Composer-lyricist-librettist Kirsten Childs is making a repeat performance as artist-in-residence during the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's 23rd National Music Theatre Conference, ending this weekend. In 1998, Childs utilized her first residency to hone the words, music and lyrics for The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which received its world premiere at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons and closed there July 16. This semi-autobiographical musical earned her the Edward Kleban Award for Lyrics, and received the Richard Rodgers Production and Development Awards, and grants from the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts and Rockefeller Foundations.
This year, Childs is developing "The Highwayman," an adaptation in a contemporary setting of the romantic 19th century Alfred Noyes poem. Commissioned by New Jersey's McCarter Theatre, the show is described as a "funk ballad for five voices, illuminating issues of love, loyalty and the individual versus the state." Childs will also team with Walter Mosley (author of the Easy Rawlins series of mysteries) for their second consecutive summer at the conference, collaborating on Hoochy Koo and the Mack. Mosley is writing the script, based on his story, with music and lyrics by Childs. The show is billed as "another musical about Broadway -- but this time, the seamier side, where dreams really mean something, and nightmares comes true." (Unfortunately, given the intriguing title, no public performances were planned.)
Since 1965, the O'Neill Center's National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut, has provided a haven for nurturing new straight plays. Producer and Conductor Paulette Haupt co-founded the Music Theatre Conference in 1978 with O'Neill Center Founder and Chairman George C. White to provide what was at the time a unique forum for developing new musicals. The artists collaborate with directors, musical directors, and equity actors to clarify their creative visions and address problems in the work. Over 50 shows have gone onto productions on and Off-Broadway, and in regional theatres, opera companies and international festivals. These include Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, produced last season at the Manhattan Theatre Club, which was voted Best Off Broadway Musical by the Outer Critics Circle and Best Score by the Drama Desk, and "Nine" (Arthur Kopit-Mario Fratti-Maury Yeston), which won five Tonys in 1982, when produced at the 46th Street Theatre.
Last year, according to Associate Director Michael Nassar, "the impetus was to work on shows that weren't even close to being finished." By the end of the conference, several "got to the point where they actually did have first acts," which were given staged public readings. One of these shows was the chilling The Screams of Kitty Genovese, based on the famous incident in March, 1964, in Queens, New York, when a 28-year-old woman was stabbed to death in front of her home as 38 neighbors watched...and did nothing. Now a completed work, which received a reading this spring in England, the musical is being polished at this year's conference. The libretto is by David Simpatico (2000 Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation grant recipient), and music by Will Todd ("Between Love and Passion," based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald). The public is invited to attend staged readings, Aug. 3-5, and 9-12, at 8:00 p.m., in the Dina Merrill Theatre.
This year, the directors inaugurated "The NMTC Laboratory." Eight writers and composers have been invited to create new pieces, while exploring the collaborative process. Each artist will work with four collaborators, writing specifically for a select company of actors. According to Nassar, "Through the extensive...round-robin, we hope to introduce potential, unlikely collaborators." Why these eight artists, when 129 works were submitted? Because they had "long wanted" to work with these people, he said, and they comprise a diverse group. The differences in aesthetics should hopefully provide for an interesting mix of works, created in a "crucible." The artists in residence included:
Joel Derfner (score for "Everyman," off-Broadway's Prospect Theater Company); Donna DiNovelli (Manhattan Theatre Club Fellow; Instructor, NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program and the O'Neill Center's National Theater Institute); Randall Eng (composer and pianist, "The Woman in the Green Coat," Edinburgh Fringe Festival); Ellen Lewis (2000 National Arts Club Award in drama for "The Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky"); Curtis Moore (composer, scores include "The Bus to Buenos Aires") Mary Murfitt ("Oil City Symphony"/""Cowgirls"); David Rodwin ("Ecstatic Journey," a multi-media opera/"Virtual Motion," a one-man "hyper-opera"); and Maryrose Wood (libretto for "The Gift," music by Andrew Gerle, a Richard Rodgers Award finalist).
Selections -- songs, scenes and short musicals -- from the Laboratory will be presented as nightly curtain raisers for "The Screams of Kitty Genovese." At 2:00 PM on Aug. 13, highlights from the Laboratory will share a program with Childs' "The Highwayman" in the Dina Merrill Theatre.
Tickets are $8.00-$12.00. For reservations, call (860) 443-1238. The O'Neill Center is located at 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford, Connecticut. The Conference began July 31 and ends Aug. 13.
-- by Barbara Gross