Magazine article American Theatre

How to Make a Musical

Magazine article American Theatre

How to Make a Musical

Article excerpt

Harold Prince trains the next generation in a unique laboratory for the musical theatre

"'Astonish me,'" Harold Prince says, "are the two most important words ever said to a director." The program that bears the legendary director and producer's name aims to create works that will astonish new audiences. At its best, it also creates an atmosphere for artists to astonish themselves. It's one part training ground and one part developmental program, a hybrid of an old-fashioned apprenticeship for emerging artists and a new-fangled laboratory for evolving work. It bills itself as a performance lab for directors; its founders aspire for it to be a think tank on the musical theatre.

It is the Harold Prince Musical Theatre Program, an alliance between the Directors Company of New York and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts that aims to develop new musicals for the American stage by involving the director early in the collaborative process - and ultimately raises a series of provocative questions not only about how original work is created, but also how it is funded and produced.

There are four phases to the program - discovery, development, performance lab and production - three of which occur in New York City. During the first two, up to three original musical projects are competitively selected from submissions to the Directors Company and then developed by their writers and directors over a six-month period. The third stage is a performance lab that includes a four-week rehearsal period - overseen by Prince and his associate, Arthur Masella - during which 30-to-45-minute excerpts from the musicals are staged by the directors; these excerpts are then presented (with full production values) for an invited audience.

The potential fourth phase - performance - is where the Denver Center comes in. The Colorado company joined forces with the Directors Company two years ago, after the program's pilot season, to provide $1 million over the alliance's initial three-year agreement - and, in return, has the rights to produce a workshop or full production of any selected projects. (Thanks to the Denver theatre's participation, everyone working on the program is salaried except Prince, who donates his time.) "When I heard about the program, I had the feeling that it really was an opportunity for artists to get started in the American theatre today," explains Donald R. Seawell, chairman and founder of the Denver Center. "It takes just too much money to produce a musical, and no one's willing to take the chance on helping create new talent. We may never again see the golden age of musicals - when we had Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Porter, Rodgers, Arlen and so forth - but we're trying to discover new talent, and give that talent a chance."

The performance lab part of the program takes place in New York in May and June, and I've been invited to watch Prince work with directors Melia Bensussen and Rod Kaats on the development of a pair of original musicals (both, coincidentally, are based on films which are, in turn, based on true stories) in the Directors Company's midtown office. Bensussen is directing Camila, Lori McKelvey's adaptation of Maria Luisa Bemberg's 1984 film about a young Catholic woman and a Jesuit priest who fall in love in repressive, revolutionary 19th-century Argentina; McKelvey, who has nurtured this project for more than two years, has written the book, music and lyrics. Kaats, who has participated in the program in each of its three seasons, also serves this year as co-author of the book for The Ballad of Little Jo - based on Maggie Greenwald's 1993 film about the debutante who lived as a man in the West for nearly 40 years at the end of the 19th century - which he has written with lyricist Sarah Schlesinger to composer Mike Reid's music.

During the performance lab, Prince and Masella meet with the collaborating directors, writers and composers three times - on two successive Tuesday nights and for the Saturday dress rehearsal prior to the week of showings - to observe and critique their work before the presentation. …

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