Tuesday, August 27, 2013

FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Not Another Sinking Ship Musical

A guest blog entry from Ben Sussman, writer of Eastland to be presented at this year's Festival of New Musicals.  

Years back, when I first heard Andy White's pitch for Eastland, I was incredulous. "Another sinking ship musical?  Are you kidding me?" The Titanic story has already been romanticized for decades, because it has all the elements of a tabloid headline: fabulously wealthy people, tremendous hubris, followed by karmic retribution.

But the Eastland story is almost exactly the opposite. While the time period is the same (1915), here we have a bunch of low-income, blue collar immigrants boarding a boat for their corporate summer picnic. Before the ship even leaves the dock, it capsizes and more than 800 people drown. There is brief media attention, then silence. This was the worst boating disaster in U.S. history and to this day almost nobody has heard of it. 

And so Andy approaches his script thoughtfully: if such a tragedy is so easily forgotten, what does that mean about the value of these people's lives? Does their socioeconomic status make them less important? What is the value of anyone's life? And are we really in control of our path to the extent that we think we are? 

   Things shift, they change    
   That's life, it rearranges

And speaking of unexpected twists -- I recently discovered that this story is directly relevant to my own. Through genealogical research and interviews, I learned that my own great grandfather was yet another employee set to board the Eastland. He arrived a bit late, after the boat had already turned over. If he had showed up 20 minutes earlier, would I even be here to help tell the story?

Needless to say, it was an intense and thrilling experience bringing this show into a full production at Lookingglass Theatre last year.  And now the excitement has returned again as we begin to make cuts, dust off the score, and discuss casting options for the NAMT production. We can't wait to spin this tale with new voices, to an even larger audience.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Returning to the Festival

A guest blog entry from Anthony Drewe, writer of The Three Little Pigs to be presented at this year's Festival of New Musicals.  

2013 actually marks my third return to the NAMT Festival. My first visit was in 1993 when I came purely as an invited visitor to sit in on some of the conference sessions, as well as seeing several of the Festival presentations of new musicals. I was blown away by the standard of the new writing, the quality of the presentations, the fact that actors of such caliber were happy to participate in such readings and the phenomenon that an organization existed purely to discover and nurture new musicals. The fact that NAMT was made up of professional theatres from all across America was inspiring, and the approach of those theatres to sharing and co-funding productions was something that I knew was sorely lacking in the UK at that time. Back in 1993 I wasn't sure that the NAMT Festival was something that Brits could apply for, but I knew it was something that I would love to be a part of. Even the names of some of your theatres like Goodspeed Opera House, Walnut Street Theatre, Papermill Playhouse, Seaside Repertory Theatre, Bay Street Festival Theatre sounded somehow more romantic and exciting than British theatres. So, you can imagine how thrilled I was in 1999 when a little musical I had written with my long time collaborator, George Stiles, called HONK! was accepted for the Festival.

Actually, two amazing things happened for HONK! in 1999. As well as being given a reading at the Festival, in December of the same year it was produced at the Royal National Theatre in London. The NAMT Festival preceded the RNT production by three months, and we were delighted with both the reaction the show received and the interest shown in it by so many theatres. Tony Stimac at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Centre in Nyack was the first to produce the show in the Spring of 2000 and

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Teaching Cirque Du Soleil a new trick

A guest blog entry from Richard Oberacker, writer of The Sandman - a little nightmare musical to be presented at this year's Festival of New Musicals.  

In 1999, I became the first American conductor ever hired by Cirque Du Soleil.  It was for their new Big Top tour, Dralion and it was at a time when it was still really chic to even know what Cirque was.  My theater friends were confounded by how a New York musical theater industry guy had managed to break into the mysterious inner circle of this seemingly impenetrable rising giant.  The truth was it had to do with one small connection followed by about three months of extensive interviews.  Many of these interviews focused on my work as a musical theater conductor, composer and lyricist.  It began to dawn on me then - and continued to be even more clear once I was on the inside - that Cirque was as confused and intrigued by (but ultimately ignorant of) musical theater as the American musical theater industry was by and about Cirque Du Soleil
That same year, I was selected to present my original musical In That Valley at the NAMT Festival of New Musicals - another organization that was a new frontier for me.  Of course I was thrilled to learn about NAMT and to have the opportunity to showcase a very challenging musical that I knew had very little chance of ever being produced commercially (or otherwise, for that matter given its subject).   I set about trying to figure out how I would be able to deliver a great presentation at the festival - with all that NAMT demanded - while doing 10 shows a week on the road with a brand new Cirque show that was still at

Thursday, August 1, 2013

New Works in Progress: SMALL TOWN STORY

An interview with Joe Barros, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Barn in New York, NY about NYTB's work with Sammy Buck and Brandon James Gwinn's Small Town Story (formerly Speargrove Presents), a 2011-2012 Writers Residency Grant recipient.

At the urging of his father Larry, adorkable Scott Ames auditions for the Speargrove High School musical to get closer to drama club queen bee Caroline. But when Larry discovers the show is Rent he pulls Scott out. With the arrival of New York transplant Alex, her outspoken mom Lois and rising community fear about the show, the stage is set for a controversy unlike any small town has ever seen. As the escalation drives wedges between parents and children, Speargrove, Texas will discover that the show can't open until their minds do. Inspired by actual events, Small Town Story explores the indelible power of theatre and the inherent dangers of silence.
Small Town Story has a unique genesis. How did NYTB originally go about commissioning this show?
In January 2010, New York Theatre Barn assembled 17 writers, led by sole book writer Sammy Buck, to conceive a new musical. Real-life events in Rowlett, Texas pertaining to a controversial production of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent provided an irresistible springboard for the writing as NYTB set out to create a show by a community of writers about community. NYTB's involvement with Small Town Story actually led to a change in the artistic and institutional mission of the company. We became so attracted to telling untold stories about real people, and often based on real events, that we made it our primary focus.

Why did you narrow the team down to just two writers?
After launching NYTB in 2007, we were given the unique opportunity by Daryl Roth Theatricals to produce a monthly show in their D-Lounge, and our core developmental platform for emerging writers and new work was born. Through this monthly program (now in its 6th year), I was immediately exposed to over 50 writers in the first three years alone. With such incredible creative resources at our fingertips, I knew we had to devise a piece together. While Small Town Story (then Speargrove Presents) started out as a piece written by committee, I ultimately made the decision to choose Sammy Buck and Brandon James Gwinn as its sole writers in order to give the piece clarity and authenticity, primarily in the score.

After working on the piece for about a year, the team went from 17 to 2 to improve the show's cohesion. Buck and young composer Gwinn were serendipitously paired on a song to