“…with your real resume, you could be a lion tamer in a circus right outside of New Jersey. [Laughs.]”
Marla McNally Phillips, music publisher, co-founder of Emerald Forest Entertainment, is part of the team that brings us a new Broadway show Jagged Little Pill, based on the music of Alanis Morissette. In our interview about her career in the music industry and philanthropic work she laughed as much as she spoke.
By Paksy Plackis-Cheng
Marla, I interviewed the founder of a Motema Record, a jazz record label. She spoke about her signing criteria. What are your signing criteria?
My business partner, Linda Blum-Huntington, and I come from a music publishing background: the representation of artists’ songs and making sure their rights are protected. First, there were singles and now music is accessed through streaming services. Our three criteria for signing artists were: is the song strong enough that we can help create a career for the band? Is the artist willing to work even harder than Linda and I? We actually turned down two really talented bands, because they were not going to work harder than we were. The third criteria? Linda and I needed to feel that the lead [singer] was a f*ing star!
How do you evaluate someone’s potential to become a star?
It’s a gut thing. Macy Gray is a perfect example. She called about a producer, John O’Brien, we were representing. Just hearing her voice on the answering machine made us want to meet her. Macy was clear on who she was as an artist and had some great songs even then.
We’ve worked with stars from the bottom up such as Brownstone. After marrying Lee Phillips, the birth of our daughters, my stepsons, and our family overall, having four artists nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammy Award is probably one of the most important things that I have been privileged to be part of in the music business.
The other would be signing Guns N Roses to publishing, Sophie B. Hawkins, and some of the other talents I was lucky enough to work with.
You turned to your colleague Linda Blum-Huntington one day and announced you were going to start your own business. Why?
I used to be the Head of Talent acquisition and international at Chappell and Intersong Music. Then later WB/Chappell music. In a major publishing company, you sometimes have creative meetings once a week. They’re not bad but by virtue of the size of the company, you have to cover a lot of new and old material in these meetings. At one of these particular long creative meetings, I said, “Can anyone even remember a song that was played in the first hour?” It was so crazy; I felt like I was only able to react to my day rather than be proactive and creative.
I turned to Linda and my former boss, Ira Jaffe, and said, “I’m going to quit and start my own company, and Linda, either you or Ira should probably come with me and be my partner.”
Linda and I started Emerald Forest Entertainment (EFE) and began a joint venture with a Japanese company. We also spun off another company called Children of the Forest. That’s when we signed Macy Gray, Marilyn Manson, Sophie B. Hawkins, and Brownstone.
I’m so happy I was in the music business then. It was a really exciting time. Linda and I loved finding new talent, helping in securing their record deals, and getting songs in movies and television.
You and Linda were business partners for 30 years. What are the ingredients for a successful partnership?
Say “we” instead of “me” on a regular basis. Listen as much as you speak, if not more. Respect your partner to the ninth degree. Linda is one of my best friends and I respect her immensely and all that she brings to the table.
We’d be getting on a plane and Linda would be worrying about the plane going down. I’d be reading the stock report out louder, “Did you know that Apple’s gone up again?!” We are the perfect Lucy and Ethel team.
How do you make decisions?
At EFE, you have one chance to talk the other person into it. Linda and I are both extremely persuasive from different perspectives. Linda can take apart a song and tell you how you can make that song stronger better than any other publisher I have ever known.
I can probably do that with talent from an overall perspective, which is what’s currently driving me to produce. I am good at managing, organizing and seeing a bigger picture. Linda is too, though in a different way. It’s understanding where our strengths lie. Linda will always say, “Marla, do the contracts. You love that small print.” [Laughs.] I would reply, “Do I love it or do I read it?” It was always with humor. We’d start out the day, and I’d almost always say something funny to Linda in the morning. Linda’s very funny back. And she would tell me my same joke back again about 4:30 pm. I would say, “Hi, do I look familiar? I said that same joke to you at 9:00 am!” Dear God, we’ve had fun!
You did change gears and started producing Broadway shows.
I was on the Granada Theatre Board for 13 years. My husband is on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Board. We met Rob Sternin and Prudence Fraser. They wrote and were the executive producers on The Nanny. They’re two of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life.
I helped the with one of their earlier plays that we produced at the Granada called Knight Life. Then, they wrote this amazing play called Under My Skin. I read the script and somehow had to produce this show. As Rob tells the story, all he did was ask if I could help out when they were doing a reading in town. I asked, “What are you thinking, shall I’ll bring a great cheese plate?” [Laughs.] I invited 200 people and helped produce the Santa Barbara show. Then I had to produce the show in Pasadena. I said, “We need to take this to New York!” Rob and Pru said, “We do?” [Laughs.] We took the show to New York. We were at the Little Shubert Theatre and did 79 shows on Broadway.
Tell me about the upcoming Broadway show, Jagged Little Pill.
There are three lead producers who worked for eight years to put this amazing creative team together for Jagged Little Pill. It’s based on the music of Alanis Morissette. The book is by Diablo Cody and Diane Paulis is the director. It opened May 24th, 2018 in Cambridge, MA at the American Repertory Theater to great reviews. I am thrilled to be included on this heartfelt ride.
I’d like to try to do something scary every year. The devastation that hit Santa Barbara, CA covered me for this year. [In early January 2018, Montecito, CA experienced deadly mudslides caused by a combination of heavy rainfall and deforestation from recent wildfires.] The year before, I did stand-up comedy. I do something that scares the crap out of me every year. I believe the world begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Where does that come from?
I’m from Johnstown, PA, which is a former steel town known for its famous floods. The flood of Johnstown in 1889 held the record for the biggest natural disaster in the U.S. for many years; 2000 people lost their lives. It is a town of survivors.
A girl once asked me how much therapy I had. [Laughs.] That is such an LA thing. I thought it was hilarious. I told her, “If you’re from Johnstown, PA and your mother is Sally McNally, there is no such thing as therapy. When you go to Sally McNally and say, ‘Look, I’m having these problems.’ She would look at you, hand you a snow shovel, and say, ‘Shovel the walk.’ And there’s about 9 feet of snow outside. If you were still going on, ‘Mom, really, I need your attention right now.’ My mother would repeat with a steely glaze, ‘Shovel the walk.’ By the time you were done with the walk, you didn’t even know where your hands or your feet were. By then I didn’t even remember what my question was, so I guess I solved it.
That’s why I think I look for partners. Somebody needs to shovel the snow with me! [Laughs.]
What are a producer’s responsibilities for a Broadway show?
The producer puts everything together. They put the funds together, and they hire the entire team. Once you have the team together, you then have the difficult job of finding a theater. Which besides casting is one of the hardest parts, especially in New York. There is sometimes a three to four-year waiting list. Relationships and show caliber is of the utmost importance. You have to really be P.T. Barnum. And totally believe in that show with a passion and commitment that will hopefully carry you through many years. I call it a house of cards!
Jagged Little Pill is a musical with heart and a reasonable budget for that size musical. One of your jobs as a producer is to work with your general manager on keeping the weekly costs as low as possible so your investors will see a return on their investments. The dream is to have your show become a standard and go one playing and touring for years to come. Many shows have lost money on Broadway and elsewhere but that doesn’t stop the true creators from passionately wanting to find the next Hamilton. I believe Jagged Little Pill (JLP) will be one of these shows.
Then why musical theater?
Musical theater is my true love. I was a music major in college and did tons of theatre.
Vivek Tiwary is one of the lead producers on JLP, along with Tamar Climan. (Tamar Climan brought me into this fantastic project.) Vivek, who also worked on American Idiot, commented after the JLP reading, “This is my way of changing the world.”
This is why I was involved in Under My Skin as well. Beyond the fact that it is a smart and funny show, Under My Skin was about sex, love, and health care, and truly has a profound and moving message about where we are with individual healthcare. By talking about healthcare in a humorous fashion, we are trying to get information out there through play and humor. People came to the show with cancer, felt what we were trying to do and left laughing.
Jagged Little Pill does the same thing. It is about the facade behind every family, good or bad. People try to put on a ‘good face’ but the truth is we all have serious issues ‘behind the curtain.’
There were some discussion of you running for mayor.
My friends have joked about his for years because I know so many people. My grandfather was a politician in Pennsylvania in the house for 24 years. I don’t think I have a tough enough skin to run for office. My slogan would be: “Lead with kindness.” I wish a politician would win with that motto. It is something that should be on those hot t-shirts. [Laughs.] I have that quote outside my house, “Every story matters,” and on the other side of the front door, it says, “Never grow up.” My husband bought me that sign and rest assured that I won’t. [ [Laughs.]
To quote Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks, “Why can’t we all just get along?” There’s a very famous artist who just surrounds herself with the same people all the time. We all have dear friends and I would choose dear friends on a special birthday or trip. But I don’t want to be surrounded by the same people every day. I want to hear other points of view especially when they are interested in others. Interested and interesting are my favorite people.
Can you name a few people who have made an impact on your professional DNA?
Most definitely my mom, Sally McNally and my grandfather, Edward W. McNally.
I always tell my husband, “I’m a small town girl in a big town package!” Escaping Johnstown, PA was important to me, not because I didn’t love my hometown, I do. I have best friends still there; I visit them once a year. I love it. But I really wanted to go to New York, NY, and try my hand at musical theatre.
Maybe my biggest impatience in life is with people who don’t try. It altered how I looked at my career. I love that I thought I was going to be a star in New York. I went there thinking I was the biggest triple threat.
You said you regretted not taking dance lessons, because you would have been a triple threat.
In my mind only! [Laughs.] Gene Kelly taught my mother tap dancing! Gene Kelly and his brother Larry had a dance studio, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania back in the day! I had Jerry Lewis’s dance teacher for a year. No wonder I never got that skill set honed. [Laughs.] All that said, having tried, I never had that chip on my shoulder. I recognize it sometimes in people—artists with that chip on their shoulder. I feel badly for them.
Who’s going to tell you that you are not a triple threat? You have to tell yourself. One day I woke up and I’m like, you know what? I’ve got really bad news for you, you’re good, but you are far from great in the talent department. [Laughs.] I went to two people, both career headhunters in New York. One of them said, with your real resume, Marla, you could be a lion tamer in a circus right outside of New Jersey. [Laughs.] I was a singing waitress: I did singing telegrams in tuxedos. I acted in the Poconos, I mean literally! [Laughs.] He said, “You’re going to have to either lie or no, you are just going to have to make stuff up.” [Laughs.] I’m good at improv, so I just pretty much made the whole thing up! I had to make a living, and I wanted to be in entertainment. So after many short term gigs at UA film and TV departments, I started as a secretary in music publishing at Big 3 Music.
You were kind of a lion tamer, but in the corporate world.
I was the lion tamer! Sad to say, there are some real avenues that no longer exist for our kids. Don’t-come-back-‘till-it’s-dark-avenue doesn’t exist anymore. Kids are losing their creative time to play and their abilities to connect with one another. I feel so strongly about fostering creative play.
The other avenue that used to exist in major cities were temp agencies. I have worked as a temp at so many different places. I hitched a ride in a hot dog truck to downtown Manhattan and took a temp job in the stock market when I was not even clear where the financial district was in New York. I got down there and everyone was so serious. I always tell people, to figure out what you don’t want to do first, make a huge list of everything you never want to do. Then you whittle it down and you figure out what you want.
At Emerald Forest, I wanted people that wanted to eat my desk for lunch. It was less important that they knew about the music business. I managed Sophie B. Hawkins for a year. She was willing to sing on a float going down Pittsburgh. That she was willing to work hard made all the difference.
You are currently involved with several women-led nonprofits. Tell me more about this work.
I’m proud to be the President of the Attitude. Harmony. Achievement (AHA) Board. AHA is a program that teaches social and emotional learning which allows teens to feel safe, seen, and celebrated. Jennifer Freed and Rendy Freedman founded AHA after the school shooting at Columbine and today we are in all the Santa Barbara Public High Schools. For the first year, thanks to the Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara, we are now in the junior high schools too.
Then there’s Girls Rock. I’m the Vice President of that Board. Girls Rock was started by one woman, Jen Baron, because there was little to no rock classes or camps for girls. Let alone a program that would teach them how to go on the road and perform, make a microphone, and aid in their self-confidence. Jen is a brilliant songwriter, too, and I always say to her that I wish I would have gone to camp with you and Girls Rock. I might still be on the road right now— no dancing required. [Laughs.]
I am most always involved in female empowerment organizations. That said, I don’t want to marginalize men. I love working collaboratively with both.
I always ask myself why I matter. I feel very strongly about this and that women’s voices get heard. When you ask a woman why she matters, often they will answer why their kids matter, why their dog matters, why their husband matters. I have to emphasize…Why do you matter? Just YOU!
People always say, “It’s easy when people have money, so they can give money to something.” And I say, “You can give time, treasure, talent.” You could pick up trash walking down the beach. That can be your one thing that you do for the world. Can we all do just one thing? I used to say that to my youngest daughter, “Wake up in the morning and say, what can I do for someone else today?” I promise you will have an amazing day.