From Seed to Song

The American musical theatre scene is in a major state of flux. Broadway now thrives on revivals and big-budget spectacles in which a premium is placed on production values rather than material. Is this cherished art form going the way of the dinosaur? Not quite. New musicals are being developed in regional and nonprofit theatres across the country, and workshop organizations are doing their part to nurture budding librettists, lyricists, and composers. One such company is the 35-year-old Glendale-based Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, which recently staged its annual slate of new mini-musicals at the Burbank Center Stage (home of the Colony Theatre).

The Engel workshop was originally a branch of the New York-based BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) workshop. Both were established and run by the late Lehman Engel, a legendary Broadway conductor, who flew back and forth between coasts to oversee the operations. BMI withdrew its funding in 1979, and the L.A. Engel workshop has survived as a separate nonprofit entity. Engel continued helming both operations until his death in 1982. Now functioning in a similar role is the jet-setting John Sparks, artistic director of the Engel workshop, who holds the same position at a company called Theatre Building Chicago (formerly New Tuners), with a major part of its activities being its own musical workshop program. With Sparks as a common link, TBC is a separate organization yet closely allied with the Engel workshop.

Sparks was in town recently to host Last Calls and Lost Causes, the aforementioned four-night run of eight new 15-minute musicals developed by the current group of workshop students as a culmination of the Lehman Engel nine-month program. We sampled one evening comprising four offerings and found each one highly impressive. A whimsical comedy about serendipitous love during a series of bus rides, a witty big-business satire apparently inspired by the Enron scandal, a seriocomic fable about pioneers heading westward, and a hilarious piece about a marriage-bustup-for-hire service benefited from clever stories and charming scores.


Sparks and executive director Arline "Arlo" Williams explained the workshop structure and curriculum.

"I would like to stress," said Sparks, "that we do not teach people how to write musicals. We don't teach composition. We don't teach playwriting or lyric writing. What we do is help writers who have an interest in musical theatre by putting their craft to work in a musical theatre format. This is a collaborative art, and the writers need to have that type of experience. We supply them with actors, directors, and musical directors, as well as informed feedback from their peers. We talk about all the points of the craft of writing; but it would not be correct to say if you came to us a non-writer, we could turn you into one. Many who come to us are playwrights, screenwriters, poets, or composers—many from pop music—who have never written for theatre but want to. For those who complete the initial nine-month program and want to continue, we provide the elements they need to work on perfecting their craft."

The handful of staff members, including Sparks and Williams, volunteer their efforts, and there is further support from a board of directors (including Back Stage West Editor-in-Chief Rob Kendt). Actors, directors, and musical directors receive modest compensation and are hired as needed for the mini-musicals, readings, and occasional skeletal productions of full-length musicals. Most performances take place in a black box theatre at the Glendale facility, but this year's slate of eight mini-musicals, created by 22 collaborators, proved too much to handle there. Arrangements were made to stage the shows at the beautiful new Burbank Center Stage, with more than 150 viewers in attendance on the night we sat in. Sparks indicated that funding comes mostly from student dues—$600 for the first year, $400 for subsequent years—donations, and occasional grants.

Williams, who also performed in the Last Call stagings, described the timetable: "The first-year group meets once a month on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. It starts with a series of lectures and exercises that the members complete in time for the next session. We discuss things like the elements of a comedy song or a ballad, or aspects of book writing. We progress toward the seven-month point, where first drafts of the mini-musicals are written and presented. We group the members in teams of book writers, lyricists, and composers. The minis are written in about eight weeks, with about 12 days for a first draft and a chance at a second draft after a read-through. They get eight to 10 days to rewrite, then the actors come back with a walk-through of the changes, and there are then seven days for a final set of rewrites and then final rehearsals.

"Those who return for a second year bring in their works-in-progress at different phases of involvement. They can book one of our spaces for cold readings. When we have the available funds, we stage the more promising works as skeletal productions, or we stage a second set of 30-minute mini-musicals."

Chi-Town to Urinetown

Sparks explained that both the L.A. operation and his separate Chicago program closely follow the same curriculum and approach developed by Engel, with one key exception: The mini-musical showcase did not exist in Engel's version. According to Sparks, "When Lehman was alive, he had a lot of clout. If anybody wrote a show that was worthy, he could get it put up by virtually any producer in the world. But we don't have that ability. We began to realize we were not equipped to give our writers the same kind of information he could give them. He would listen to a song and say, 'Well, when I was conducting Destry, we wrote a song like that, and this is what happened.' Having listened to him collectively all those years, we decided to give the writers actual practical production experience so they could see how what they write differs from what happens onstage."

Sparks is bullish about the future of musical theatre, which he said is being driven by grassroots efforts all over the United States. "There are hundreds of people out there writing musicals. I can't even tell you how many musicals come across my desk in Chicago. Broadway is producing for global audiences, and the visual element has taken over. The Evitas, Phantoms, and Aidas don't work in smaller theatres with more modest budgets, and they take 20 years before they are even available for civic light operas. Shows like The Lion King have thin books and scores because the producers don't want a lot of narrative to get in the way of the spectacle. So when you take away the extravaganza, those shows simply don't work."

To counter any doubt that efforts like Sparks' are paying off, one need only utter the name of one current major Tony-winning musical and its composer/lyricist: Mark Hollmann, for Urinetown the Musical. He's an alumni of Sparks' Chicago workshop. BSW

For further details about the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, call (818) 502-3309 or visit the website at