by Chris McCoy, PhD
Asst. Professor of Theatre, William Jewell College
Since the dissipation of the Kansas City Crossroads New Musical Festival in 2007, opportunities to see new musicals in Kansas City have diminished, but not disappeared. Despite its relative inconspicuousness, Kansas City has a burgeoning theatre scene propelled by a number of Equity Theatres, two promoters of Broadway tours, smaller theatres producing professional work, a vibrant community theatre scene, and a number of quality academic institutions in the area. Currently, Kansas City does not have any festivals or workshops solely dedicated to the development of new musicals, but there are opportunities to produce and see new musicals in this city known as the Crossroads of America.
Kansas City Fringe Festival
Certainly the most vibrant venue for new musicals is the Kansas City Fringe Festival. Established in 2004, this annual summer festival provides a showcase for dozens of self-produced plays and musicals, almost all of them original works. Like most Fringe Festivals, the production values and quality varies widely based on the producer, but the KC Fringe Festival has a dedicated audience base and uses many professional theatre venues in the area opening the possibilities of exposure for new work. Each year, KC Fringe hosts a number of new musicals, many of which have had subsequent productions at local theatres and beyond. For more information about the KC Fringe Festival, visit www.kcfringe.org.
Kansas City Theatres producing new musicals
Many professional and smaller theatres in the Kansas City area also produce new musicals either in workshop or full production. The following venues require either an application process or are limited to agent submissions. While this may limit the number of new musicals produced, they provide opportunities to see new musicals in and around the Kansas City area.
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre (KC Rep), the region’s only LORT Theatre, established OriginsKC in 2016, a festival of new work and play development. While this festival has focused mainly on plays, there has been at least one musical presented in its nascent history. Furthermore, KC Rep has pursued partnerships with New York producers to stage world premiers of musicals, most notably, Last Days of Summer (2018), Between the Lines (2017), and A Christmas Story: The Musical (2009). KC Rep does not accept unsolicited submissions, but works with a number of other regional organizations where they encourage writers to submit their work. The partner companies listed on their website include Mid-West Dramatists Center (Kansas City), Playwrights’ Center (Minneapolis), The Lark (New York), and Playwrights’ Foundation (San Francisco). For more information visit: https://kcrep.org/mnps.
The Coterie Theatre is one of the most lauded theatres for young audiences in Kansas City, if not the entire country; TIME Magazine once listed it as one of the top five children’s theatres in the country. In 2004, Artistic Director Jeff Church established The Coterie’s Lab for New Family Musicals. According to the website, “The Coterie works with Broadway authors, composers, and publishers to transform their Broadway musicals to a scale and running time suitable for family theatre” (https://thecoterie.org/lab-new-family-musicals). Working with the original writers, the local artistic team helps to adapt full-length musicals into a 90-minute, smaller cast, small-scale performance. While many well-known Broadway musicals have benefitted from this workshop – for example, Seussical, Shrek: the Musical, Once On This Island, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – the program has extended its offering to developing new works with established and rising theatre writers such as Stephen Schwartz’s Gepetto & Son, Harry Connick, Jr.’s The Happy Elf, Ahrens and Flaherty’s Twice Upon a Time, Willie and Rob Reale’s The Dinosaur Musical, Douglas Parker and Denver Casado’s Life on the Mississippi, and Henry Krieger and Bill Russell’s Lucky Duck. The Coterie does not accept open submissions for this program.
Smaller Theatrical Venues
In addition to those listed above, there are a number of other theatrical venues in Kansas City that deserve mention, but may not have a direct route to presenting original musicals. The Unicorn Theatre is the city’s Off-Broadway-style theatre, which boasts the slogans “Bold New Plays” and “See Them Here First.” Established in 1974, The Unicorn has devoted itself to presenting regional premieres of established shows while participating in the National New Play Network to deliver new work to KC audiences. While the Unicorn produces a musical or two every season, it has not yet delved into presenting a new musical (www.unicorntheatre.org).
Quality Hill Playhouse, on the other hand, almost exclusively presents original musical revues compiled and arranged by Artistic Director J. Kent Barnhart. Each performance is dedicated to a theme, such as a decade, a composer, or a genre of music. Occasionally, Quality Hill has presented established musical revues — such as Closer Than Ever and Grand Night for Singing — but they generally produce original revues devised by the company (www.qualityhillplayhouse.com).
Musical Theatre Heritage (MTH) is a company designed on the model of City Center’s Encores in New York, presenting staged readings of classic Broadway shows. While this company has not presented new works to date, their Musical Monday series provides an opportunity for performers to deliver lesser-known musical theatre songs in an open cabaret. Likewise, the MTH venue is available for rental and self-produced shows, such as the recent production, Nelly Don: The Musical (2019). Visit musicaltheatreheritage.com for information about this company.
Musical Theatre Kansas City or MTKCPro is the professional production wing of an educational theatre company focused on training young actors for careers in musical theatre. While the educational component has been in operation since 1992, in the past few years, they have developed the professional theatre dedicated to new and under-produced works featuring a mix of professional and amateur performers. The company has not staged an original musical to date, but their eclectic aesthetic opens up many avenues for new exploration. Their website is www.mtkc.org.
KC Community Theatres
Finally, there are a number of quality community theatres that focus mainly on producing established work, but that have also been open to producing new work in the past. Of notable mention is Theatre in the Park (Shawnee Mission), which is the largest outdoor community theatre in the country. With the recent addition of their indoor space, this company is celebrating their 50th season with twelve musical productions – five large-scale outdoor productions, three small-scale indoor productions, and four educational or academy shows. Their indoor space is also available for rent and hosts other theatre groups, such as the professional Spinning Tree Theatre (www.theatreinthepark.org). The Barn Players is the oldest extent community theatre in Kansas City, established in 1955. While they moved out of an actual barn long ago, their new home is at the vibrant Arts Asylum (www.theartsasylum.org), an arts complex in a former church in downtown Kansas City. Generally, the Barn Players produces established plays and musicals, with the exception of their annual ten-minute play festival for original works. However, their new location may open up more possibilities for new work (www.thebarnplayers.org). Finally, Olathe Civic Theatre was established in 1973 in a southern suburb of Kansas City. Their intimate space, named for silent film actor Buddy Rogers (who was from Olathe), in a renovated church houses five plays and musicals each season. They have recently developed a new play series and are staging newer and more cutting-edge work than standard community theatre fare (www.olathetheatre.org).
While this list highlights many of the active theatres in Kansas City, it is far from exhaustive of the exciting and dynamic theatrical work filling the metropolitan area. Kansas City may not be the most obvious destination theatre town, but has much to offer for those interested in developing new musicals and original work. As you can see, Rodgers and Hammerstein were correct in asserting that “Everything is up to date in Kansas City” at least in terms of musical theatre.