Who’s Got a Barn?

by Bonnie MacBird

Stock market down?  Musicals up!  If you, like this writer, love musicals no matter how life is going – it turns out that Los Angeles is the city of golden abundance. Because of film and television, we have more Mickey Rooneys and Judy Garlands and their bands looking for “barns” than any other city on the planet.  More competition…more talent… and more shows!

Where does all this local talent go to be seen and heard?  Like water, talent finds a million ways to reach the stream. To find out the how and why and where of the LA Musical, I spent some very pleasant hours conversing with coaches, writers, directors, performers …and two festival producers – one here, and one in NYC.  What follows is just a glimpse of the dynamic Los Angeles musical theatre scene that exists outside of the huge equity houses.

First stop was Calvin Remsberg, a Broadway star and private singing coach to some of the top talents in town.  Calvin now is also a producer (ON AN AVERAGE DAY), director (Reprise and the Musical Theatre Guild in town, to name only two), dramaturg (GREAT EXPECTATIONS) and advisor to many projects here and in other cities (including this writer’s recent foray into cabaret).  And as an Ovation voter, he sees most up and coming new shows around town.

MUSICAL CLASSICS BY THE PROS

The Musical Theatre Guild, where Calvin is directing the upcoming MOST HAPPY FELLA is an example of a performing membership group in which the pivotal original members were nearly all stellar NY transplants, eager to display their amazing skills.   Their expanded group now does “staged readings” of little-seen musical theatre classics –  which are far more than readings and quite close to full-out productions.

Their secret? A jet-propelled, two-week rehearsal schedule in which only top pros with chops can get to performance level. Working with others in peak form, and performing for a discerning audience, “they’re in it to work with others of their caliber, and to be seen,” says Calvin, who allows that the quick turnaround enables buy-in from top people. And it’s great fun for all.  Their November production, MOST HAPPY FELLA, which Calvin is to direct, will likely sell out, as do most of their shows.

Reprise Theatre Company, founded in 1997 by the enterprising NY transplant Marcia Seligson and now run by Artistic Director Jason Alexander and Producing Director Susan Dietz, also brings revivals of fabulous older shows with top talent to hungry LA audiences.  Starting with staged readings, but now with more fully staged productions, Reprise has been a welcome addition to the LA Musical Theatre scene.  Their upcoming season includes MAN OF LA MANCHA, CHESS, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, and I LOVE MY WIFE. While concentrating to date on revivals, they also intend to do new works in the future.   Marcia mentioned that one of their biggest hits in recent years was HAIR, which sold out at the huge Wadsworth theater for all its performances and turned into a Rocky Horror-like happening complete with costumed audience and singing.

SMALLER VENUES – GREAT REVIVALS AS WELL

In addition, some adventurous 99-seat houses have delighted Los Angeles audiences with musical megahits restaged for smaller venues. Our Los Angeles talent pool means that our waiver productions far outstrip the efforts one might expect in this size venue.

Although it’s expensive for a smaller house to mount a musical – the royalties are far steeper, even for a waiver production – the benefits are many.  Not only do audiences flock to the good ones – but the performing memberships of these theatres often clamor for – good musicals to display their skills.

And… nothing beats being in a musical for fun.  Ask anyone who’s done it!

At the jewel-like Noho Arts Center Artistic director James J. Mellon has scored in the revival field with his successful productions of  BARNUM, and BUSH IS BAD – both Los Angeles premieres which were huge New York hits – and played to packed houses in this beautiful venue.

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR, HAIR, ASSASSINS, RUDDIGORE, CHESS, COMPANY and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW (among others) brought in full houses at the always adventurous Knightsbridge Theater under the Artistic Direction of Joseph Stachura.  Upcoming there are GODSPELL and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

And, in an unusual choice for the (normally non-musical) Attic Theatre under the artistic direction of James Carey, T.L. Kolman, (now with a venue of his own), directed Studs Turkel’s WORKING not too long ago.  Not a comprehensive list, these are just a very few of the 99-seat or less musical offerings that have been seen around town in recent years.

ORIGINAL LOS ANGELES SHOWS

The gold mine of talent in Los Angeles extends to the creative side, as well.   Broadway performer James J. Mellon, author of nine musicals, is currently bringing back a third season of his popular YO HO HO A PIRATE’S CHRISTMAS, along with a reworked A BOY CALLED LIZARD (formerly LIZARD) which is his personal favorite – a poignant tale of hope and redemption – and a new musical in development now aimed at the teen audience.  The crowd pleasing YO HO HO is expanding to regional productions this year including one in Escondido, with national reach anticipated for next.

Bruce Kimmel, a Los Angeles-based musical veteran with nine shows under his belt as a writer, and countless songs as a music producer, director and performer has had  his latest musical THE BRAIN FROM PLANET X accepted into both the New York Musical Theater Festival last year, and the brand new Los Angeles Based New Musical Festival this year.

Bruce related to me his innovative approach – he first mounted a workshop production at his alma mater, L. A. City College, using students in many of the roles.  This production was reviewed in the Times, and from that he was invited to bring the show to the New York Musical Theater Festival last year.  This was followed by another production here in Los Angeles at the newly formed Festival of New American Musicals.

Bruce’s 1970’s cult favorite feature film THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL is in the works for a stage production next year.

The charming musical BARK, which originated in LA and ran for an unprecedented two years at the Coast Theater in Hollywood, started with classical pianist David Troy Francis  and his love for his dogs – and features lyrics by some of the best in the business including Mark Winkler (see below).  Directed by Broadway star Kay Cole (the original Maggie in Chorus Line), this amusing and touching tale told by dogs in “doggie day care” about their lives and families was a crowd pleaser that has expanded directly to regional productions in many U.S. Cities.

Also from the heart, but on the more serious side, LA-based actor and activist Ed Begley, Jr. wrote, directed, and produced his original musical CESAR & RUBEN, about Cesar Chavez and murdered LA Times reporter Ruben Salazar  –  which focused on  the dramatic story of  Chavez’ efforts to improve the lives of the migrant farm workers.   A friend and admirer of Chavez, Ed skillfully blended a clever book with hit songs from famous artists and fiery choreography by Frankie Anne to tell the true story of a man who changed the lives of many.

Producer David Elzer, long the “go to” man for all theatre PR in Los Angeles, has become a successful producer himself.  His THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES (written and directed by Roger Bean) which ran for two years at the El Portal, is now a hit in New York City, receiving a rave review from the New York Times upon opening.   David is planning a thrilling DRACULA revival in Los Angeles for the New Year.

PLAY IT COOL, a Los Angeles originated jazz musical about the clandestine gay jazz club scene of the restrictive 1950’s was selected by the NYMF for inclusion in its new works this year.  I spoke to lyricist Mark Winkler who described the genesis of this show.

“The original book writer, Larry Dean Harris, a friend of mine, suggested penning a juke box musical around some previously written songs of mine.” (Mark has nine albums as a singer/songwriter and many songs recorded by others, and there’s a long history of famous juke box musicals – recent examples include Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, etc.)   Larry did so, and Mark then decided to take out some of these songs and write new ones to support the book.

The show has evolved from there including work with Los Angeles composer Phil Swann, and at press time, with the show sold out at in its run with the NYMF in Manhattan, Mark said he’s still tweaking. “All musicals work that way,” Mark explains.   And it’s the joy of having a production running for awhile…the pros involved constantly  tinker and improve.   “The audience tells you what you need to do, “ he says.  “They don’t lie.”  And those NY audiences are now telling him they love the show.

FINDING YOUR BARN – THE FESTIVALS

Pretty much everyone agrees, the old “backers audition” has gone the way of the VHS tape… largely superceded by new media.  Once a show has been workshopped into presentable form, a combination of savvy media presentation (YouTube videos, MySpace and Facebook Pages, and cool websites) serve to present the concept, music, and even excerpts of shows to interested investors – and to draw in audiences.

Most creators next hope for a production with enough of a run with audiences to allow that all-important “tinkering” that can turn a sleeper into gold.  Festivals have played an increasing role in getting musicals to this stage.

Two American festivals and one ongoing professional workshop are designed to specifically encourage and help give birth to original new musicals. In New York, the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF – pronounced “nymph” by many) is now in its fifth season, and I spoke to the Executive Director and Producer, Isaac Hurwitz.

He told me “ There are 30 full productions in all, including both shows from our “Next Link” Project (the open-submission part of the festival, newly expanded last year into a separate writer-service program)” They also include “invited shows from other sources – some submitted via the “inquiry” section of our website – and some by people  we know or know about.”  All are selected to maximize the diversity and breadth of the festival’s offerings, he emphasizes.

“The Next Link selections” says Isaac, “receive a welcome weekend, professional networking assistance, help in preparing for a production, and a professional dramaturg to provide creative support during the process, as well as subsidies toward their NYMF production.”

All festival productions receive venues, lights and basic sound provided by the festival – and other items that can be shared among productions, and each benefits from NYMF’s media and marketing platform, which includes close to $1 million in (mostly donated) advertising.  Los Angeles scribes, sharpen your pencils!

Meanwhile, other development possibilities exist in Los Angeles. One exciting one is the ASCAP Foundation Disney Musical Theatre Workshop, run by composer/lyricist Stephen Schwarz (GODSPELL, WICKED, etc.).   Information can be found on the ASCAP website.  And the very active Mr. Schwarz proves to be a link to another, new festival that holds terrific promise for Los Angeles.

It turns out that Marcia Seligson, the same entrepreneurial spirit who began Reprise, has now created the Festival Of New American Musicals along with partner Bob Klein.  With Stephen Schwarz as creative advisor, its mission is “to celebrate the return of the American musical to the center of our popular culture, showcasing the vast creative and performing talents of Southern California’s theater community and building audience for the future.” I spoke with Marcia and she told me that in the first year alone, they held 43 events in 36 venues, and included not only new professional works and creative writing teams, but works created in cooperation with several schools.  Seven new musicals by high schools and colleges were presented, including FEVER, based on A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, which used 82 students and ran in a commercial venue as well.

Joining with ASCAP for the staged readings of two shows, I MARRIED WYATT EARP and THE TIMES, the Festival is an aggressive approach to providing opportunities for new musical creators from many walks of Southern California life. Premieres this year included MY ANTONIA, LUMPING IN FARGO, NORMAN’S ARK, LOVE JANIS, and IMAGINE among others.

Marcia also spoke with enthusiasm regarding her dream of eventually creating a permanent Los Angeles facility to workshop new musicals and would likely partner with ASCAP in this.  Ideally this would be a 99-seat venue where a year round process would nurture new works in this much loved art form, in a town with the talent to support it.

In sum, I hope you’ve enjoyed this small taste of the huge smorgasbord of shows and musical theatre talent that Los Angeles has to offer.  This article has missed many, and there are many more for you to discover.  Join me in supporting our amazing musical theatre culture here in Southern California. If you’re reading this… you’re likely already a part.

Contributing Editor Bonnie MacBird is a former studio exec and Emmy winning producer who currently teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension, studies voice with Calvin Remsberg, and is a writing/performing member of the Noho Arts Center Ensemble.  Theatre is her first love and she has written three musicals.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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