Jan 30, 2012

Ken Davenport Bait

I know he's been busy putting together TEDxBroadway, but how did the industrious blogger at Producer's Pespective miss Jonah Lehrer's interesting piece about collaboration, in last week's New Yorker? It's right up Ken's alley, which is to say Shubert Alley.

Though billed as a debunking of the "brainstorming myth," Lehrer's piece is actually more about what kinds of collaborative environments actually do produce the best results. A key example at its heart is a study by Northwestern's Brian Uzzi, who analyzed decades of Broadway musicals in terms of what he calls the "Q factor," or degree of interconnectedness among the creative collaborators. Uzzi found that the most successful musicals, both critically and commercially, were created by teams with an "intermediate" Q factor, or a moderate level of social and professional familiarity—i.e., a mix of folks who'd worked together before and thus had a useful shorthand, plus fresh voices who added something new and/or challenging to the group. Uzzi noted that musicals in the 1920s, for instance, though they produced reams of great songs, were predominantly quickie flops, a deficit he blamed on a too-inbred Broadway scene, or, in his terms, “When the Q was too high, the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation.” But when the Q was too low—when a show was essentially a collective creative blind date—the show suffered at the box office (though how this explains Spider-man I don't know).

Uzzi's North Star of success is West Side Story, in which the titans Laurents, Bernstein, and Robbins welcomed the newbie Sondheim. My only quibble with that example is that, as has been amply pointed out since, West Side Story was only a modest success on Broadway, and it wasn't until the film version that the work was commercially and critically certified as a knockout (wrongly, in my minority opinion).

In any case, insert pithy lesson about how to make your show better here, and you've got a ready-made post for Ken Davenport's blog (which, in all seriousness, is a model of the form).

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