ON RACE-GENDER CONSIDERATIONS IN CASTING FOR FULL PRODUCTIONS
I have nothing against a reading in which persons of any make-up read a role in the way it was intended. Reading is reading.
However, for any fully-staged production, there are any number of factors that will distract from the audience's ability to suspend disbelief (and they will see a production only as a collection of elements). That suspension of disbelief is necessary because a play exists half in a person's mind, touching upon emotions the audience already has, invoking them. Distractions include imprecise casting, but extend down to inappropriate gestures, "night-clubbing" a song, and inappropriate choreography (such as pirouettes in a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus of sailors). I view acting and theatre as a very intense discipline (ref. An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski and To The Actor by Michael Chekhov), with a discipline so solid that it is highly beneficial to actors who subsequently pursue other careers. At the same time, musical theatre has declined as a fine art, due to, in my view, many of the things that worked to make musical theatre great in the 40s, 50s, and 60s were left by the wayside in favor of agendas, choreographers who wanted to make statements, music of styles largely unsuited to theatre, and directors who simply never saw those earlier productions and lost the "bubble". This, then, represents a challenge to anyone who wants to bring back the "magic". Therefore, in order to reach for the absolute highest quality of musical theatre, one must be obsessed with The Drama and with Music and how these fit together; and those factors that insert implied, unintended, and distracting political statements are an entirely unwelcome intrusion upon the intense concentration and effort and discipline required.
For any play with a known historical basis in fact, imprecise casting draws attention to itself and completely obscures the "Time Machine" experience the author is diligently laboring to create and the audience is investing time, energy, and money to receive. Further, for any play in which, for example, the playwright is attempting to comment on a gender-specific perspective (such as in The Trojan Women or How To Marry A Millionaire), imprecise casting can be entirely destructive.
It is my hope that American Theatre can flourish and provide distinct quality, such as the catharsis the ancient Greeks thought of as its ultimate creation, without the imposition of political messages upon it.
* * * * *
THEATER WITH A MISSION
Eighty years ago, the arts in America were not merely alive and well; they were central to American life. And to correct a widespread misunderstanding, that was not simply because Americans needed an escape from the reality of the Great Depression.
Yes, in one sense both stage and cinema provided such escape. Much of musical comedy played to the themes of love and romance by focusing on personal fulfillment through finding the right partner. The films of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire filled that bill effectively, with leading composers and lyricists of the day producing genuine classics along the way. Cole Porter’s “The Gay Divorcee” and the Gershwin brothers’ “Shall We Dance,” both starring Rogers and Astaire, stand as still-lovable mementos of the era.
At the same time, however, musical theater also produced some notable political content. That includes both the light-hearted satire of the Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band” and the more overtly ideological “Pins and Needles,” produced by and for the ILGWU in its capacity as the union voice of the garment workers.
Nor was musical theater itself immune to the political crosswinds of the day. The 1999 Tim Robbins film, “Cradle Will Rock,” tells the back story of how the original 1937 production of the Marc Blitzstein musical got caught in those crosswinds. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a major employment arm of the New Deal, cancelled the budget of the Federal Theater Project (FTP), which was funding the production, for fear of political retribution from the increasingly powerful House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). That led to the shutting down of the 1937 show. On the other hand, such straight dramatic works such as Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” was not only a Broadway success; it was performed in local theaters across the country, with audiences in dozens of cities and towns standing up night after night yelling, “Strike! Strike!”
So here we are, eighty years later, and what does our national arts scene look like? Yes, we do still have political theater, with occasional direct political confrontation, as when the cast of “Hamilton” called out Vice-President Pence while he was attempting to make a strategic, unnoticed exit at the end of the performance. But by and large, both musical and non-musical theater are now far tamer than during the depression, which may have something to do with private and public funding becoming increasingly hard to find. In an economy characterized by billions for the military but virtually nothing for the arts, the financial picture does not look hopeful. Nor have we had the kind of ongoing vitality on the local scene that was so central to the national experience of the 1930s.
Equally important, over the last several years national media have evolved in such a way that some of the most insightful political commentary comes not from news reporting or analysis but from late-night comics. It is not a healthy situation when Americans have to rely on talk-show satire to get a clear perspective on what is happening in Washington and other political centers. Nor does late-night television do much to promote the kind of local community action that live local theater used to promote generations ago. Sitting at home in front of the TV is still a solitary activity.
That is precisely why MainStreet Musicals has emerged as such an important nationwide organization. It is doing what few other groups have done since the Federal Theater Project, and it is doing so with essentially no government support. Day after day, we hear politicians loudly lamenting both the economic and cultural gap – perhaps a better word would be chasm – between urban America and small-town Main Street. What no politician seems to have considered, however, is the potential role of a revived small-town theatrical presence in bridging that chasm.
To be sure, local theater still exists in smaller towns and cities, particularly in locales which happen to host colleges and universities. MainStreet Musicals is already working with college and university theater departments to coordinate the building of a national theater network. In places where no such local institutions exist, however, the need for such a network is most acute. That is where, both literally and figuratively, MainStreet Musicals has become the only game in town. It needs and deserves your support.
* * * * *
CREATION IS JOY!
Creation is joy, ergo all of the arts are joy because all of the arts are constantly creating. When you begin as a visual artist or an actor or a singer or a writer, you begin by copying. A teacher offers a model or a formula and suggests you copy that. We live in an age where there are unlimited examples from which to copy.
But sooner or later, if you have a real artist down deep inside, copying doesn’t make it anymore. There will quickly surface a need to give birth to you own vision of a topic, or an image, or an emotion. It is at that point that the true artist begins to grow.
I run a musical company which produces only the works of Victor Herbert - the majority of which are not only over a hundred years old, but also created themselves during the prerecording era. What does that mean for my company members?
There is nothing to copy. Everyone is asked to create their role from scratch – from chorus member with a name to principal character. They read a new libretto (often rewritten from the original) and they learn new music they have never heard before.
Ultimately, before rehearsals begin, each artist is asked to 1) create their character from birth to the moment they walk on stage the first time and 2) answer the four questions about every song. A. Who are they? B. To whom are they singing? C. Why are they singing? D. What do they want to happen?
Once I have that discussion with each company member, I ask them to go off and create. There are no wrong creations, only creations that fit the situation and elicit the strongest emotion. Therein lies the joy of being a theatrical artist. Therein lies the joy of reaching the audience with strong emotions. Therein lies the tremendous growth of each company member – a growth that rewards them with more and more positive auditions.
My company gets to do this three times a season. You get to do it by exploring and applying to the Broadway Bound Competition. Have a joyful time and set your inner artist loose.
Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIVE!
New York, New York
* * * * *
Guest Artistic Director’s Note:
The great costume designer Susan Hilferty said to me during a particularly grueling rehearsal of Spring Awakening that "a musical is an organism hell-bent on self-destruction". It's the truth. It's a crazy form. Truly American in the same way that Jazz and baseball are: coopted and tweaked from forms which came before and solidified in its heyday as The Golden Age of Broadway. It was populist and commercial and a lot of people made a lot of money investing in the next Rogers and Hammerstein show or the next Mary Martin vehicle (some of which were one in the same). A lot of people lost a lot of money as well, and the big gamble created a bunch of rules about what makes a show a hit.
Even though we know that if there were an answer to that question, we'd all have hits all the time -- and we know from experience the odds are against us. Even more remarkable then, that intrepid explorers of story-telling, (enamored of the idea that song and narrative can co-exist in a popular vernacular) have for decades tried to go where nobody has been before. To create new musicals dedicated not "making hit shows", but to further investigating all the ways that music can carry story to reach new audiences and inspire new artists to do new work. It's so very important that we support and nurture new works and the artists that create them in every way that we can. The Main Street awards are a fine example of this support. I'd like to congratulate this year's winners of The MainStreet Awards. These three stand out from the pack, and it's exciting to see such a variety of passionate, committed writers for Musical Theater.
* * * * *
Ben Nordstrom, St. Louis Affiliate and Mainstreet Pioneer, reports:
Our 2nd annual Mainstreet Musicals - St. Louis Festival of New Musicals is underway and the many segments of the local theatre community are buzzing with activity. St. Louis is a musical town. Theatre-goers here love musicals. But they're also curious and eager for something new. As a result, the response to something as simple as our readings has been fantastic. After only one year of presentations, local audiences and artists alike are asking, "Hey, are you doing that Mainstreet thing again?" or "Let me know if I can help out with those readings!" Even better is when I get asked how any of the shows are doing in their life beyond the readings. It is very gratifying indeed to see how the pieces are doing post-Mainstreet and to feel like you played one tiny part in that. This year in St. Louis, we are looking to build our audiences and spread awareness of the project. Of course, paying our artists has always been a priority. In the future, we will explore new programs such as the campus program with local universities and a full production of one of our readings in St. Louis. Regardless of how the St. Louis festival evolves, the backbone of the project will always simply be the musicals themselves. As long as we have quality material to develop and play with, the festival here in St. Louis will have artists eager to jump in and audiences eager to hear a great story.
* * * * *
Some thoughts on the future of American Theatre Art by Roger Ames, composer of Mainstreet Award-winner HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY
Elizabeth Bassine’s and my musical, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, has had a number of readings over the years. Each reading has, thankfully, included Equity actors, and as every writer knows, each reading teaches us a lot.
The last two readings were to help us refine orchestrations, staging ideas, and of course songs and book. Because the work is large (minimum 30 people in the cast), we have to cast a wide net, recruiting AGMA performers, amateurs, young developing artists, and children, as well as our beloved Equity actors.
They were readings so, of course, we naturally didn’t have enough rehearsal time. One never does in such situations. But also, because they were readings, we could accommodate a mix of performers at multiple levels of their development. As an artist-educator myself, I found that inspiring - to the point where I discussed this with Tim Jerome. “Thrilling to see and hear so many diverse people working together,” I said. “It’s great that Mainstreet will be doing this too - giving community performers a chance to work closely with professionals.”
We’ve all been watching professional symphony orchestras, opera companies, and yes, regional theaters struggle for survival. We’ve also been seeing arts education decline dramatically over the past few decades. For years I’ve heard people from the profession say that Actors Equity has “too many actors for the available work.”
I personally would like to see the arts market expand to where Actors Equity is thriving in every city. I’d like to see new theaters pop up everywhere as audiences demand more and more live entertainment. I think the arts of every kind should be experienced and supported by growing numbers in communities across the country as more people enjoy personal - life-changing - experiences with arts institutions and their local artists.
I maintain that if we professionals ‘get down’ with the public, especially our young people - mix our talent and experience with their enthusiasm and dedication - do actual artwork with them; rehearse, discuss, refine, coach, direct, perform TOGETHER - that we will do more for our audience development by far than the 40 minute repertoire touring show.
It’s no accident that MAINSTREET provides us with that opportunity. Tim’s design and wonderful volunteer army for new work is deliberate. Concert readings are the perfect opportunity to involve artists-in-training from the universities, local schools, and –yes- even community theaters. I don’t think we can overestimate the impact that this will have on our need, not to just engage, but to bring our audiences back.
I am delighted that Michael Mayer chose VALLEY as one of the winners in this year’s competition. I am also delighted that there will be festivals nationwide that will need to reach out to their communities to put these readings together. And I’m looking forward to attending as many as I can - to learn, to be surprised, and to celebrate the work together.
Inclusion and collaboration are two big buzzwords in industry, community, and politics these days. I strongly believe when we apply these concepts to the arts - when we deeply include and we truly collaborate, what we’ve lost in terms of audience, community support, and financial risk over the past two decades will come back to us full force.
* * * * *
Mainstreet Awards Finalists To Be Announced First Week In December
- Will It Be In Time?
Considering what’s going on in the world, MainStreet’s attempts to bolster new works development sometimes strikes me as a just a tad futile. I mean, seriously: we live in dangerous times. Clearly, if the people of the world don’t make some smart decisions soon, we could be in big… and irreversible… trouble.
I believe that the way to solve problems and to put troubles behind us is to act with intelligence and humanity. To do this requires education and culture. We need education to train our brains to think logically, hence intelligently; and we need culture to help us recognize good and distinguish it from evil.
In complex times, we need our artists - and access to their work - more than ever. Artists are trailblazers… they shine light and lead us out of darkness. The trick is to bring their “candles” to where they can be seen.
MainStreet is slowly but surely developing a network of regional “discovery zones” where theatre artists can introduce their new works, their new ideas, diagnoses, and solutions … in attractive, compelling, and entertaining ways… And this year, MainStreet has found fourteen promising shows from which we will select our “season.”
In about a week we will have the titles of the six 2015 MainStreet Award Finalists. All six will be unveiled - synopses and selected demo tracks - on our website. Then, on January 1st 2015, we will announce the three winning works.
The three Award Winners will be presented as readings in every participating Festival; while our Campus programs will select a single Finalist to develop as a reading.
Maybe theatre won’t save the world from man’s depredations but there’s no harm in trying. And, in the meantime, there will be lots of good show tunes to sing till the end of days.
* * * * *
Billie Wildrick Launches the Seattle Festival
What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
My mom is wildly creative, smart and well-read. She loves a good story and always had a "costume room." We hardly watched or read anything we didn't "reenact." My sister and I used to put on whole productions of Jesus Christ Superstar starring our stuffed animals and I never let a holiday go by that I didn't go to school dressed up. I was scooped into the honor choir in second grade and sent to a local children's theatre by attentive teachers. I have never been content to color in the lines and I have always had visions that are a little too big. In high school I created and produced a massive variety/talent show, in college it was a creation myth I directed, produced wrote and starred in. Subsequently I was voted "Most Likely To Form Her Own Colony..." Creativity and story-telling, making pictures or music that illustrate the things we can't put into simple words... That's a basic part of who I am and who I came from, not so much a career I chose to pursue.
Tell us about your career path from the first time you knew that this was where you were headed in life.
We moved quite a bit and I didn't end up in a school district for junior high and high school that valued the performing arts as highly. So after a 7-9 year old flirtation with theatre in Grosse Pointe, MI, I sort of gave it up for swimming and being a kid for a while. But when it came time to graduate, I suppose I just knew what I was supposed to do. I started on a scholarship at Roosevelt in Chicago but realized after the first year that the Pacific Northwest in all it's beauty and greenery had truly become home. So I transferred up to Western Washington University in Bellingham and created my own (fairly pretentious) major - Performance: Becoming the Artist and the Instrument... Right after college, the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle sang me through my whole book and cast me in Hair. 23 shows and 12 years later, I still consider the 5th the backbone of my career as well as my family. But along the way, I've branched off to work for other amazing Seattle theatres and even the BroadWay. I'm a founding member of a golden age girl trio called the Riveting Rosies, I've written music, created and performed my own work, directed, and produced. I'd say I'm definitely living the dream.
What drew you to become in MainStreet Musicals and, in a nutshell, what are you doing to get it on it's feet in Seattle.
I think new work is really where it's at. My interest is at the frontier of the form. And we are very excited to have a second new musicals festival in town. We have a fired up audience out here that is used to experiencing and supporting new musicals at all stages of development. We are very excited to announce a festival with local touches beyond the incredible groups of local actor/singers we have cast. We will be featuring 3 late-night feed-the-artists trivia cabarets (with questions centering around what's playing onstage right now in Seattle!) to help us pay our actors and directors. We are also running a game show with a poetry slam feel called the Pitch Sessions where local writers and composers interactively pitch their work to a captive audience to win a small cash prize and bragging rights. To close out the festival, we will have a Best of the Fest Awards Concert featuring work by local composers. It all takes place Weds June 18-Monday June 23 at West of Lenin, an awesome 88 seat black box in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle.
What are your thoughts on Seattle as a theatre town?
Seattle is an incredible theatre town. We have so much depth of talent here in terms of actors and singers as well as writers directors and producers. And they all want to stay because it's such an amazing place to live. I've been in and out of New York and it's a wonderful place where wonderful people do wonderful work. But for me, Seattle is a better fit. There is room in the artistic soil to root your feet and where NYC is horizontal streets and vertical buildings - Chutes and Ladders, Seattle is big sky open for swirling around in - Candyland. Also, Seattle has grown a great deal in the last 10-12 years under the leadership of people like David Armstrong at the 5th Avenue. David has focused hard on hiring, growing and celebrating the local community. The 5th Avenue, the Village Theatre, ACT and Intiman have all launched Broadway shows in front of our smart, savvy audiences... And 20 minutes from downtown has you climbing a mountain or on a ferry in the middle of the sound.
* * * * *
St. Louis's Ben Nordstrom:
Becoming an Affiliate
> What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
I knew I wanted to be an actor since I was about 10 years old. I worshipped Dana Carvey as Church Lady and his other characters ("Choppin' broccoli"). I grew up in Oklahoma City and there were a few outlets for geeks like me, but nothing like there is today for kids. So I sat in my room as a little kid and listened to Disney 45's and later, Weird Al Yankovic tapes. Before my senior year of high school, I didn't even know that you could get original cast recordings of Broadway shows. It didn't even come up. Throughout school, I was into show choir, drama class, and I performed in the productions at my high school. Luckily, I went to a high school with a very strong theatre department and we had some really good kids then who were serious about it and I learned a lot. And seeing the national tours of Starlight Express and Les Miserables as a teenager sealed the deal for me. That's when I knew I was really serious about wanting to go into this. It's funny, I was this little blonde spaz kid who loved Michael Jackson and when I saw Les Miserables that first time, I walked out not wanting to be Valjean or Marius, but wanting to be Javert. At my next voice lesson, I immediately demanded that we work on Javert's big song, "Stars". I'm sure my 17 year old tenor version was amazing.
> Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
Well after growing up in Oklahoma, I stumbled into the conservatory program at Webster University. It was the best possible thing for me. It kicked my ass. I had never learned what it meant to really work hard - really hard - until I was at Webster. The intense training there laid the foundation for pretty much everything I've done since. As I've worked regionally, and in St. Louis and in New York, I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to switch between musicals and plays and that is primarily due to my schooling.
> What drew you to become involved in MainStreet Musicals and how did that come about?
My involvement in this was totally by chance. My friend, Zoe Vonder Haar, produced a MainStreet reading here in St. Louis in 2012. Another actor friend, Julie Hanson, moved here last summer right around the same time that I did. I think Tim Jerome and Julie worked together in Phantom. Tim asked both Zoe and Julie if they were interested in being the St. Louis affiliate to put together this annual festival. They both passed. They are sane! But they also both gave Tim my name. So Tim called and I said "sure" before I really realized what I was getting myself into! Honestly, it is a project that was exciting to me. We occasionally get new musicals presented here in St. Louis in this way, but not with any regularity and never with all local artists. And I've been lucky to work at a lot of different theatres here, so I figured I would be able to lean on some of them and call in a bunch of favors to make this work here. I was right - everyone here was so supportive.
> How did the MainStreet event in St. Louis go?
It was fantastic! People actually came! Ha! Of course, there was definitely a learning curve for me as a producer and there are things I will do differently next year. First of all, we presented some really great work. These new pieces are terrific and gained some much needed exposure, and our directors and actors executed brilliantly. It was a very exciting event for the local theatre community - we brought nearly 50 actors, directors, and music directors together in one weekend - and folks are already asking about being involved next year. Second, we had experienced theatre-goers and other entertainment professionals in attendance who had never seen a reading of a musical before and were blown away by the work. That was also exciting - bringing something new and different to audiences here. We had wonderful support from major St. Louis arts donors. And awesome St. Louis theatre geeks like Thommy Crain, Jeanne Kaufman, and James Compton just called out of the blue asking, "What can I do to help?" That was amazing. Overall, I think I was most excited by the cross-section of people involved. The Muny, Webster University, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, St. Louis Actors Studio, Washington University, and Manchester United Methodist Church -- the festival absolutely could not have been successful without the support and good energy from all of these organizations. I can't wait for next year!
> What are your thoughts on St. Louis as a theatre town?
I think my response above gives a sense of that. St. Louis is an amazing theatre town. We're a big small-town or a small big-city - however you want to think of it. So I feel that St. Louis remains small enough to often fly under the radar on a national scale. Yet we are big enough where we have quite a bit of culture that is homegrown and produced right here. In terms of theatre, obviously the Rep, Muny, Shakespeare Festival, and Stages are the big theatres in town, but there are so many smaller professional companies like HotCity, New Jewish, New Line, Stray Dog, Mustard Seed, Actors Studio, OnSite, R-S Theatrics, I could go on and on. These companies provide employment for local artists and have cultivated devout fan bases of their own. Having the conservatory at Webster as well as serious theatre programs at Wash U and Saint Louis University adds a major element to our community. Professional actors can come to St. Louis and make a life here. It's weird, I know! But it's happening. With all of that, I think the thing that makes it all work is that everyone here is willing to help each other. The understanding that as theatre artists, whether you're a huge company with an annual budget of $10 million or a tiny company doing 2 plays a year on a $500 budget, we're not competing with each other. We're all in the same boat together competing to bring in new audiences, tell stories, and just do good work. St. Louis gets that and that's why it's a damn swell theatre town.
* * * * *
Guest Artistic Director’s Note:
Picking the winning submissions for this year's MainStreet Awards was exhilarating and maddeningly difficult. It was exhilarating because the process demonstrated the boundless energy and talent of the writers, composers, and lyricists who are creating the future masterpieces of American musical theater. It was difficult for exactly the same reason: how do you choose among so many extraordinarily promising projects?
But my work is done. Now I look forward to the fun part. I can't wait to sit in the audience -- in St. Louis, Seattle, or any of the other lucky cities hosting the Festival -- to watch these three amazing pieces finally spring to theatrical life.
- John Lithgow
* * * * *
MERTON OF THE MOVIES
Writer Donald Brenner Reviews His Festival Experience
My collaborator, Doug Katsaros, and I were thrilled this past winter when we got a call from Tim Jerome.
“Well…” Tim said in a cat-that-swallowed the canary manner, “You’ve won!”
Really?! Our “Merton of the Movies”?! We were one of three new musicals chosen by MainStreet Musicals to have a number of presentations around the country (and across the border) over the next year. It was a sign of hope. It was a nice pat on the back. And it was an opportunity.
My partner, Jerry, and I flew up to Montreal one cold night (but then, its always cold in Montreal). The first of the MainStreet presentations was being presented in collaboration with the Centre for Education and Theatre in Montreal (CETM) whose Artistic Director, Stephen Pietrantoni, is known as a special friend to developing musicals.
It was Jerry’s and my first time in Montreal and we gobbled up all of the local color (and food) and thoroughly enjoyed this European-style city that reminded us of our treasured time in Paris.
Our second night in town, we took off by cab to find CETM’s headquarters, nestled high in the hills (like Maria Von Trapp) to see what they had done with our Merton.
The presentation was carefully put together by Stephen and his Musical Director, Kenny Wong, with obvious love and delicacy. The cast of local actors brought heart, talent and a clear enthusiasm for the process to the entire affair. The sold out audience leapt to its feet at the end of the show. I later learned that the same thing happened at the next two performances of “Merton” as well.
And then what happened? Doug and I both learned much about our show from seeing it in Montreal. We came back to the states and re-wrote several sections in preparation for the next MainStreet presentation.
In our show, the title of Merton’s first movie is “Heart’s Ablaze.” That’s what I felt like after seeing the the CETM/MainStreet presentation last week. My little heart was all ablaze… with pride and gratitude.
* * * * *
The Singers Theatre of Nashville
Sunday, March 16th
Williamson County Library, Main Branch
1214 Columbia Avenue
Showcase of CAPTAIN TOM, a new musical by John Eklond and collaborators, based on the life, legend and legacy of Captain Tom Ryman and the building of the Ryman Auditorium.
Monday, March 17th
The Centennial Black Box Theatre
The Centennial Arts Activities Center
CONVERSATIONS - reading of a new musical by Hunter Moore. This is the 27th event in the Metro Nashville Parks Theatre Department's New Play Reading Series.
Both events are free. Reservations required. By email at email@example.com or by phone at 615-915-0891
The Singers' Theatre of Nashville is a division of The Actors Reading Room
Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre!
* * * * *
Our Development Project:
When Merton Became Our Theatre Gym
As we prepare for auditions for our concert reading of "Merton of the Movies - The Musical" in Montreal, it has been exciting to see a flurry of interest coming from a wide variety of possible performers.
However, someone recently asked me why anybody would be bothered doing something as "uninteresting" (his word choice, not mine) as a concert reading instead of some large-scale spectacular, classic musical production.
One candidate in particular whose application surprised me was Dayane, a Montreal-based singer and actor. She has already been cast in the starring role of "Sister Act", which will headline the Just For Laughs Festival this coming summer. Why does she find time for a small development project like "Merton of the Movies"?
When reached by phone for comment, Dayane's answer came quickly and without hesitation. "For me as a musical artist, there is nothing more exciting than the challenge of new work. To have no model to copy - I am the model - is a feeling of freedom that makes it all worthwhile. It's training like no other."
"Listen," she adds quickly, "you learn a lot when you do a long-running, large-scale musical classic. You learn about stamina, consistency, keeping a performance fresh and other useful skills like that. But in these situations, you're mostly learning about re-creation, not about creation."
Her voice became more animated as she described the allure of a development project: "the pressure to get it right on a tight schedule, to give a voice to the writer and the composer, getting to collaborate with a bunch of talented people, none of whom is under pressure to "do it like Streisand" or anybody else who’s done a piece before."
Merton’s Montreal musical director, Kenny Wong agrees. "Discovering a new work is a little like discovering a new and wonderful world, set to music." He indicated that it will be an exciting challenge to be the first of a series as MainStreet rolls out its festival program in cities across North America. "We look forward to how ours turns out, and also to see how it will be different when Merton is staged in other cities later this year."
The Montreal adventure begins soon, culminating with the concert presentation in our Studio space on Parthenais Street during the weekend of March 8th.
Though we may not be moving around on stage a lot, please wish us lots of broken legs!
* * * * *
Affiliate Marc Moritz Is Poised To Showcase New Works In Cleveland
Cleveland affiliate Marc Moritz comes to MainStreet Musicals with a strong background in directing, producing and acting. His most recent MainStreet endeavor was assembling the 2011 Akron, Ohio reading of SHINE - partnering with John Hedges and the Weathervane Theater. He found putting together the concert reading to be challenging, yet rewarding. He explains, “I tried to get the spirit of the show and focus on the musicality of the piece. We were using the current set of the Weathervane's production of “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” which was good because it has platforms and lent itself to a reading where mostly people stand at music stands and sing. Ultimately, I think it worked very well and the audience clearly enjoyed the music as well as the libretto.”
Casting the reading locally with young talented performers was a must for the production, not to mention the coup of getting veteran theater performer Hal Linden as the narrator. However, Marc maintains that having a celebrity involved with a MainStreet Musicals reading is not a necessary element for it's success. He says, “I threw a net out to the local Equity and non-Equity world here. I was teaching at Kent State University at the time so I brought in some talented young men and women from there. Hal offered his time as he was an old friend of Tim Jerome. Tim was in the original Broadway production of “The Rothschilds” and he played Hal's son in that. Ultimately I see that this doesn't need the celebrity draw; that we're focused on pieces that are winners. We're focused on the piece as opposed to a big star coming in and doing a part – not that I’d be against that - but I want the pieces to stand on their own without any celebrity pull.”
Presenting the three winning musicals in MainStreet Festivals, every year, in every participating city is an idea that Marc supports as it will give creative teams a forum for tweaking their shows before they get to New York or wherever they go. He says, “I think that getting as many shows as we can get out there to the regions so that people can see them is a good thing. A writing team learns more about their piece when it previews outside of New York. I know there are a lot of talented writers out there looking to do a showcase in New York but there's a mentality in the region that's not so much about whether it will go to Broadway, but more about seeing good work. I'm particularly interested in smaller chamber pieces which is my forte as a director.”
Moritz hopes to use those skills to get new musical works seen and produced in Cleveland, Akron and Dayton, aligning MainStreet Musicals with those local theaters. Cleveland has a strong philosophy of doing new work so it's an opportunity to bring new product to producers and directors in town. He elaborates, “I'd like to create a relationship with The Human Race Theater which is known for doing new work. They have that particular mentality that is drawn to the development process. I've also had a relationship with Weathervane Theater for about four years which is a wonderful community theater. And I'm trying to get director Michael Rupert who is directing “Waverly Gallery” there now to come on board and use his talents with pieces from MainStreet Musicals. In fact he also composes and has a new work which I'm encouraging him to send to MainStreet!”
* * * * *
Hal Linden Lends His Voice To MainStreet Musicals
“It takes a Tim!,” says Hal Linden, speaking fondly of Tim Jerome, founder of MainStreet Musicals and the never ending passion, drive and determination it takes to get original musicals up and running. Full disclosure; Hal and Tim go way back to 1970 when they played father and son respectively in The Rothschilds on Broadway and have maintained a close relationship for over 40 years. “I actually saw him play my part about 25 years later,” he laughed. “Twenty-five years had done that to him; what can I tell you. We have come full circle and are still going. He's too old for the part now!”
The role of Mayer Rothschild may have garnered Linden a Tony award for Best Performance By A Leading Actor in A Musical but it was a long musical road to get there. He was a relatively late bloomer to the theater, doing his first musicals when he was in his early 20s. He recalls, “Most people know they're going to be an actor when they're nine. I was never in theater when I was in high school or college. My first job in a musical was in 1955 with the Cape Cod Melody Tent in summer stock where we did 10 musicals in 12 weeks like South Pacific, Wish You Were Here, Carousel, Guys and Dolls. I played little walk acrosses and chorus parts. It was a terrific way to get a lot of experience in a very short amount of time. It was something I enjoyed doing and I was good at it. I thought I was better than other people who had all this experience in high school and college! That convinced me to keep going. In a sense it may have set the groundwork for MainStreet Musicals because they were all new musicals to me! It gave me a love and appreciation of musicals that have been a central part of my life ever since.”
Over the years Hal has championed Tim's vision of developing new musicals. He says earnestly, “Just supporting the creation of new musicals is what it's about. When we were in the musical theater, looking at the future, it seemed like it was getting harder and harder to get anything produced; it's so expensive. In my day you could do a musical on Broadway for maybe $100,000. It's impossible today unless you’ve got Disney behind you or some corporate sponsorship. And as a writer it's important to hear your work and Tim is involved in that first step; getting those first readings up and on their feet and giving the writers the opportunity to hear their work.” Hal supported Tim's initial idea of developing new musicals from the beginning. He served on the board of Tim’s first venture, The National Music Theater Network (the progenitor of NYMF), more recently lending his voice to readings of the original musical SHINE in Ohio, New Orleans, and Florida. He observes, “It's about developing musicals away from New York City. It’s about keeping regional actors acting - originating roles in new musicals. Doing an established musical is like changing your tires. But for an actor to take on a role that's never been done and to find his own way of doing it helps that performer grow artistically. The whole idea is to boost interest in new musicals in areas that don't normally get those opportunities.”
Linden is still going strong in the musical theater, most recently performing in The Scottsboro Boys at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. He's also touring his three one-man shows which he describes as autobiographical - tailored in different variations. “ 'Back On Broadway' is mostly about my Broadway career. The second is an attitude piece called 'I'm Old-Fashioned' dealing more with nostalgia; and the last one is called 'I'm Still Here!' It has to do with resiliency, hanging in there, and continuing to do what you do.”
* * * * *
Composer Grant Sturiale Sets A Latin Tone For 'Under Fire'
November 15, 2013
When ''UNDER FIRE' composer Grant Sturiale was looking for inspiration to score the story of journalists during wartime in Central America, he needed to enter the world of Latin music. He explains, “I've always liked that kind of music, the sound of groups like The Gipsy Kings; this very high energy and exciting music. I thought if I could harness that and have the excitement and passion of that kind of Latin music and put it to the service of the story in different ways; that would be really effective.” In terms of the story, Grant used those sounds to capture the spirit of the peasants who were part of the revolution looking to overthrow the dictatorship.
Based on the political thriller starring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman and Joanna Cassidy, Sturiale along with his collaborator, book and lyricist Barry Harman came across several challenges when translating the film to a stage musical. He says, “In the beginning we watched the film several times but then let it go. In fact early drafts probably skewed too closely to the movie. There's a mistake you can make which you see all the time in the theater where they've just taken a very successful movie and just added some songs. That doesn't work because it hasn't transformed the story into another art form; a stage musical place. We really tried to transform it and translate it into a stage musical piece and not just a movie with some songs stuck in.” The main challenges also lay in finding the different voices for the Latin and the American characters so that each have their own unique sound in this political thriller framed as a piece of musical theater.
Many changes were made during the years since winning Theater for The American Musical Prize at the 2009 NYMF festival. He elaborates, “It was the first time it had ever been staged so we learned a great deal. There were rewrites and one character was expanded quite a bit. The trajectory has just been trying to position it for future productions. It can be considered a tricky piece in the traditional market place because it's a political thriller and it takes place in a war zone. On the surface one can say, 'is that commercial?' but I think any piece of really good storytelling can be.”
Grant is looking forward to MainStreet Musicals taking on 'Under Fire' but mostly hopes the musicians in each production will strive to get that essential Latin feel. He says, “I think it will be challenging for a number of reasons as the roles and the music are challenging. Because most of the music is Latin based, it's not something that will work effectively with a piano and drums. It's a guitar driven show so I'm hoping there are local guitarists and Latin players who can bring it to life. (Additionally), MainStreet is giving us a chance to get the show out in front of people - which is exciting. I'm very interested to see what kind of response it gets.”
* * * * *
Merton Of The Movies Writer/Director Donald Brenner Stays The Course
November 1, 2013
MERTON OF THE MOVIES is one of the three new musicals selected for presentation in all ten MainStreet Festivals. Book writer and director Donald Brenner says he is excited for the opportunity to get his original work seen in a theater climate that is not driven by producers. He observes, “It is so hard now for new works. So many seem to originate from producers now as opposed to coming from writers. The producers hire a team and that sort of gets things going. But for two writers to get together and write something - and then to find a producer to move it forward – that's really hard. And you don't just need one producer now; you need 107 because it costs so much to get a show up! That's why what MainStreet is doing is so great, just to get the work out there in front of people.”
Keeping up your resolve when you’re writing an original piece is a challenge. Brenner notices, “A lot of show-writers don't keep up their resolve. There's a saying that new musicals don't run out of ideas, they run out of steam. I think in our case with (composer/lyricist) Doug (Katsaros) and I, we're just so clear that this work is good and unique and says something. You just have to believe in yourself and move forward in that regard. It's nice to get affirmation because you get beat down so much in this business. It's so wonderful to hear it's pretty good, anyway!”
Based on the 1909 novel, the musical of MERTON OF THE MOVIES was a completely unique concept. It received three movie treatments and a Broadway run written by George Kaufman, but was never made into a musical, until now. Being friends on Facebook brought Brenner and Katsaros together. Suggesting the idea they collaborate, Brenner read the novel over the weekend and fell in love with it. He says, “It's been a really nice collaboration. We're of the same ilk and we understand each other. We're completely different people but artistically our sensibilities are pretty much the same.” And as fate would have it, Kaufman's daughter Ann came to a reading. He recalls, “She came up to me afterwards and said, 'not that you need this but I love this work so much that if there's anything you need from the play take it.' That was very nice and also getting that association with George Kaufman is a nice thing.”
As a director, Brenner is happy to give up creative control to the local Festival Affiliates and then to see how each production will be interpreted. He says, “It'll be interesting to see what they bring to it. It's always interesting to see what somebody else's take is and I would hope that everybody brings something different to the table; that they don’t all do it the same way. As a result, we expect to learn new things about the show.” He also believes that having new works evaluated by non-industry types is very important as they bring “a good clear, clean perspective without any agenda attached to it.”
For more information on Donald Brenner and Doug Katsaros visit http://www.mertonofthemovies.com/#!creatives
* * * * *
News and Commentary
T. Cat Ford Sees MainStreet Musicals Changing The Face Of American Theater
October 18, 2013
Marquee Club Director T. Cat Ford was immediately attracted to the development model for MainStreet Musicals. As an author of seven plays she gravitated to the concept of offering concert readings across the country. She says, “Although I don't write musicals, I see this as a way to unite the theater community in development across the country. It's so very exciting. I wanted to support it and do what I could to help it get going. The fact that it pulls in theater professionals from around the country to involve them in developing projects and the ability to go from city to city and to see your work being performed by different groups of professionals and to do this over a six month period is just phenomenal. What a great gift this is to the writers.”
MainStreet Musicals has engineered a way to have these concert readings presented in 10 cities within six months; something that has never been done before. T. Cat hopes that developing these new works in different regions will help to unite the American theater community, and possibly create a new stream of revenue and benefits for new works development. She explains, “There are wonderful artists across the country and the exciting thing is an author can see what one particular group does with their work and then go to a whole other section of the country and see what another group does with their work. I think you begin to understand the strong and the weak points of a piece around the country and address what needs to be fixed. Equity’s Members Project Code allows professional actors to self-produce the readings, charge admission, and work in the presentations for a reasonable stipend. It’s a much less expensive way to develop new work.”
Most importantly the theater is about bringing people together. T. Cat looks forward to taking the three musicals that have been selected as winners of the MainStreet Awards (to be announced) and work with the affiliates to produce the readings around the country over the first six months of next year. She says, “It's terribly exciting to meet people in various parts of the country and get to know what their theater community is like say in New Orleans or Oklahoma City, or in Seattle. It's fascinating and inspiring to know that all of this is happening across the country. The sooner we can bring everybody together and get more communication going the more vital the American theater will be.”
And the future for MainStreet Musicals may even include a model for plays, but for now T. Cat says the focus is on musicals. “I wish this was there when I was first starting out. I do hope at some point there will be a branch for MainStreet Plays as well. The long-term goal is, once we get our circuits in place amongst the affiliates, it will be fantastic to be able to tour a play or a one-person musical from place to place. Right now we're focusing on musicals because they're a little bit more difficult to produce and they're not as many festivals around the country as there are for plays. This is going to change the face of the American theater!”
T. Cat Ford is an actor and the author of seven plays. They include the award winning POW'R IN THE BLOOD, THE CHAOS TRADE – An American Comedy of Investment Errors, an insiders view of the financial crisis, and A SIMPLE GIFT, a play with music set in an 1830s charismatic Shaker community.
* * * * *
Welcome Letter from Tim Jerome, President
October 11, 2013
In the early 1980s, as a young Broadway actor, I was frustrated with certain realities of the theater market. All too often, good shows in their early developmental stage - - readings and showcases – weren’t finding their well-deserved audience. Designed to solve that problem, MainStreet Musicals provides an attractive thoroughfare leading to a wonderful new world of theater for millions of Americans.
Today, MainStreet’s theater artists and their supporters around the country are widening the “highway” so that many more of us will be able to enjoy this journey. We all know what it's like to start small but dream big, MainStreet Musicals strives to bridge the gap between regional production and Broadway! We intend that new works, written about what is relevant today, can reach regional audiences within a single year vs. the estimated five to 10 years that it takes to get a show up today.
MainStreet’s premiere national Festival Season will run from January to June 2014, featuring the three current MainStreet Award-winning musicals - performed by local talent for local audiences.
Broadway Star John Lithgow, serving as our Jury Chair, will soon announce his selections for this year’s MainStreet Awards. We will provide the scripts to our Affiliates who will then begin to schedule and prepare your local MainStreet Festival. This year, annual Festivals are being launched in 10 cities. In 2015, we hope to add 20 more.
To keep you all abreast of our progress and activities, we are very fortunate to have entertainment reporter Robin Milling joining the MainStreet team. Robin is the host of Milling About on Blogtalk Radio (www.blogtalkradio.com/robin-milling). She'll be bringing us breaking news from our Affiliates from around the country.