Bit by Bit Putting it Together at The Academy for New Musical Theatre

by Rick Bernstein

Five calendars.  That’s what it takes.

The Academy for New Musical Theatre (ANMT) has so many programs, performances, readings, concerts, and classes that it takes five calendars in the office to keep track of each meeting, rehearsal, and appointment.  It also requires a certain kind of mindset to keep everything in balance.

“It takes two type-A personalities to keep this all together,” says Artistic Director Elise Dewsberry.

The calendars include a wide variety of recent and upcoming events that reflect The Academy’s diverse programming, all related to the development of new musicals.  In a single eight-week period, ANMT is producing:

• The World Premiere of “A Ring in Brooklyn,” a musical developed by ANMT, opening for six weeks at the NoHo Arts Center on July 28.

• The Biz of the Musical Theatre Biz Conference, an entire weekend of seminars addressing the specific challenges and opportunities for musical theatre writers and composers, from July 20 to 22.

• Performances of five fifteen-minute musicals, which are the final projects of writers and composers enrolled in the current season of ANMT’s Core Curriculum.

• In-house workshop readings of six full-length musicals.

• Concert readings of four new musicals.

• And more than 10 special events open to the public, including staged readings, cabarets and fundraisers, from July through August.

Working alongside Dewsberry is Scott Guy, ANMT’s Executive Director.  Together they preside over a large pool of accompanists, singers, directors, composers, lyricists and actors while keeping fully involved in every aspect of the organization over long days and weekends. Their dedication and talent for helping musical theatre writers achieve their vision have earned them high praise from an impressive roster, including Steve Cuden (“Jekyll & Hyde”) and Tony Award winners Jeff Marx (“Avenue Q”), Mark Hollmann (“Urinetown”).

A RING IN BROOKLYN

The path to Tony Awards begins with first drafts, workshops, readings, and lots of collaboration.  Dewsberry is especially proud of ANMT’s upcoming world premiere musical “A Ring in Brooklyn,” which came up through the ranks of the ANMT program. Three years ago, bookwriter/lyricist Eric Dodson and composer Alan Ross Fleishman were part of the Core Curriculum, ANMT’s introductory program for musical theatre writers.  Their final assignment – designed to push the writers artistically – was to write a fifteen-minute musical.  Generally, the fifteen-minute musicals are not intended to be a commercial venture. “I always tell people not to expand their fifteen-minute musical into a full-length musical – their fifteen minutes of story usually doesn’t sustain a full-length show,” Dewsberry says.

But “The Ring,” a charming, romantic story of a couple at a high school reunion, turned out to be a special case.  When presented before an audience, stage director/choreographer Cate Caplin was in the audience.

“Cate contacted us and said she wanted to direct it if it were to become a full-length show,” says Dewsberry.  “She works a lot at the Victory Theatre in Burbank, and we made a deal with the Victory to support Alan and Eric while they developed a full-length version.”  Bookwriter Dodson expanded on the musical’s original idea by creating new subplots and expanding the musical’s scope without losing what was intriguing about it.  And for Dewsberry, the show became an exception to her “don’t expand” rule.

Last summer, “A Ring in Brooklyn” received simultaneous full concert readings at the Victory Theatre and at ANMT’s Stages Musical Theatre Festival.  The show caught the eye of independent producer Kevin Meoak who fell in love with it and immediately began inquiring about the possibilities of producing it in 2012.  “Kevin has always believed there was great potential for the show to run commercially.  We are grateful to the Antin Family Fund Foundation and the DOMA Theatre for helping us finance the production,” says Guy.  And now, twelve months later, “A Ring in Brooklyn” opens at the NoHo Arts Center for a six-week run.

ANMT’s residency at The NoHo Arts Center gives them the opportunity to produce additional programming – including concerts, readings, fundraisers and musical workshops – that they wouldn’t normally have the resources to present to the public.  Which is where the five office calendars start to become necessary.

OPENING DOORS

ANMT wasn’t always this busy.  Founded in the late 1970s, ANMT began as The Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a peer-based workshop for musical theatre writers led by Broadway conductor Lehman Engel.  The workshop existed primarily as a resource for writers to improve and hone their musical theatre writing talents.  ANMT continued that tradition, but ten years ago, they started to expand in significant ways.

“When the organization hired me as Executive Director, we decided to expand our reach; specifically to help writers get their musicals seen outside of workshop, and in front of audiences and producers,” says Guy. “We started connecting writers with producers, creating new musicals for specific theatres, and we started exploring what it means to be producers ourselves.”  Dewsberry came on board not long after Guy began this new expanded vision of ANMT.  Both credit John Sparks, the Founding Artistic Director who remains active with the organization, with the success and stability of the program. “Without John Sparks, ANMT would not be here.  He held it together for thirty years and made significant decisions to ensure the longevity of the organization,” says Dewsberry.

Under Guy’s and Dewsberry’s leadership, ANMT’s budget has grown ten-fold, and they have operated debt-free for a decade. Guy says, “We expanded the vision along with the finances, the staff, the curriculum, and the activities.  So now, instead of 30 writers, we have about 130 writers.  Where we once had workshops three nights a month, we have now events practically every night.”

Like many arts organizations, ANMT pursues economic interests while carefully balancing its artistic integrity. “We’ve now developed three to four dozen musicals that we have a financial stake in, so the future of ANMT might ride on the success of the shows we develop,” says Guy.  ANMT has also caught the attention of a number of venture capitalists who are currently exploring funding a new musical theatre initiative. “But we also want to make sure that writers can come here to experiment, to learn and play without the burden of their project having commercial potential.  Most writers aren’t going to turn away money if it’s offered to them, but some are here to express their soul, and we want to nurture that as well.  That’s what the art form needs, and we’re here to support the artwork.”

GOOD THING GOING

Once the busy summer ends, will things quiet down for ANMT?  Not likely.

ANMT is continuing their Search for New Musicals, which typically receives entries from all over the world; winners receive workshops, feedback and concert readings of their work.  And just two weeks after “A Ring in Brooklyn” is scheduled to close, a brand new crop of writers will be joining ANMT in September as they begin their new season of the Core Curriculum, the program that launched the organization forty years ago. The Core Curriculum is the foundation for all of the writing courses at ANMT, and it is how writers begin their association with ANMT.  It incorporates a series of collaborative musical projects with constructive feedback and discussions about the craft of creating musical theatre, culminating in writing fifteen-minute musicals.

ANMT will also continue to offer dramaturgical support for musical theatre writers and composers across the country.  “We offer an expert’s eye for what exactly makes a musical work,” says Dewsberry.  “We help writers get to the heart of their show and support their own voice and vision.”

Plus, they launch a new season of developing as many as forty new musicals this season, involving nearly 100 writers and 400 actors, and perhaps as many as 250 concerts, presentations and workshops.

Better find another calendar.

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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