SoCal tests musical festival

Event taking place in theaters and schools

HOLLYWOOD — Southern California’s inaugural Festival of New American Musicals, taking place in theaters and schools from Ventura to San Diego Counties through May and June, was born out of a simple economic reality: the law of supply and demand.

America craves musicals, but the old ones are drying up and the new ones need nurturing.

No one was more aware of the drought than Marcia Seligson, frustrated when she was seeking material for Reprise!, the West Coast counterpart of Encores! she founded in 1997 to showcase yesteryear’s underrevived and underappreciated tuners. Rights to the few remaining gems were hard to come by.

Seligson and Bob Klein, one of her founding board members, wondered, “Could we persuade theaters and schools to premiere new musicals, celebrate the art form and showcase Southern California talent?”

They voiced their concerns with composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers director of musical theater Michael Kerker, pointing to the string of hits born or raised on the West Coast, including “Jersey Boys,” “Curtains” and Schwartz’s own “Wicked.”

Schwartz and Kerker agreed to sign on as artistic advisers, with the ASCAP Foundation providing major funding and underwriting staged readings of two tuners in development: “The Times,” with book and lyrics by “Frasier” scribe Joe Keenan and music by Brad Ross, and “I Married Wyatt Earp,” with book by Sheilah Rae and Thomas Edward West, lyrics by Rae and music by Michele Brourman.

The festival’s principal focus, per Seligson, was “to make a marriage between theaters and schools, and the material we were submitted.” Via the Internet and within the trade, they sought projects not yet seen in Southern California. “We always assumed it’d be 15 to 20 events, but it turned out to be 45.”

Included in those events are full productions, staged readings, workshops of musicals in progress, concerts and master classes.

Among the more eagerly anticipated shows are “Norman’s Ark,” a contemporary Noah myth with a cast of 400 at the Ford Amphitheater; a Disney Concert Hall presentation of a suite from Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Grapes of Wrath”; and at Ventura’s Rubicon Theater, both a musical revue by John Bucchino (“A Catered Affair”) and an adaptation of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia,” directed by Scott Schwartz.

The Cather project’s incidental music is by — of all people — the helmer’s dad, Stephen, who held a May 3 kickoff concert and master class at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif. Jerry Herman and Jason Robert Brown will appear in or run classes in the coming weeks, accompanied by such stalwarts as Debbie Gravitte, Ron Raines, Jason Graae and Karen Morrow.

Plans are already in the works for next year, which Seligson hopes will include edgier pieces tapping into the unconventional approaches Broadway has been seeing with shows like “Spring Awakening” and “Passing Strange.”

But how will this year’s success be measured? Will the festival continue to serve as a marriage broker, this time between the work and commercial production? Seligson is cautiously optimistic. “I don’t think it’s going to be first stop festival, next stop Belasco Theater. But I can vouch that for many of the featured musicals, the next stop is the regionals.”

Klein takes an even broader view, relating their efforts to the nationwide resurgence of interest in the art form.

“I think we’re riding a wave,” he says. “We didn’t start it; we picked up on something and built a festival on it. But it feels like a wave.” Klein cites the experience of traveling to a little theater in Covina taking on an adaptation of Molnar’s “The Guardsman,” and to Palos Verdes High School, “a white upper-middle-class high school, doing an AIDS musical” (Larry Johnson and Cindy O’Connor’s “All That He Was”).

“It’s taking on a life of its own,” he observes. “I hope we can build on it.”

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