Tuesday, March 26, 2013

New Works in Progress: NEXT series at Theater Latté Da

An interview with Peter Rothstein, Artistic Director of Theater Latté Da about the launch of their new NEXT series developing new musicals in Minneapolis, Minnesota, next month.

Theater Latté Da will cap its 15th Anniversary Season by launching the major new works initiative 
NEXT. The inaugural season will feature readings of three new ventures into musical storytelling in various stages of development at The Lab Theater in Minneapolis’ historic warehouse district. NEXT will provide Twin Cities audiences the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the creative process and witness new musicals in the making. The musicals are When the Moon Hits Your Eye by Jon Marans; C. by Bradley Greenwald, Robert Elhai & Peter Rothstein; and Bessie’s Birthday by Kate Baldwin Eng & Jeff Tang.

Why did Theater Latté Da decide to start a new work festival?
Theater Latté Da's mission is to explore and expand the art of musical theater. Launching a program that gives playwrights, composers and lyricists the opportunity to experiment is central to fulfilling our mission; shepherding new works from incubation to full production is a priority for our organization. We also want to be part of the national dialogue around the future of the American Musical Theater and have an impact on the next generation.

Why do you think Minneapolis is a great place to test out new works?
Minneapolis is home to one of the largest and most vibrant theater communities in the country. We have an incredible pool of talent in the Twin Cities, thinking artists who can bring talent, skill and insight to the development process. We also have a loyal and adventurous audience who I believe can play a vital role in moving a show to the next level.

This is the Festival's first year. What will the programming of NEXT look like?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Festival Show Update: SOUTHERN COMFORT

An interview with Dan Collins & Julianne Wick Davis, writers of 2012 Festival Show Southern Comfort, about creating such a bold show, how far it's already come and preparing for its upcoming presentation at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. The show is a past recipient of a Writers Residency Grant (Playwrights Horizons) and a Project Development Grant (CAP21) from our National Fund for New Musicals.

Based on the Sundance Award-winning documentary, this heartwarming musical about a group of transgender friends living in rural Georgia is, at its core, a love story between their patriarch, Robert Eads, and newcomer Lola Cola. Through a unique folk and bluegrass-inspired score, the musical chronicles a year in the lives of this unique American family as they courageously defy the odds by simply remaining on the land to which they were born, reminding us that home is where we find comfort in our skin.

What were the first steps you took when you were asked to turn a documentary into a musical and how did you find the story's voice? 
We were approached by Tom Caruso and Bob DuSold, who hold the stage rights to the documentary, to consider adapting it into a musical. After watching the documentary, Julianne and I had a few discussions about what music would mean to these characters, and in this environment, and if/how it could enhance their story. We began by discussing a number of intriguing points in the documentary that might be able to sing, and ultimately wrote the solo "I'm Goin'," which Robert sings near the end of the second act. While the documentary's subject matter, and our discussions, revealed many challenges to be faced in adapting the story to the musical stage, writing "I'm Goin'" revealed just the opposite: it was one of those rare moments in which each part of the process (spotting the song, writing the lyric, setting the lyric) unraveled with great and exciting ease. Energized by that rewarding experience, we moved forward. Inspired by the seasonal framing of the documentary, we explored the score by creating a song for each of the seasons - to be sung by an onstage folk band. It was these seasons, coupled with "I'm Goin'" and the conceit of our onstage band that served as the foundation for the rest of our process. But it wasn't all beautifully simple, of course. Adapting a documentary meant we had to take some license in the storytelling for dramatic purposes, which is a tricky undertaking as it was important to us to be able to keep the integrity of the true story and characters (most of whom are still living), while also ensuring that we were creating a dramatic narrative that would engage theater audiences - because to fail at the latter would mean that the story, for all of its good intentions, would never reach much further than the page.

Southern Comfort has evolved a bit from your first reading at Playwrights Horizon a few years ago to your presentation at the Festival. How has it changed over the years?
Most of the developments and changes in Southern Comfort have revolved around either the integration of the onstage band or our exploration of the narrative outside of the specific action of the documentary. We've conceived the band in a myriad of ways; a group of vocalists who are separate from the instrumentalists; a male and a female soloist who act as the 'lead singers' of the band; etc., but we found, particularly through our experience at CAP21 (discussed below), that the concept of having the instrumentalists present as both singers and actors really resonated with audiences. As for the narrative, Kate Davis (the producer/director/editor of the original documentary) has been incredibly generous, supportive and gracious throughout our entire process; one such occasion is when she shared with us the original transcripts of documentary, which contain many scenes and interviews that were not part of the film's final edit. These transcripts, coupled with her encouraging attitude toward our process, have been (and continue to be) invaluable as we explore the world, characters and their stories as they have come to exist on the musical stage. 

You had a great workshop production at CAP21 in 2012. What did you learn from getting the show up on its feet?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New Work in Progress- FAR FROM HEAVEN at Playwrights Horizons

An interview with Kent Nicholson, Director of Musical Theatre and Literary Associate at Playwrights Horizons, about their upcoming production of Far From Heaven, with a book by Richard Greenberg, Music by Scott Frankel and Lyrics by Fest alumnus Michael Korie (Blanco- '89). The show is a recipient of one of NAMT's National Fund for New Musicals Production Grants.

Cathy Whitaker seems to be the picture-perfect wife and mother in 1957 suburban Connecticut. But roiling beneath the surface, secret longings and forbidden desires cause her world to unravel, with incendiary consequences. With a lush score that is both jazz-inflected and hauntingly lyrical, Far From Heaven is a powerful story of romance, betrayal and intolerance, as a woman grapples with her identity in a society on the verge of upheaval.
Image: Kelli O'Hara in Far From Heaven at Williamstown Theatre Festival

Far From Heaven is a Playwrights Horizons' commission. What came first: the project or the writers?
The writers came first. It was their idea. Scott Frankel and Michael Korie had talked with Richard Greenberg about working on something together during the run of Grey Gardens on Broadway. In their subsequent discussions, Far From Heaven came up as a project they all admired that they thought could have a new life as a musical. They came to us with the idea and we thought it was a good one.

Why choose to musicalize Far From Heaven and why were Scott, Michael and Richard the right team for the job?
The film is an exploration of the nostalgia we have for "simpler" times. Those times have a dark side, a side that forces people to live in denial of their own prejudices and desires. The film places its main characters on the edge of the '50s bleeding into the social consciousness of the '60s. Shot in a melodramatic style, as an homage to Douglas Sirk, it contains all the elements of a great musical: inner emotional lives, strong plotting, a simple character arc. The lushness of the film's visuals have translated into a lushness in Scott Frankel's score. In transforming the story from one medium to another, we feel that we have the ability to continue to explore the themes, that the film begins to explore and dig a little deeper into the characters' emotional lives.

This is your theatre's second time at bat with Korie and Frankel. What draws Playwrights Horizons to their work and why are they a good match with your audience and mission?
Our focus at Playwrights is always on the writers, and our mission includes composers and lyricists as writers. We focus on writer driven work, which tends to mean that the projects we produce are the ideas and province of the writers' obsessions with the world. Scott and Michael have brought us many of their projects. Obviously, some of any producing decision is an aesthetic one, meaning we simply like their work. But beyond that we find that artist-driven work tends to move the form forward and explore the boundaries of what the form can be. Grey Gardens created a narrative out of documentary source material, and Far From Heaven is almost operatic in its approach to the material. They're still musicals, but they play with the form in artistically challenging ways.

The show was recently at Williamstown Theatre Festival before coming to Playwrights Horizons. How has the show changed and grown over this process?
The piece went through some significant tweaking during the reading and production process. While the plot is generally a given and hasn't changed much, how many scenes we keep from the movie, how we elide them together and where we choose to place our focus has shifted a lot, as has the amount of underscoring and music. Some characters have been made significantly smaller than they are in the film. And we learned a great deal from the Williamstown audiences. The opportunity to see the piece in a fully realized production prior to coming into NY, while we still have a chance to make significant changes, not just in the text, but also design and approach, is invaluable.

What will change as the show heads to the Playwrights Horizons stage?
You'll have to come and see!

Why should people come see Far From Heaven on West 42nd Street?
Our space is unique in that is equipped pretty well for musicals and yet it is small and intimate. This is a grand show in many ways and the opportunity to see something of this size in a house as intimate as ours is rare. It'll be a special experience.

For more info about Far From Heaven, please visit www.playwrightshorizons.org

New Work in Progress- OTHELLO: THE REMIX at Chicago Shakes

An interview with Rick Boynton, Creative Producer at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST), about their upcoming production of Othello: The Remix by the Q Brothers. The show was a past recipient of a NAMT National Fund for New Musicals Writers Residency Grant.
This fresh urban take on Shakespeare's tragedy is spun out and lyrically rewritten over original beats by The Q Brothers, America's leading re-interpreters of Shakespeare through hip-hop (Funk It Up About Nothin', The Bomb-itty of Errors). Whether you're looking for a rockin' night of rhythm and rhyme or a new way to think about Shakespeare, Othello: The Remix delivers an intense, high-energy spin like no other.

How did CST meet the Q Brothers? 
We first met several years back when CST produced their show Bombitty of Errors, a hip-hop musical based on The Comedy of Errors. They approached us a few years later to see if we would be interested in developing a show based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.  We agreed, developed the musical (Funk It Up About Nothin') and premiered it here in our studio theatre.

Why did you commission them to adapt another Shakespeare play?
The idea for Othello: The Remix really found its way to us.  The Globe in London was organizing a festival of Shakespeare's work, each performed by different countries around the world, for the cultural Olympiad prior to last summer's Olympic Games.  They had seen Funk when we performed in London, had liked our work, and wanted us to represent the US by creating a hip hop piece based on Othello.  It was an exciting opportunity and, quite honestly, a bit of a daunting yet exciting challenge.  I always find those the most interesting, so we accepted.

What was it like to take a show created in Chicago to international audiences?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Insights From NAMT's New Success Survey

As part of NAMT's 2011 strategic planning process, we evaluated all member services, including the publication formerly known as the Royalties Survey. Members surveyed were more interested in the overall success of the various musicals produced by NAMT's members than the royalty information, which has become more standardized in recent years.

Thus, the Success Survey was born! Recognizing that success is relative (was the show a risky labor of love that you didn't expect would make money? was it a hit with the audience but a flop financially? did it meet your financial goals but not your artistic ones?), we asked a variety of new subjective questions to measure how respondents felt each show did. We also asked about marketing and overall production income and expense.

Full results of the survey are only available to organizations that participated in it, but we wanted to share some of the most interesting findings more broadly.

Defining Risk
Theatres' very definition of risk varied. Classic titles like A Chorus Line and Sweet Charity were ranked as risky by some theatres, perhaps due to expense. As theatres' missions and audiences vary, some saw the same titles in very different lights. While classic musicals were generally considered not to be risky, that did not necessarily make them successful (though we would have to survey the audiences to understand why).

Audiences appreciate risk…if they attend.
Risky shows seemed to pay off, at least with those who attended. Over half of the shows considered "somewhat risky" or "extremely risky" scored well for audience response, and a third ranked high financially.

Does Safe = Successful?
Meanwhile, about 20% of the shows ranked "not at all risky" by members also received "lower than average" audience response or financial success scores. While that is a much better success rate than shows deemed risky, it still seems high considering the perceived risk factor.

Looking Ahead
We learned a lot from this first round of the Success Survey, and I hope to see it expand over the years (it will be administered every two years, alternating with the Salary & Benefits Survey). I hope this peek inside the survey results will inspire more NAMT members to participate next time! More data will allow us to zero in on trends that can help members plan and manage risk and reward in their seasons.