NEW YORK — By encouraging enterprising producers to dip deep into the forgotten treasure trove of tuners past via a new grant scheme, the National Endowment for the Arts is looking to blow the dust off the classic American musical.
If you got your sense of musical theater history from Broadway’s revival calendar, you might think the form didn’t thrive until the late 1960s. A select group of dusty oldies pops up now and again — “Annie Get Your Gun,” say, or “Gypsy” — but by and large, the tuner’s past is represented by perennial titles like “Fiddler on the Roof” or barely adolescent works such as “Into the Woods.” Older, more obscure tuners are less likely to re-emerge.
That’s not surprising, since decades ago musicals could be created with little financial pressure. Beyond its Encores! presentation, don’t count on seeing the Gershwins’ Pulitzer Prize-winning political comedy “Of Thee I Sing” any time soon, as few producers could risk reviving a show that requires 61 singers and a band. So goes the present moment: Theaters still produce tuners, many of them great, but they can’t pay much heed to the past.
The danger is that without that history, both artists and auds could overlook the broad spectrum of what musicals can accomplish. For every brilliant new work, there risks being an endless stream of shows whose imaginations stop with shallow pop references and flimsy gimmicks.
NEA chairman Dana Gioia believes in the new musical’s future, but he’s also committed to tending the genre’s roots. This year, he’s overseeing the first incarnation of the NEA’s American Masterpieces: Musical Theater grant program. The grants will primarily support full productions of what the org’s Web site dubs “masterpieces from the classical canon, lesser known works by master artists (or) masterworks representing new music theater forms.”
The NEA anticipates allotting 11 grants of up to $150,000, including one specifically tagged for a show that tours colleges. Deadline for applications is Oct. 28, and Gioia hopes artists across the country will be inspired to dig through the American tuner library for worthy submissions. “There are so many masterpieces of American musical theater that rarely get seen,” he says. “But those works deserve to be rediscovered.”
NEA’s director of musical theater, Gigi Bolt, asserts that through forgotten tuners, “Artists can be reminded of the depth and richness of the field.”
Gioia feels that if “classic work” becomes more widely available, people on both sides of the footlights will be inspired by the discovery of a cultural heritage broader than they conceived.
Bolt is also glad to offer an alternative to the downscaling that economics can require. “One never wants artistic imagination to be limited,” she explains. “But the cost (of musical theater) can be exorbitant. Everyone would like to have more money.”As companies apply for funding, though, there’s one caveat: Like all NEA grants, the American Masterpiece awards demand that theaters find a dollar-to-dollar match from private donors. “But the match is generally not a problem,” explains Gioia. “We’ve noticed that every dollar we give tends to generate seven additional dollars.”
He further enthuses that once the money is raised, theaters producing under the grant will be able to hire a spate of actors and designers who are looking for work. “I’ve got a very WPA attitude about this program,” he chuckles.
With applications still being accepted, it’s too soon to tell how much excitement the initiative will generate. However, Bolt feels the mere existence of the grants, along with the support the NEA provides new work, could instill “a new sense of confidence in the possibilities of musical theater.”
In other words, the NEA could catalyze a revised approach to the field — one that looks back as often as it looks forward.