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Craft Masters: ASCAP/Disney's Musical Theatre Workshop Offers Forum on the Form

For seven nights this March, Los Angeles is getting a chance to glimpse the future of musical theatre. The third annual ASCAP/Disney Musical Theatre Workshop, which will be held next week on the Disney studio lot, guarantees that March will go out like a lion (perhaps even a lion king) for writers and composers who one day wish to fill the shoes of musical magnates like moderator Stephen Schwartz.

Schwartz, the Grammy-winning composer of such musicals as Godspell and Pippin, who found a second career as a lyricist for Disney's Pocahontas, for which he won an Oscar, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (a nomination), once again heads a panel of writers and actors whose job it is to give advice and offer criticism to budding Sondheims and Lloyd Webbers.

This year the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers received 197 submissions from musical composers and lyricists, from which four projects have been selected to be presented at this year's L.A. workshop. The presentations are divided into two stages on two separate nights. The first night for each project is a presentation of three or four songs from the work, which are then critiqued by the panel on the basis of songwriting craft and technique. Panel members this year include lyricist David Zippel (City of Angels), lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime), and actor Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), among many others.

The second night is a presentation of 40 or 50 consecutive minutes of the show. Said Schwartz, "The presenters can take this block of time from anywhere in their show, but it has to be consecutive, because this reveals issues of writing, how the work is musicalized, and how effective the songs are. Also, structural issues emerge, as well as characterization and storytelling problems."

Anyone interested is welcome to attend the event, which begins on Mar. 16, but they must register with director of musical theatre Michael Kerker at ASCAP's L.A. office, (213) 883-1000. Kerker encourages all those engaged in musical theatre writing, whether for the stage or the animated feature, to sign up. He noted his surprise at the amount of interest the event has received in the past three years: "The first night of the workshop, three years ago, we set the room up for 45 people, figuring that would be a lot. Seventy-five showed up," said Kerker. "Since then, it has gotten to the point that as of last year, we had over 200 people coming every night."

This is not surprising when you consider the talent that has presented to the workshop in Los Angeles, as well as to the workshop in New York, which started 20 years ago under the direction of composer Charles Strouse (Annie and Bye, Bye, Birdie). Some future successes who have presented include Jonathan Larson who revealed not Rent but a musical called Superbia, current panelists Ahrens and Flaherty, and No Way to Treat a Lady scribe John Foster.

At the same time, Schwartz wants to make sure this event doesn't become a glorified backers' audition.

"We're not posing as a Schwab's Drugstore for writers, where some producer is going to see the equivalent of Lana Turner in a tight sweater," said Schwartz. "That's not what this is about." In fact, the composer feels that the evenings are just as beneficial for the audience as they are for the presenters being critiqued.

Kerker, who gives the lion's share of credit to Schwartz for the success of the program, concurred. "Stephen's gift is that he always knows how to broaden the discussion into very general terms, so that anyone in the room who has their own project can learn something, too."

Schwartz gave Back Stage West a teaser of the kind of advice one can expect from the workshop when asked about the difference between writing musicals and writing for animation. Said Schwartz, "Songs for animated features tend to be more visual in their lyrics. It's also useful if there is some activity or motion that can be happening. I have a joke, which I've used before: If you're going to write a ballad for an animated feature, the singer had better be going over a waterfall in a canoe."

Fans of Schwartz's should also note that the composer will be performing a night of his own music at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall on Mar. 27, titled "An Evening With Stephen Schwartz," which the composer said he's "alternately excited and nervous about, depending on when you ask."

Most of the evening will be comprised of songs from Schwartz's new CD Reluctant Pilgrim, which is the first recording of the songwriter singing his own compositions. "The CD happened partly because a friend of mine who's a cabaret writer encouraged me to write songs not meant for a character in a show," Schwartz explained.

This year, which marks the 25th anniversary of Schwartz's first Broadway musical, Pippin, as well as his 50th birthday, promises even more achievements for the songwriter. Capping a revival of numerous regional productions of Schwartz's works, from The Baker's Wife to Children of Eden, the Roundabout Theater in New York will present a new production of the musical Working. Moreover, in an indication that Disney's monopoly is being challenged, Dreamworks will release the animated feature The Prince of Egypt in November, with music and lyrics by Schwartz.

Indeed, the ASCAP workshop promises insightful commentary by a composer at the top of his craft, a treat for musical theatre bugs throughout the West Coast

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