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Getting Over the First Few Bars - West Coast Musical Theatre Conference offers encouragement tempered with practicality.

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At last weekend's first annual West Coast Musical Theatre Conference, approximately 250 musical theatre artists gathered at the Los Angeles Theatre Center to make professional contacts and share advice related to the development of new musicals. The two-evening event was sponsored by the 18-year-old nonprofit Broadway-on-Sunset group, in association with the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.

Following an opening cocktail reception, Tony-winning director/choreographer Grover Dale (Seesaw, Jerome Robbins' Broadway) delivered an inspirational keynote address, exploring the mystique of musical theatre. Then Broadway-on-Sunset co-founder Libbe S. HaLevy conducted a fascinating interview with red-hot Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Victor/Victoria, and The Civil War). Wildhorn discussed the labyrinthine path that his shows took en route to Broadway, weathering setbacks such as problematic financial backing and critical brickbats to ultimately emerge as huge hits.

Wildhorn, whose initial career success was in the area of pop songs for such vocalists as Whitney Houston, indicated that the musical theatre and recording industries need to revitalize the relationship they enjoyed in the 1940s and '50s, when the songs of Broadway tunesmiths like Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein dominated the airwaves.

He indicated that he was initially inspired to create Jekyll in the early '80s, after seeing Frank Langella in Dracula. The combination of contemporary sensibility with sleek Gothic sensuality struck Wildhorn as an ideal way to bridge the generation gap. Wildhorn has successfully established interest in his musicals by releasing concept albums prior to the stage incarnations.

He noted, "For the musical theatre to endure, it needs to speak to audiences in a musical vocabulary that they understand." Wildhorn played two impressive songs from Havana, which he referred to as "my show for next year, a musical comedy." Wildhorn is also doing his part to encourage development of stage and screen musicals. His new record label, Atlantic Theatre, accepts demo submissions for new concept show albums and he has an agreement with Warner Bros. to create animated and live-action screen musicals.

Actor Jason Alexander also heads a production company dedicated to developing musicals. His Angel Ark Productions plans to produce new and old live-action musical properties for television and feature films. In a conversation sparked by wry humor and expert career advice, Alexander spoke of his current endeavors, as well as his other work in musical theatre over the years. Currently in development is a Broadway-bound musical to star Alexander based on the Oscar-winning film Marty, with a score by composer Charles Strouse (Annie) and lyricist Lee Adams, who collaborated on Bye Bye Birdie.

Alexander made his Broadway debut in the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth/ Harold Prince musical Merrily We Roll Along. He related insightful anecdotes about the legendary failure of this eagerly anticipated show from the creators of Company. Describing an early press conference for the show, he said, "I knew we were in trouble when Prince described a show that simply did not exist in the text in front of us. I received a complete musical theatre education watching those three guys scramble and sweat over a show that just would not work."

Alexander spun other intriguing tales, including his initially reluctant audition for Jerome Robbins' Broadway, a show that not only won him a Tony but led to his career breaks in the hit film Pretty Woman and the smash TV series Seinfeld.

Another conference event was brimming with useful career advice: Producer Farrell Hirsch introduced a panel on "Getting Your Musical Produced," which included Alice Jankell, creative executive of Disney Theatrical Productions; Sheldon Epps, Pasadena Playhouse's artistic director; Willette Klausner, independent producer, and Daniel Henning, Blank Theatre Company producer. Among the topics discussed were the importance of featuring celebrities in musicals (considered unimportant by most, although Epps said "it doesn't hurt"), the proper degree of project completeness needed before submitting a proposal (depends on several factors), and the reason musicals in 99-seat houses seldom move to larger local houses (per Henning, they are usually booked or costs are prohibitive).

One common theme that emerged‹not only from the panel, but also from the other speakers at the conference‹was the importance of submitting manuscripts or demos only via an agent or a lawyer. Producers must protect themselves against the epidemic of "idea-theft" lawsuits by not reviewing unsolicited manuscripts from unrepresented writers. The program also included a complete concert reading of Charles Bloom's Pablo, about the life of artist Pablo Picasso, the winner of Broadway-on-Sunset's "First Look" competition. A sprightly musical revue of songs from the competition finalists capped the conference.

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