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Musical Writerzine #5

Fall 2007

Carol de GiereFrom Carol de Giere: In Musical Writerzine #5, you'll find notes on recent releases and a podcast and The Auburn Musical Theatre Festival. In his Growing Stages Column, William Squier details Village Theatre's annual festival of new musicals.

[Carol de Giere is the website publisher for MusicalWriters.com and author of Defying Gravity, a career biography of Stephen Schwartz filled with musical development stories. William Squier has written numerous musicals and articles for a wide variety of publications.]

Recent Musical Theatre Publications

Two newly released DVDs are especially valuable for musical writers

Hairspray features for writersHairspray two-disc version with behind-the-scenes features

This version includes a lot of behind-the-scenes features including a long section on "The Music of Hairspray," with clips of every star in the recording studio intermixed with composer Marc Shaiman's commentary. The Amazon.com page for this DVD includes a few minutes from this part of the special features. Look down the page: Hairspray (Two-Disc Shake & Shimmy Edition)

SHOWBUSINESS: THE ROAD TO BROADWAY

Show Business Road to BroadwayThis documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes for producers, writers, actors, designers, and marketing teams to develop and deliver Broadway shows. From the press release: “Allowed unprecedented backstage access, director Dori Berinstein casts a camera’s eye on rehearsals, backstage dramas, and the mysteriously wondrous creative process.” With its running time of 104 minutes, a full-length Audio Commentary, and over 60 minutes of extras, it will take you several sittings to savor everything. While the documentary focuses on the 2003-2004 season, the content is invaluable for anyone aspiring to have their musical included in an upcoming Broadway season. Show Business - The Road to Broadway

Among the Bonus features: Stephen Schwartz allowed the filmmakers to come to Connecticut to record footage both in his home office and his upstairs studio. Stephen plays some of the first chords he wrote for Wicked and then shows how they became the accompaniment for “No Good Deed.”

WickedStephen Schwartz podcast 3

My latest podcast with Stephen Schwartz offers a portrait of a songwriter and song from Working. Speaking about "Fathers and Sons," Schwartz describes how he brings truth from his life into a song for a musical. The full transcript of the podcast is posted at www.theschwartzscene.com... along with photos of Stephen Schwartz and his son Scott and Stephen's father and mother.

Sondheim Online: 50 Years as an ASCAP member

Songwriter Craig Carnelia recently interviewed Stephen Sondheim for an issue of The Dramatist (the journal of The Dramatists Guild). The text of the interview is now posted online on the ASCAP Website the organization celebrates Sondheim's 50 years as an ASCAP member. In the interview, Sondheim talks in detail about his songwriting process.

Shaiman Online

The ASCAP site also includes an article about Hairspray's Marc Shaiman.

Festivals

THE AUBURN MUSICAL THEATER FESTIVAL

Notes by William Squier

MusicalWriters.Com has learned that a major new musical theater festival is testing the waters in New York State's Finger Lakes region. Ed Sayles, Producing Director of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, NY, confirmed his organization has joined forces with the nearby Auburn Public Theater to explore the viability of hosting a yearly eight-to-ten week festival of musical theater that would coincide with the Merry-Go-Round's annual June through September schedule of productions.

The Auburn Musical Theatre Festival, which Sayles describes as "a very working title," would be similar to the neighboring Shaw Festival, which is held in Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Each summer's musical theater offerings would be produced at multiple locations with overlapping schedules that would make it possible for "cultural tourists" to see several shows in a single, short visit.

"Plans currently call for four venues here in addition to the regular season at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse," says Sayles. One of the primary venues is expected to be Auburn's Schine Theater, a former movie palace that nearly became a Wegmans grocery store parking lot in the early nineties. The Cayuga County Arts Council rescued the one thousand-seat theater and is slowly but surely seeing to its restoration.

"We have currently raised $300,000 to develop the master plan for the Festival," Sayles reveals. "It will probably take about six months to complete. If everything looks good at that point, we'll spend the next six months developing renovation plans and begin fund raising and marketing." 2009 would see the completion of the Festival's fund raising and the structuring of the new organization, leaving 2010 to get everything in place for an opening in late June of 2011.

All of this is good news for writers of new works of musical theater. In addition to classic revivals and hosting recent Broadway hits, the Festival's organizers are hoping to be the ones to discover the next great musical. "The mission of the Festival is to present modern musical theatre in all of its many emerging forms," says Sayles. "We will be looking for anything and everything from anywhere…although, in terms of material, we are artists not politicians."

The Merry-Go-Round Playhouse has a history of occasionally dabbling in lesser known works, such as All Night Strut; Billy Bishop Goes to War; Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?; I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change; My Way; Romance, Romance; and next season's All Shook Up. And Church Basement Ladies, a new musical comedy by Drew Jansen (How To Talk Minnesotan: The Musical), and the husband and wife team of Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, is on the theater's calendar for September 2008.

"All of us involved in this project hope to have a major and positive impact on the local economy," Sayles concludes. "And also to provide some much needed employment opportunities to theatre folks."

Though plans for the Auburn Musical Theatre Festival are in the very early stages, we suggest occasionally checking www.merry-go-round.com, www.auburnpublictheater.com and, of course, this site www.musicalwriters.com for updated news.

GROWING STAGES by William Squier

In this column, William Squier profiles The Village Theatre.

Village Theatre

"IT TAKES THE VILLAGE"

For nearly thirty years the Village Theater has been very quietly building a reputation as one of the most active producers of new works of musical theater in the Pacific Northwest. Founded in 1979, about a fifteen-minute drive from Seattle, in the sleepy town of Issaquah, the Village Theater has grown into one of the area's largest professional Equity theaters. Their Annual Festival of New Musicals, held each August, not only draws a sizeable portion of their 17,000 subscribers, but the participation of musical theater writers from across the country.

"We had two composers whose schedules prohibited their attendance [this year]," reports Artistic Administrator, Blythe Phillips, who produced the 2007 Festival. "Still, fifteen out of seventeen authors is pretty darn good!" she adds. It's easy to see why so many writers, myself included, were eager to make the trek to Issaquah.

A typical main stage season at the Village Theater consists of one play and four musicals, including at least one new show. The 2007/2008 lineup, for example, consists of such stalwarts as THE KING AND I, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK and the Broadway pop adaptation of AIDA. But, the exciting news is that the theater found room in the schedule for not one, but two new musicals, each of which was developed in their Village Originals series.

Back in September, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTETTE put a new spin on the jukebox musical format by imaging what happened when singers Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley met for a spontaneous recording session in 1956. And in March a charming adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN by Alison Hubbard and Kim Oler - the songwriting team squeezed out of the Broadway version - and new-to-the-project book writer Sean Hartley will take the stage. Billed as a "World Debut," earlier drafts have also been successfully staged at the John Wulp Theater on the tiny island of North Haven, ME, and the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich, CT.

Village Originals Musicals

The Village Theater has been involved with debuting new musicals almost from the opening of their doors. "The first new musical that we helped develop was ELEANOR (Book: Jonathan Bolt, Music: Thomas Tierney, Lyrics: John Forster) in 1987," Blythe Phillips recalls. "At that time First Stage Theatre, which is now our second stage facility, was our main stage." They began presenting new musicals on their current main stage, the Francis J. Gaudette Theater, with the 1996 production of CITY KID (Book & Lyrics: Adrienne Andersen, Music: Peter Bunetta & Rick Chudacoff).

In the years that followed, other less-than-familiar titles were produced, one to a season, with BOOTLEGGER, ELEANOR, KISS ME QUICK BEFORE THE LAVA REACHES THE VILLAGE and AFTER THE FAIR leading off. Seasons 2002 to 2005 coincided with the first several years of the Festival of New Musicals and included MAKING TRACKS, THE ARK, THE WEDDING BANQUET and PLAY IT BY HEART. Festival alumni GIRL OF MY DREAMS (Book: David DeBoy, music: Peter Ekstrom, lyrics: Ekstrom & Steve Hayes) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW JERSEY (book & lyrics: Susan DiLallo, music: Stephen Weiner) graced the main stage in 2006 and 2007.

Aside from contributing to the main stage, the Village Theater's "Village Originals" program generates a year-round schedule of readings, workshops and developmental productions. "I count 80 different new musicals in our repertoire over the last 27 years," says Phillips. These take place in the Off-Broadway sized First Stage Theater, an intimate black box less than a block away from the main stage. The centerpiece is, of course, the Annual Festival of New Musicals, now in its seventh year.

William Squier MusicalIn August, six new musicals (including 100 YEARS INTO THE HEART, which features my lyrics) were presented back-to-back over a long weekend as book-in-hand readings.

PHOTO: A scene from 100 Years Into the Heart. Photo by Lauren Hartman. From the 2007 Festival of New Musicals. Property of Village Theatre, used with permission.

Most featured local actors and directors, although the outside producers attached to SAINT HEAVEN (Book: Martin Casella, Music & Lyrics: Keith Gordon) imported the director and several of the leads from a prior production. The performances were open to an "invitation only" audience drawn from the theater's subscribers, their guests and members of the National Alliance for Musical Theater, to which the theater belongs.

The Festival's readings varied in presentation style from 100 YEARS…'s (Book: Richard Vetere, Music: Jeffrey Lodin) straightforward rendering at music stands to IRON CURTAIN's (Book: Susan Dilallo, Music: Stephen Weiner, Lyrics: Peter Mills) elaborately blocked numbers (one of which even featured an homage to CHICAGO, with the chorus circling one of the principals waving their script binders like feathered fans). Each of the performances was followed by a brief talkback session and the audience members were invited to fill out response forms that were passed along to the writers. Along with the productions, the theater sponsored a series of parties where the creative teams mingled with the theater's staff and subscribers. "The weekend was event-packed, and--in my opinion--very successful," says Phillips.

The Village Theater also mounts staged readings throughout the rest of the year on occasional Monday nights. "Mondays At Seven readings are exactly like the festival, but are presented in isolation rather than part of a weekend-long event--week of rehearsal, book in hand, actors in street clothes, no set," says Phillips. From there, some musicals move on to workshops that receive several weeks of rehearsal so that they can be fully staged and performed off-book.

"A piece that goes from a reading to any other step has to show a lot of potential to continue to grow and change and also has to excite both Village Theatre audiences, producer and artistic staff," Phillips notes. First Stage Theater is also the site of developmental productions, such as this year's TEREZIN (music: Joel Derfner, lyrics; Len Schiff, book: Peter Ullian), which add simple sets, lights and costumes. And then, of course, there's that big, beautiful theater down the street.

"There's not really a magic formula for getting to the main stage," Phillips explains of the musicals that have made it to the 488-seat Gaudette Theater. "We have to be confident that the piece is far enough along to be a full production, but that it is still open to some tweaking, and also that it fits with our season. Timing isn't quite everything, but it definitely factors in. We have to feel comfortable in our chemistry with the authors. Do we have a good working relationship? Finally, we have to consider what we as an organization can best offer a piece and what would do the best justice to the work."

"I think we look at a pretty broad spectrum of material," Phillips continues. "We definitely have to take our demographic into consideration when looking at a show, but our Village Originals audience is pretty open-minded, and they're excited to be a part of the process. I don't think that there is a subject matter that is taboo, but it has to be presented well."

Unfortunately, the theater's success has lead to a slight roadblock for writers of musical theater. Because of the heavy volume of unsolicited submissions, the Village has had to cut back to accepting full scripts from agents and theater professionals with whom they are acquainted (such as the other members of the National Alliance for Musical Theater). Musical theater writers who don't have an agent should instead submit a query letter, a synopsis of the plot, a CD or cassette demo recording with a numbered track list, a character list that specifies age, gender, and ethnicity, and a scene breakdown that lists locations. Expect about six to nine months for a response. Submission packages should be sent via snail mail to:

Village Theater
303 Front Street North
Issaquah, WA 98027
Attn. Robb Hunt, Executive Producer

How can you make your submission stand out from the other in the pile? Blythe Phillips offers these suggestions:

1. "Brevity is appreciated." So, keep your cover letter, synopsis and other materials engaging, but concise.
2. "Sending a CD with the synopsis usually works in your favor."
3. "Don't send a DVD of a previous production in lieu of a music CD."
4. "If you want us to see it…send it." Your biography and other details about the musical's past are great information to get from a website, but text and music should be mailed.
5. Don't expect a immediate full production, no matter how wonderful your musical is. "If you present us with a script/CD of a new musical we won't put it straight on to the Mainstage," say Phillips "Part of the Village Originals program is the process."

William Squier's Growing Stages column profiles small to medium sized venues that develop and, more importantly, produce new musicals.

Watch for the next issue in February.

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