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CENTERSTAGE: With a Song in Their Hearts

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Passion is the driving force behind most of us who have careers in the arts. Just listen to what the directors who are interviewed in this week's feature story have to say about having passion for the projects they work on.

I also heard the word come up several times during two recent panel discussions that I attended, one featuring songwriters, and the other featuring heads of theatre companies and organizations that produce musicals or musical evenings.

The first panel, presented by the League of Professional Theatre Women and titled "The Joys and Agonies of Collaborating in the Musical Theatre," featured lyricist Sheldon Harnick ("Fiddler on the Roof," "She Loves Me"), composer Charles Strouse ("Annie," "Bye, Bye, Birdie"), and book writer Will Holt ("The Me Nobody Knows").

Mr. Harnick, when asked about his most joyous collaboration, spoke about his experience with "She Loves Me," exalting his collaborators (Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock, and director Hal Prince) and noting his love for the musical's characters. Then when asked to talk about his most agonizing adventure, Mr. Harnick referred to "Rex." "If you have to figure out what the definition of sin is," he noted, "it's working on a musical that you don't believe in."

Quite a number of anecdotal stories went along with Harnick's "Rex" experience and there were other stories about other production experiences, most of which I dare not tell here. One thing for sure, especially with the "Rex" experience: If there's no passion going into a project, the project probably won't work. A number of important points were also made:

1.) There's no one way of going about writing a musical‹lyrics first, or music first, having an existing book, or a non-existent book. What's important is the collaborative process, which Mr. Strouse says he has a complete passion for, comparing the relationship to that between siblings. "It's what makes working on a show so exciting," he stated emphatically.

2.) Once a partnership is made, Mr. Holt stressed, it's necessary that the collaborators have the same concept of the production in mind. If you're not thinking of the show from a similar prospective, don't go ahead with it.

3.) The hardest thing to do when working in a collaborative relationship is to learn to accept criticism and not take it personally. But, of course, there's always a time when one needs to draw the line. When "Fiddler on the Roof" was out of town, still pre-Broadway, someone changed a lyric in "Matchmaker" without consulting Mr. Harnick. Very upset about it, the lyricist gave the performer, Joanna Merlin, "two abominable lines" to sing instead that night. The next day, director Hal Prince confessed to Mr. Harnick, "Okay, next time we'll ask."

"Rent" to Pay the Rent: The Value of Musicals as a Part of Your Season," was the other panel I attended, presented by Theatre Resources Unlimited (TRU), at The York Theatre at Saint Peter's Church. It had as it's guest speakers Wiley Hausam, associate producer of musical theatre at The Public Theater; James Morgan, artistic director of The York Theatre Company; James Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW); and John Znidarsic, artistic director of Arts & Artists at St. Paul's. TRU's co-founder and president, Bob Ost, produced and moderated the session.

"Rent" was only the second musical to be produced by NYTW, while "A Chorus Line" was one of the many successful musicals to be produced by The Public Theater. The York Theatre Company had been doing only classics before it became known for its successful revivals of musicals including "Pacific Overtures," "Sweeney Todd," and "Merrily We Roll Along." As James Morgan pointed out, "You can't make money doing only the classics." This 30th season for The York Theatre will be its second all-musical season.

But musicals are difficult for theatre companies to produce, basically because of the economics and logistics involved. James Morgan pointed to the number of collaborators involved, as many as three or more, in addition to the director, choreographer, music director, arranger, and so on. Wiley Hausam said the developmental time also has to be accounted for. Michael John LaChiusa's "The Wild Party," which the Public is producing this season, came to Hausam 18 months ago. There was a reading of a draft, then a four-week workshop last summer. Many musicals take even longer; they need time for development.

"So why do a musical?" moderator Ost asked.

"Passion, that's the core of it," Jim Nicola was quick to respond. "It's personal and intuitive for me." He gave as an example NYTW's upcoming "Bright Lights, Big City," and added, "I knew we wanted to do it right then and there."

Wiley Hausam admitted musicals are hard to do, and noted, "The producer has to fall in love with the project," which is exactly what George Wolfe did with "Noise/Funk."

The York Theatre Company has a developmental reading series throughout the year. "We presented 25 readings last year," stated Artistic Director Morgan, who accepts open submissions but warns, "It's a small staff. It takes time to get to your scripts. Don't call weekly."

Jim Nicola, who admitted that he's resistant to structure, said that NYTW has no specific development program. And John Znidarsic accepts tapes of songs for consideration for his Songbook Series at the Donnell Library.

When asked by the moderator what they look for in a musical, Znidarsic replied that it's hard to say what grabs him, but one thing for sure is the personality of the writing team. Jim Nicola seconded the idea. Then Bob Ost, speaking on behalf of a number of people in the audience, mostly all TRU members, said, "We don't even get to that point‹of meeting the artistic directors." Then Nicola added, "You need to start with a connection. You've got to develop relationships. There's no road map to this."

As one solution for getting new musicals off the ground, the Public's Hausam suggested a coalition be formed of small nonprofit theatres, which all want to produce musicals but have too-limited budgets. The idea is to produce together one new work a year, with a maximum of a five-actor cast.

Morgan said that finding good tiny musicals is difficult. The style of a show and its size is what attracts him to a new work. "Write some wonderful tiny musicals for me. You'll have a better chance of getting it read." By the way, The York Theatre Company's upcoming new musical, beginning Jan. 13, is the three-character "Little by Little," with music by Brad Ross, lyrics by Ellen Greenfield and Hal Hackady, and a story by Greenfield and Annette Jolles.

In defense of a larger-scale musical, Ost stated, "But somewhere in between there must be a reality."

And Znidarsic answered, "Get your voice noticed first. Then write whatever you want."

Theatre Resources Unlimited's next panel discussion is "The Proper Function of the Dramaturge in Developing New Plays," to be held Wed., Jan. 20, at 7:30 pm, with the location still to be confirmed. For updated information and to find out about joining TRU‹a terrific organization, not only for its monthly panel sessions, but for its networking capabilities‹call (212) 714-7628.

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