Those who believe that New York City is the musical theatre's epicenter may be looking westward later this year when Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., unveils its American Music Theatre Project, a three-year program to forge new musicals in collaboration with faculty and students.
Armed with a $2 million budget, the AMTP will be spearheaded by Dominic Missimi, director of Northwestern's music theatre program, and Stuart Oken, a former executive vice president of Disney Theatrical Productions who helped bring "The Lion King" and "Aida" to Broadway.
Oken stated in a press release announcing the project that the AMTP "comes at a crucial time for music theatre. The time, cost, and leadership required to develop and produce new musicals has grown so substantially in the past 20 years that producers have a difficult time supporting projects other than event musicals, adaptations of films, or compilations of pre-existing music catalogues. While a wide range of material is healthy, many shows that raised the bar of music theatre in years past would have a difficult time emerging today."
To put the project on the road to its goal, starting this fall Missimi and Oken will mount a season of new works created by some of the industry's most innovative writers and directors. First up, with performances beginning Oct. 28, is "Was," an adaptation of Geoff Ryman's novel about the real Dorothy Gael and her teacher, the man who wrote "The Wizard of Oz," L. Frank Baum. Book and lyrics are by Barry Kleinbort, the music is by Joseph Thalken, and the director is Tina Landau. Kleinbort has won the Edward Kleban Award and two Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Commendation Awards for his lyrics; Thalken recently unveiled his new musical, "Harold and Maude" (with book and lyrics by Tom Jones), at Paper Mill Playhouse; and Landau, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member, often directs in New York.
Creating new musicals within the protective cocoon of Northwestern University will offer a number of unique aspects. For one, a majority of the actors will be students "unless a particular role requires a quality that cannot be filled by a student," according to the project's press announcement; the university boasts "an outstanding student body capable of tackling diverse material," said Missimi. To help ensure that a show has life outside the project, the AMTP will also reach out to regional theatres and commercial producers.
After the project's initial three-year phase, Northwestern expects the AMTP "to evolve into a permanent institute for music theatre" called the Center for American Music Theatre.
Other upcoming projects include "The Boys Are Coming Home," set after World War II and loosely based on Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," with book by Berni Stapleton and music and lyrics by Leslie Arden; "The Pearl," adapted from the John Steinbeck novel, with book and lyrics by Arthur Perlman and music by Louis Rosen; and "States of Independence," with book, lyrics, and direction by Landau and music by Ricky Ian Gordon.
Landau is triply involved in the endeavor: She will also serve on an advisory committee that includes "Fiddler on the Roof" lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who is a Northwestern alumnus, and Tony Award-winning directors Frank Galati and Mary Zimmerman, both Northwestern professors. Also on the committee are Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, and former Chicago Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen.
-- Leonard Jacobs