Most of the original actors are featured
NEW YORK — Who’d have guessed the bubbly black girl would be singing again?
Since premiering at Playwrights Horizons in summer 2000, Kirsten Childs’ musical “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” has met serious roadblocks. It was well received in Gotham, but plans for a commercial run fell through and there have been only scattered nonprofit productions since. Those who remember it at all might have assumed the R&B-based tuner, about a young woman overcoming prejudice in 1960s L.A., was history.
On April 3, almost seven years after the premiere production closed, Ghostlight Records released a cast recording. Most of the original thesps are featured, including LaChanze, who followed “Bubbly” with a Tony-winning role in “The Color Purple.”Suddenly, the show is about to get a second chance.
And that, say Playwrights Horizons reps, is the point of a strategy the company hopes will yield similar excavations. The theater partnered with Ghostlight and several outside funders to get the recording made, because an album can be the most critical element not just in creating exposure for a new musical but also in extending the life of an existing or even forgotten one.
“These shows won’t be produced unless people hear the music,” says Christie Evangelisto, Playwrights’ director of musical theater. “Just reading the script of a musical isn’t all that useful, and with ‘Bubbly,’ the music is so challenging and intricate that hearing a recording may be the best way for theaters to wrap their heads around it.”
Playwrights already has seen what an album can do. For instance, the Off Broadway house’s self-released recording of 2001’s “The Spitfire Grill” helped introduce the tuner to many of the dozens of regionals that would later produce it.
Off Broadway recordings can have a commercial impact, too. Last year, Playwrights and label P.S. Classics partnered to record the original production of “Grey Gardens” before the show transferred to Broadway in slightly revised form. The original album (the updated version has subsequently been recorded) sold more than 12,000 copies — sensational for an Off Broadway disc — and helped stoke interest in the Rialto run.
No one expects “Bubbly” to sell that well without a current production around to stoke interest. But it doesn’t have to. Like “Grey Gardens,” the album was partially financed by a new fund at Playwrights (endowed by anonymous donations) that has been developed to provide seed money for recordings of the theater’s musicals.
Nonprofit orgs also contributed to “Bubbly’s” recording costs — which total around $70,000 — further reducing the pressure to recoup. “It’s possible for these albums to sell out and put a little money back into the fund, but we don’t count on it,” says Playwrights a.d. Tim Sanford. “It’s just as much of an incentive to get the album out to the producing community. I would be happy if we got even two more productions (of ‘Bubbly’) from this effort.”
Nothing will happen, though, if no one hears the record, and it will be challenging to create awareness of a show that had a limited New York run almost a decade ago, albeit one with major critical support. Sanford says many producers and theaters will be contacted directly. As for the general public, he adds, “The musical theater community is zealous, so I’m hoping for word of mouth.”
Another wrinkle: If the album sells too well, it could be costly. Union contracts stipulate that an Off Broadway recording cannot press more than 10,000 copies without incurring additional fees. While it’s unlikely this will happen with “Bubbly,” there’s no guarantee the extra money would be available if needed.
Whatever its fate, “Bubbly” could create a template for future Playwrights recordings. Evangelisto says she’d like to see similar treatment given to last year’s country-tinged tuner “Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky.”
However, an obvious choice for a recording — the highly regarded “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’,” which transferred from Playwrights to Broadway in late 1999 — may not be feasible due to contract disputes.
But if next year sees a surge of “Bubbly” productions, the teams behind older tuners might set aside their differences and regroup in the studio.