The late composer Richard Rodgers is remembered for changing the Broadway musical in many ways. First through his collaborations with lyricist Lorenz Hart, which provided the world with dozens of popular songs; then with his collaboration with lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, which also provided the world with popular songs and ushered in the seamlessly integrated musical with "Oklahoma!"; as composer Mary Rodgers' father; as composer-lyricist Adam Guettel's grandfather; and as the founder of an eponymous award to honor excellence among promising musical theatre dramatists and songwriters.
Rodgers set aside $1 million of his fortune in 1978—the year before he died—to endow the Richard Rodgers Awards, which the American Academy of Arts and Letters distributes annually. A committee of writers and composers, most of whom are Academy members, reads scripts and listens to songs submitted by aspiring authors, and selects one project for a Richard Rodgers Development Award and another for a Richard Rodgers Production Award.
This year the committee selected the musical "Heading East" by Leon Ko and Robert Lee for the Development Award, which comes with a grant of $35,000 to a theatre that mounts a production of the work.
"The Spitfire Grill," by Fred Alley and James Valcq, won the Production Award and its $100,000 grant to a producing theatre. Last year the George St. Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey produced the world premiere of "Spitfire Grill," based on the 1996 film of the same name. It starred Beth Fowler, Janet Metz, and Garrett Long. Valcq wrote the musical "Zombies from the Beyond," and Alley is artist-in-residence at the American Folklore Theatre in Milwaukee, where his musicals "Guys on Ice" and "Lumberjacks in Love" are audience favorites.
"Heading East" is (to put it extremely briefly) about 150 years of Chinese-American assimilation. Originally commissioned by Beulah Quo of the California Asian-Pacific American Experience (CAPAE) to help commemorate California's sesquicentennial, the show premiered at East West Players in Los Angeles in 1998, then toured the state. It was among the 10 musicals showcased in New York City as part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's 1999 International Festival of New Musicals. A cast album is available on Dink Records.
The winners will receive their awards at a May 16 ceremony at the Academy's landmarked buildings at 155th St. and Broadway.
Although the Academy gives annual awards in many fine arts fields (e.g., painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture), the Rodgers Award is the only one open to competition. Each year the Academy receives around 125 submissions for it, indicating that the musical theatre art form is surviving and there are many writers eager to enter the field.
Past Rodgers Award winners include Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's "Lucky Stiff," Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal's "Juan Darien," Kirsten Childs' "The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin," Jonathan Larson's "Rent" and "Superbia," Michael John LaChiusa's "Henry and Ellen," Erik Haagensen and Paul Schwartz' "Summer," and "Bat Boy, the Musical" by Keythe Farley, Brian Fleming, and Lawrence O'Keefe.
To apply for the award, songwriters and librettists must apply to the Academy by Nov. 1 each year, with a fully completed script, a one-page summary of the plot, a cassette or compact disk containing 25-45 minutes of original music composed for the work (comprising a minimum of eight songs), plus an application form and, if the show is adapted from another source outside the public domain, the necessary paperwork to prove the rights have been obtained.
The committee that judges the submissions changes each year. This year's team was chaired by Stephen Sondheim and included Lynn Ahrens, Jack Beeson, John Guare, Sheldon Harnick, R.W.B. Lewis, Richard Maltby Jr., and Robert Ward.
For further information, or to request an application form, call the Academy at (212) 368-5900 or write to it at 633 W. 155th St., New York, NY 10032.