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Chicago shows penchant for tuners

City known for play development works on musicals next

Chicago isn’t known for its musicals, but with new infrastructure springing up, the winds of change are blowing in the Windy City.

Gotham hits “August: Osage County,” “A Steady Rain” and “Ruined” all started in Chi-town, seeming to establish a core of the brand for new legit work emerging from the area: intense, serious and full of emotion. But toe-tapping tuners? Not so much.

The past several months , however, have been especially robust for Chicagoland tuners, suggesting that musical development in the city may be where play development was about a decade or so ago.

New tuners have carved out a Windy City footprint well beyond the Nederlander Org’s Broadway in Chicago commercial venues or the three-plus-year continuing run of “Million Dollar Quartet,” which continues to re-cast and extend.

Chicago Shakespeare leads the way in developing a growing infrastructure for new musicals in the city, with two successful tuners on its boards: Gary Griffin (“The Color Purple”) directs a scaled-down, strikingly emotional “Follies”; and “Murder for Two,” a new musical comedy romp somewhere between Agatha Christie and Charles Ludlam, with the two performers also providing the piano accompaniment, has become a long-lasting surprise hit on the theater’s second stage, running since May. The show just scored a Jeff Award for new musical, sharing it with a Second City revue.

“Musicals in Chicago have a really rich history,” says Rick Boynton, Chicago Shakespeare’s creative producer, who adds musical theater in Chicago is in a resurgent state that recalls the glory days of local orgs Candlelight Theater and Drury Lane Water Tower Place. “I think there has been a cycle, and now it’s an exciting, prolific, bold time.”

Boynton chooses artists first and then works with them to find a project. Over the summer, the theater staged a new family musical take on “Pinocchio” by “The Story of My Life” creators Neil Bartram and Brian Hill. Previously, Boynton had fostered the development of “Funk It Up About Nuthin’,” a Shakespeare adaptation by the Q Brothers — Jeffrey (JQ) and Gregory (GQ) Qaiyum — that premiered at the theater, and has since been seen in London, Edinburgh and Australia. The relationship is ongoing, with the theater and the Q’s working on “Madsummer Night’s Dream” and a hip-hop “Othello.”

Until Chicago Shakespeare ramped up its musical programming profile, the bigger shows that weren’t Broadway tryouts or tours were staged mostly in the suburbs.

In August, the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Ill., mounted the world premiere of “For the Boys,” based on the Bette Midler-James Caan film about USO performers. Next year it will produce “Hero,” about an aspiring comicbook author.

The Marriott boasts one of the largest subscription bases in the country, pushing 37,000, and represents an unusual corporate-owned, for-profit regional model, with all costs met by ticket sales.

“That poses a big challenge to doing new work, which is more than twice as expensive (as tours),” says exec director Terry James. But its large base of subscribers has provided sufficient security for the theater to develop at least one new musical every year or two.

In perhaps the boldest development of all, the Paramount Theater in Aurora, about 50 miles west of the city, has begun producing its own season rather than relying on tours. Run by artistic director Jim Corti (who spent two years playing Tateh in “Ragtime” on Broadway and has become one of Chicago’s leading director-choreographers), the Paramount launched the programming initiative with “My Fair Lady,” selling a respectable 18,000 tickets. The just-opened “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” has already sold 21,000. Both productions rep solid tour-quality work.

Corti, as well as Boynton and James, all express hope that new productions at the Paramount will increase the ability for the top musical performers to make a living in the city, which is not nearly as easy as for players living in Gotham. The Marriott, for example, brings in about a third of its casts from New York.

Corti aims eventually to develop new work. “We have our eyes on being a pre-Broadway house,” he says. But for now, he needs to build an audience with familiar titles. “It’s scary as hell.”

Given the costs and the long timeline involved with developing new tuners, it’s unlikely that Chicago’s famed storefront theaters can get in on the act the way they have with nonmusical work. That said, Black Ensemble Theater in the Uptown neighborhood of the city has found a successful niche with bio-musicals. BET opens its new $20 Million cultural center this weekend with a remount of its 2000 show “The Jackie Wilson Story,” which went on tour starring Chester Gregory II, including a 2003 stop at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The center will have a 299-seat mainstage, double the capacity of the company’s previous home.

Suburban storefronts have, once again, been more inclined towards musicals than those in the city. Next Theater in Evanston created composer Josh Schmidt’s “The Adding Machine” (which went on to play Off Broadway) and Writers Theater in Glencoe developed his follow-up, “A Minister’s Wife,” which was then staged at Lincoln Center.

Writers, with houses that seat just 40 and 108, is an unlikely place for musical development, but it’s turned its size into an advantage and focused on adaptations.

“Each piece gets its own tailored track of development,” says associate artistic director Stuart Carden, who oversees new work, “and we’re committed to seeing them through to production.”

The theater just held a weeklong workshop for a musical version of the Charles Mee play “Summertime,” and is also at work on Schmidt’s adaptation of the Gogol short story “The Overcoat.”

The former started at the Music Theater Company, a venture founded in 2008 and focused on musical development. The company made enough of an impression that the city of Highland Park granted it the use of a 92-seat space in 2010. It had previously been occupied by the Apple Tree Theater, a musical company that went defunct a year earlier.

There isn’t a better example of the fact that musical theater in the Chicago area has withstood its share of challenges, but definitely appears on the upswing. n

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