San Fran company has new take on tuners

Everything about developing new musicals is time-, labor- and money-intensive. So when a regional theater like the Bay Area’s TheatreWorks makes a commitment to do just that — and to mainstage at least some of the musicals it incubates — composers, playwrights and lyricists nationwide take notice.

The 35-year-old Peninsula company, with a $6.5 million annual operating budget, has long had a reputation for staging new musicals along with contemporary and classic plays. But four years ago, it established the multifaceted New Works Initiative specifically to develop traditional and nontraditional musicals and plays with music or soundscapes.

The fourth annual New Works Festival, the more prominent of the initiative’s two cornerstones, runs April 27-May 1. It features first-time staged readings of three musicals: GrooveLily’s “Wheelhouse”; Lee Summers and Ben Blake’s “The Funkentine Rapture”; and Tara Smith and Scott Alan’s “Piece.” All the artists are in residence.

Also part of the festival are a full production of Regina Taylor’s “Crowns,” an Off Broadway musical originally developed at Sundance, and staged readings of two comedies.

For TheatreWorks, mainstaging a musical costs 10 to 20 times more than a nonmusical, ranging from $350,000 to $900,000. “When you add music, you’re adding two or three, not just one collaborator,” points out New Works director Kent Nicholson. “Some have lyricists, composers, arrangers, choreographers, copyists, directors, orchestra.

“And the average development of a play is a year or two; with a musical, it can be seven or eight years. Also, no musical is done until it gets produced three or four times.”

Given those parameters, developing new musicals is a huge undertaking for any company. But it is one that’s close to the heart of Nicholson, former director of the venerable Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and TheatreWorks founder/artistic director Robert Kelley.

The New Works Initiative, with an annual budget of $250,000, began with a single philosophy, says Nicholson: “It all starts with the authors. It’s my belief, and Kelley’s, too, that if we support artists who we believe in, they’ll create work TheatreWorks is interested in producing. Not every piece will be available to us, and not every piece will we want to do, but we’re investing in the artist. And the work is more likely to be available to us because we’ve established a relationship.”

In reading scripts (no unsolicited submissions), Nicholson is not only judging material but evaluating the sensibility of the authors. “I try to identify TheatreWorks artists,” he explains, “and that’s vague and nebulous because this is a very eclectic place.”

For the annual Writers’ Retreat — the other linchpin of the initiative — four or five teams of collaborators are invited to spend a week in residence working on anything, in any stage of development. TheatreWorks gives them cars, housing, a stipend, professional actors and directors and private as well as communal work space. “Time is the greatest gift we can give writers,” says Nicholson, who modeled the retreat after the Sundance Institute Theater Laboratory.

Among the dozens of writers who have developed new musicals under TheatreWorks’ auspices are Marsha Norman, Joe DiPietro and Andrew Lippa. Some of the work, such as the DiPietro/David Bryan musical “Memphis,” went on to world premiere at TheatreWorks and elsewhere.

Composer-lyricist Lippa brought “Jerry Christmas” to both the Writers’ Retreat and the New Works Festival, and also premiered “The Little Princess” (originally developed in Australia) there this season. “It’s a real opportunity to create in a pressure-ooker environment, with deadlines, but in a safe space,” he says.

Lippa also has developed work at the O’Neill Music Theater Conference and at Sundance, and says, “Sundance and the O’Neill are not in the business of producing shows. But at TheatreWorks you can go all the way” — to the mainstage.

TheatreWorks is the new kid on the musical development block. The Sundance theater program, with an open submission policy, has been operating for 27 years, with special attention to new musicals in the last nine seasons under producing artistic director Philip Himberg.Among Sundance’s success stories is Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza,” which opened April 18 at New York’s Lincoln Center.

Also 27 years old is the O’Neill’s annual Music Theater Conference in Waterford, Conn.Three scripts, chosen from about 100 submissions, each receives two weeks of rehearsal and five public readings on the pastoral O’Neill campus,with plenty of time for rewrites. Close to 100 new musical theater works have been developed here, including Broadway hit “Avenue Q.”

San Francisco’s Playwrights Foundation (founded in 1976 by Robert Woodruff, now helmed by Amy Mueller) recently launched Project 6, matching one playwright per year with a collaboratorand commissioning the pair to create at least part of a new work to be presented during the annual Playwrights Festival of staged readings.

Paulette Haupt, the O’Neill’s artistic director for musical theater, observes a trend toward more musicals written by collaborative teams. “It’s a lonely enough business to work on a musical that doesn’t see the light of day for a long time,” she says, “but to work alone, without a collaborator, is an even tougher battle.”

It’s an act of faith to pledge developmental support for such personnel-heavy, long-range projects. Yet TheatreWorks and others consider that commitment essential to sustain this most quintessentially American art form.

“This sounds Pollyannish,” says Nicholson, “but I feel we’re providing the theater world in general with a service. We’re not going to produce everything we develop, but hopefully somebody will.”

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