And nothing’s as amazing as a musical
The “Something Rotten!” anthem pedaled through the line as I nervously waited on the phone for Kevin McCollum. The three-time Tony Award winner produced the “rotten” musical comedy and has fostered many of the world’s greatest stories (such as “Rent,” if we’re name-dropping). Of course, once Kevin picked up the phone, my anxiety was tamed.
It was immediately apparent that he genuinely cares about people. Kevin began our discussion by saying, “Tell me about you first.” Despite his high status and surely full workload, he wanted to know about me. The entertainment giant seems to hold a rare and unquenchable interest in people.
Throughout the conversation, Kevin stayed in the moment and connected with me. This is a quality that his breadth of work reflects, as the common theme of human connection is woven strongly throughout his productions.
So, without further ado, theatre nerds, please enjoy this interview with Kevin below in which we talk about his work with his company, Alchemation, Lin-Manuel Miranda, using the arts as a tool for social change and more:
RP: I was wondering if you could expand a bit on what Alchemation means to you. I know you’ve said it’s to make something new and define a territory that’s never been. What type of territory do you think you’ve defined with your work?
KM: Well, sometimes the territory is not for you to define, but for others who are moved by it to define it for themselves. I love the quote from one of our greatest poets, Stephen Sondheim: “Move on. If you can know where you’re going, you’ve gone. Just keep moving on.” So where I take that, to the place of wanting to create new and different things — the significance or what they mean in the time they are created is only one aspect of what they mean in the time in which they exist. Things we make today go beyond what they mean today, into tomorrow, to be constantly redefined. Oftentimes, that is out of our control.
“Rent” in 1996, even though it tells the same story, has different resonance in 2016. I was very aware when “Rent” was happening that it was very important, but I was also very aware not to define it. It’s one of the reasons why Jeffrey [Seller] and I were very clear that it was its own thing. A lot of people were offended because people thought it should be called “a musical.” And yes, from a musical theatre perspective, it is a musical, but let’s say you’re a club kid who has never been to a Broadway musical. You’ve heard of this show called “Rent” (which is about young kids trying to find their voice) — you might call it a “concert.” And somebody else heard about “Rent” because it was based on their favorite work of art, called “La Boheme.” They decided “Rent” is actually a “rock opera.” So, who are we to define?
I leave room for not defining what it is but know how to make it and present it. Oftentimes the artists who created it are responsible for shepherding it forward. As a producer, that’s how I think. A lot of the commerce I work for is passion. I often say “Money is the least important thing.” It’s the tool, but the destination is the passion to afford yourself the ability to articulate why you need the money.
So, going back to Alchemation — it’s a made-up word [Laughs] based on influences and understanding alchemy is never something that existed before. That’s why you create elements, and something new and undiscovered is made.
Alchemation is something I made up that defines how everyone should come into a room when you’re trying to create a collaborative piece of music storytelling. Let it decide what it is. It’s bigger than just a word I made up now. It’s a production company, and it’s doing a lot of stuff. It’s kind of telling me what to do. The title of a company is best when it helps define the mission. So, you can kind of put any “mation” on it, but realize it’s more than alchemy, which means it’s more than just one element. It’s more than just me. It’s an invitation to others to join into the synthesis in what we create in this company. It gives us discipline, a boundary, an ethic of how to work, but it also gives us great latitude of how we go about everything.
RP: I have no doubt “alchemation” will be in the dictionary shortly. I love how creatively involved you are with all of your shows. Have you ever had an idea that you really wanted to do for one of your productions, but maybe it was just too expensive or not the right timing?
KM: I don’t think there is something I wanted to pursue that I haven’t because of money or timing. Timing does come into play a great deal when you’re putting on a show. At the theatre, everyone has to show up to make it work — it’s more expensive. There have been some timing issues where I don’t think some shows did quite as well because of timing — there were other shows that were similar at the time.
I’m not in the world of trying to do a circus show
I can’t think of anything I really haven’t done that I wanted to because of cost. My shows have never been driven by something that would cost an extraordinary amount of money. I’m not in the world of trying to do a circus show. The commerce of my shows are: How high are the stakes? Why are the characters singing? And, typically, how are they finding their family against all odds?
People really go to see a show because of word-of-mouth. Advertising helps and supports, of course. People have so many choices! We’re competing with not only the other shows, but we also have some really great things happening on other platforms of entertainment. There are a lot of options, but the idea of going to the theatre is so human and so inconvenient that I find that’s what makes it magical. You’re going to remember that much more deeply than Episode 5, Season 8 of something you binge-watched.
RP: Generally speaking, what draws you to a project, and what do you hope your audience takes away?
KM: First of all, I really like people, and I like partnerships. I’m an only child, so I think that’s why I like being around people. I assume the best about people until proven wrong.
I’m driven by the fact that we’re only here for so long — the fact that theatre is created and consumes itself in destruction the moment the breath leaves the actor, only for your memory. The innate spontaneity and the lack of holding onto it (or being able to record it) — you just have to feel in the moment how it’s affecting you. I think that’s really powerful. The need to have those purely human moments with strangers in the dark is actually powerful to the growth and healing of our culture. I think about that strongly.
When you go to the theatre, you’re all of a sudden in a community not of your choosing, except you were all attracted to the same idea or the same artist for that moment in time. You’re connected in a way that is random and yet not an accident. My new show, “Ride the Cyclone,” actually deals with that.
RP: Yes, I wanted to ask you about “Ride the Cyclone.”
KM: It deals with the beauty of only being here for so long. I explored that — I was attracted to working with Jacob [Richmond] and Brooke [Maxwell]. Previews begin Nov. 9, and it opens Dec. 1 at the MCC Theater. It’s a completely original musical, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
I’ve actually been thinking about that [our time on earth] a lot lately. Also, I have two children who are about to leave and go to college, so my wife and I are dealing with that. Time keeps marching, and we have to attribute as much as we can while we’re here.
RP: It truly seems creative expression and the collaborative arts, especially live theatre, are the best remedies for all of the madness going on in the world. How do you feel the arts can foster social change?
KM: Well, political change doesn’t happen unless there’s emotional change first. I learned that by producing “Motown.” Martin Luther King actually talked with Berry Gordy directly. Before the change, white people started to dance with black people to the music. Once you’re dancing together, you then start having families together. I truly believe the arts prime emotional transformations so that politics can catch up. The politics never drives that — it’s the arts.
It’s a good lesson for our time today. We have some really terrible storytelling going on in our political system. People will write really good plays about this time. People will examine this time and the shrillness of our political system. We’ll try to come to grips with what is a democracy.
I truly believe the arts prime emotional transformations so that politics can catch up
We’re too in the moment to try to understand it fully, but the historians will figure it out — we might not be here then. But it will all get put through the artistic filter of playwrights and storytellers.
So, I think it’s very important. I believe the arts are very much a leading indicator as well, giving perspective. I’m not taking credit for this — Bill Maher said it the other day. Everything that has happened has been predicted by the films (which come out faster than musicals.) If you look at “Rent,” I can’t tell you how many arguments were had creatively when it came out. It was not so much amongst ourselves, because we were honoring Jonathan’s work. The work was done before he passed. Anyway, people were upset that Mimi lived for two reasons: She dies in “La Boheme” (which “Rent” is not), and Jonathan wanted to write a musical about living with (not dying from) disease. So Jonathan in his piece of art imagined a time when HIV was not a death sentence.
Going back to our films, we’ve had three major films released with African-American presidents before Obama was elected. We’ve had films with female presidents. We’ve had films about terrorism. We had “Minority Report,” which predicted the touchscreens. Look at “Star Trek” — it introduced the flip phone in the 1960s. We’ve had all these films. Art and our stories predict the future. It’s very important to watch what’s being created, whether TV, film or theatre.
RP: That’s very true — as they say, life imitates art in many ways.
KM: Or, art helps prepare us for what life becomes.
RP: Yes, I like that better!
KM: We are creatures who absorb information. We are influenced by everything because our brains are sponges.
We’ve become desensitized to how people speak in the political arenas, long before Trump. Trump is a venus of conversational discord about how to run this country. Whether you agree with him or not, how he says things has a lot of thrust. Everyone wants to be in a fight right now. A lot of that is the internet, too, because everyone’s point of view is equal. Of course, then we have internet trolls who just create truths that aren’t true because they say them enough. It’s very hard to decipher what is the truth and what’s not on the computer.
Live theatre — which is messy, inconvenient and expensive — is our best hope to slow down and live with things in real-time, rather than just projecting information.
RP: With that, and everything you’ve just so eloquently spoken about in mind, I want to ask you about your knack for bringing new art and talent to the world. A major gift you’ve helped uncover is Lin-Manuel Miranda. As someone who has worked with him (on “In the Heights), I’m wondering what you think his “alchemation” is?
KM: I think he’s written a great American story because he is the definition of what makes America great. It’s a given that he’s a genius, but also he experiences this country from a first generation — his dad came over here. He has great respect for what this country represents. He sees it from every side, and I think he wrote what spoke to him. That’s the alchemy, to get in touch with what’s already inside of you. That’s what he’s done.
He’s aware of the ticking clock, and he’s going to use it to his full potential
Everything led to that moment for him. He’s always been really bright and positive — never a victim — and always trying to contribute. He’s aware of the ticking clock, and he’s going to use it to his full potential. He’s going to create more art for us. We’re all very fortunate that he’s in our world. He’s authentic.
RP: Especially seeing such talent like him, it’s unfortunate to hear when arts programs take a backseat in school systems. What steps do you think our country can take to give more of a priority to these programs and to help aspiring talent grow?
KM: Here’s the thing, I love sports, too, but we can’t just go on sports. There’s no mistake that our political system has turned into a sport because so many people who are now politicians grew up just with sports. The arts teach us to come together to tell a better story. America was built on the idea that we could tell a better story through legislative, executive, judicial branches. The assumption was for the world to be better. It’s turned into, we don’t care if our lives are better, we just want our part to win. That’s sport. People are looking at results based on sport, not storytelling. We have to shift our politics to a storytelling model again, which is what, whether you agreed or didn’t, we had more of when arts were in our school program. People understood literature through history and human nature. Now we are only dealing with the binary win/lose mentality, which is only going to make us lose in this complicated world. And when I say “we,” I mean humans — the human race. We need to bring arts back into our schools. That’s a given.
I always tell young people, to become a producer, you take writers to lunch. They need advocates. A theatre producer is being an advocate for something that helps define what you care about. Whether it was Jonathan Larson, Bobby Lopez, Bob Martin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, etc., I wanted to help tell their stories because I believed in the stories, which were about finding home and family, and defining yourself. I think my shows have that in common. Even the revivals I did — ”West Side Story” and “Ragtime,” two of my favorite shows.
I want to get in the room with people who I really care about personally.
RP: So, how does a writer with an idea get you to take them to lunch?
KM: It usually starts with a letter. Look, I’m not in a cave! [Laughs] I’m pretty available! If you’re really ready to present an idea and you have something to show, give a phone call to someone you want to work with!
RP: Well, you seem very open and accessible. At the end of the day, I think that’s why your work is so great, because, like you said, it’s all about people and connecting.
KM: That’s all it’s about. The destination is the people, the tool is the money and sometimes people think the destination is the money, which is why they run into problems.
Without my passion I’d have no direction~
Then, after giving me one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received — ”You’re creating your own alchemation” — our conversation came to an end. But not without Kevin saying, “Just call and get me on the phone if you need anything else! Thank you for your interest — I appreciate sharing.”
Because that’s just the kind of caring guy Kevin McCollum is.