Sean Flahaven: ‘Lloyd Webber’s work was my gateway drug into theatre’
A week after Donald Trump became president-elect of the United States, the result – and what it means – is only just sinking in for New York-based Sean Flahaven. He is the founding chief executive of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new licensing and publishing organisation, the Musical Company, and is on a short visit to the UK to meet the impresario and finalise some plans. He left a New York where people moved around the city “silent on the streets and on the subway”.
So, on the one hand, Flahaven is revelling in his new position. On the other, he’s coming to terms with big political changes that will undoubtedly impact on his future experiences working out of New York.
“The dichotomy of those is not lost on me,” he sighs, reclining into a chair in a swish boardroom in Lloyd Webber’s Covent Garden headquarters. “I can say diplomatically, from the result of the election, that many people were surprised. Unpleasantly so – one of the surprises being that millions voted for the person we thought hardly anyone was going to vote for. There may be Trump supporters in the theatre world. But I am not aware of any.”
In light of the current mood, Flahaven believes that “putting good art and entertainment into the world” is vital right now. And in his new role, he’ll certainly be playing his part to accomplish that.
The Musical Company, created earlier this year by the Really Useful Group and US-based Concord Bicycle Music, aims to be a one-stop shop for musical theatre writers, offering licensing services for their shows, as well as ones in publishing (which Flahaven says is really just the licensing of individual songs) and cast recordings.
“The idea is we bring together the expertise for theatre writers, so we make sure we cover all those areas for them,” he explains, adding that a writer won’t necessarily use all three services. Licensing-wise, the company is primarily interested in securing the rights for new shows when they come up.
“We have our eyes on several Broadway and West End shows,” Flahaven reveals. He says his aim is to sign between two and four shows a year and “a larger number of publishing clients”. He explains that the company would rarely make an offer to license a title before it is produced.
“The development time for a new musical is, on average, five years. You get to see many workshops before a show gets produced,” Flahaven says. “Once it’s produced, you make an offer fairly quickly. Then you do a deal, but that doesn’t mean you will get to license it straight away. The initial producer normally has the right to tour it and do selected other productions too.”
The Musical Company can also facilitate the writer of a new show with a cast album recording.
“New musicals that don’t have a recording have no chance of future productions, as almost no one will sit and read the score. You at least have to have some demos,” Flahaven says. “If a show is good enough to have a licensing deal for subsequent productions, it’s good enough to have a recording.”
And he should know: he is one of the producers behind the cast recording of the hugely successful Broadway show Hamilton. Flahaven, who joins the Musical Company after eight years at Warner/Chappell Music, was composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s publisher and helped facilitate the Hamilton cast recording. He has also overseen most of Stephen Sondheim’s recording for the past 10 years.
Flahaven’s relationship with Sondheim goes right the way back to the start of his own, eclectic, career, during which he has worked as a composer, music director, orchestrator, journalist and producer. It all began when he started studying music and English at Boston College as an undergraduate. There he became familiar with notation programme Finale and wrote a thesis on Sondheim. When he later moved to New York City to study for a master of fine arts in musical theatre writing at the Tisch School of the Arts, he volunteered to do interviews for a new magazine, the Sondheim Review. This, he said, was so he could “get to know the players” and people he wanted to know professionally.
For one of his interviews, he happened to find himself in a room for two days with Sondheim, during rehearsals for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Nathan Lane.
“In my hubris, I sent Stephen my thesis and we started a correspondence,” he recalls, before revealing that this led him to work as a music editor on some of Sondheim’s scores, and as an arranger on the show Saturday Night, which ran in Chicago and Off-Broadway. It began a relationship with Sondheim that has lasted 20 years.
After freelancing as a music director, orchestrator and music copyist for five years after leaving Tisch, Flahaven returned to his studies, this time undertaking a course in performing arts management at Brooklyn College.
Q&A: Sean Flahaven
What was your first non-theatre job? Clerk in a comic book shop.
What was your first professional theatre job? I was music assistant to Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa and other composers for shows at the Public Theater Off-Broadway.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Say yes, but always negotiate the first offer.
Who or what were your biggest influences? Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and big band standards.
What would you have been if you weren’t working in theatre? A professor of American history.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I don’t. It may be tempting fate, but I think they’re a bit ridiculous.
Later, he helped form licensing company Theatrical Rights Worldwide and for the past 15 years he has also taught at Tisch, on the theatre and music business class for theatre songwriters.
“One of the things I tell them is to cultivate a multiplicity of skills, as this is a very difficult business,” he says.
Multiplicity is certainly a word that fits with Flahaven’s own career.“It’s all fed in,” he says, of his wide-ranging experience. “I think the most satisfying thing is working directly with writers, and helping them in whatever way they need – whether that is notes on development or helping them to find that production path, by introducing them to collaborators.”
He adds: “The advantage I have from my unusual career path is that I can speak to clients about their writing and help them do a deal. It’s a small business overall. There are a lot of actors, but the number of people making the work happen to employ those actors is relatively small. I think one of the exciting parts of this company is that we not only offer a broad range of services, but because of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s involvement, as a writer and producer himself, he is aware of what they need.”
From its inception, the Musical Company will manage the professional and amateur licensing of Lloyd Webber’s work. Because of its tie-up with Concord Bicycle Media, it will also manage the interests of Marvin Hamlisch and artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Paul McCartney.
Flahaven says the Musical Company may develop its own shows, based on the songs to which it has access: “I did a little of that at Warner with some of their pop catalogues,” he says, but cautions that jukebox musicals are “a tricky business”.
“The failure rate of a jukebox show is much higher than most others, primarily as the book is often not so good,” he says. “The question is, what is the story and who is going to write it? And do they have the experience, as often the people putting the show together don’t. But Concord Bicycle has a large catalogue, so there are things to exploit there.”
Flahaven also says he is keen to develop a new revue show, The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which would open up the composer’s catalogue to a wider audience. It was Lloyd Webber, he says, who introduced him to musical theatre, even though he has largely built a relationship with Sondheim before now.
He respects both equally – though, as any musical fan knows, there’s often a clear divide between audiences who like Lloyd Webber and those who enjoy Sondheim.
“I have to say, like a lot of people, Andrew’s work was my gateway drug into theatre,” Flahaven says. “I know all the words and notes to Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Phantom. I got more interested in Sondheim in high school and college.”
But he adds: “To me it’s not an either/or thing. People like to generate drama. But when I spoke to all my clients at Warner before I took this job, all of them were very positive about Andrew. He is highly regarded by everyone.”
Lloyd Webber, of course, is a fine example of a creator of the “great entertainment” Flahaven is confident the world will need more of after Trump’s win in the US. But he worries for the future of his country and what the change in politics means for theatre generally.
“The outrage has started to build, with protests, so we will see where that goes,” he says. “There have also been appointments made by Trump of people who have extreme prejudicial views. It’s tricky, as you want to be as inclusive as possible [in theatre], but you don’t want to include people who believe in excluding others.”
Flahaven concludes by reflecting: “There is much work to be done. But bringing great art and great entertainment to the world is always viable, and I have a feeling we are all going to need a lot of catharsis and diversion. Now, more than ever.”
CV: Sean Flahaven
Born: 1972, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Training: Boston College, Tisch School and Brooklyn College
Landmark productions: Myths and Hymns – Public Theater (Off-Broadway) and cast album, (1998), The Wild Party – Virginia Theatre (Broadway) (2000), Passion – Wilma Theater (Philadelphia) (2001), Cookin’ at the Cookery – Melting Pot Theatre, (Off-Broadway) (2003), Road Show – The Public Theater (Off-Broadway) and cast album (2008), A Little Night Music – Broadway cast album (2009), Sondheim on Sondheim – Broadway cast album (2010), Follies – Broadway cast album (2011), Merrily We Roll Along – Off-Broadway cast album (2012), Passion – Off-Broadway cast album (2013), Hamilton – Off-Broadway, Broadway and cast album (2015), Tuck Everlasting – Broadway cast album (2016)
Further details: themusicalcompany.com