. Cohen (No relation)

Applause Books