Dreaming of the City

Special Features   Dreaming of the City Where will Broadway find tomorrow's Tony contenders?
Jeff Marx
Jeff Marx

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In theatre, it all begins with the words and the notes on the page. But getting them from the page to the stage can be a long journey. This year's Tony Awards Playbill takes a look at the talent Broadway has in the pipeline, and who's helping it along.

BUILDING MUSICALS

This season's Wonderful Town revival transports us back to the 1930s when a bevy of authors, composers and artists descended upon the city ready to make their mark. Today, finding your way through the city's narrow door of success — especially as a musical theatre writer — has never been tougher.

Are today's burgeoning writing talents just as excited about their New York prospects as were Wonderful Town's Ruth and Eileen Sherwood? Or do they long to return to Ohio after a few months at the musical core of the Big Apple? NYU Musical Theatre Program

Ask the students from New York University's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, and you're bound to find an enthusiasm that habitually renews itself each September just as Broadway previews begin on 45th Street.

Ryan Cunningham is one of 22 students who each year join a program where academic classes emphasize the art of collaboration and experimentation. Of the coming-to-New York-experience he says: "Growing up watching musicals, you expect a Disneyland atmosphere [in New York]." Meeting his NYU classmates made for a happy culture shock: "I was the liberal at Notre Dame and I became the conservative when I came to the East Village!" Cunningham is hard at work on his reverse-gender treatment of Pride and Prejudice.

Nathan Tyson, a recent grad, made the same Midwest journey. Like Thoroughly Modern Millie's title character, Tyson is actually from Salina, Kansas, where he had "a real von Trapp family thing going on. I thought Broadway was Times Square . . . I was expecting cookie-cutter people who all wrote the same kind of musicals." But to his astonishment, at NYU "no one was trying to write the same kind of show" as anyone else.

What excites him about his faculty mentors? "At NYU you don't find teachers as much as you find friends who also happen to write," says Tyson.

Both Cunningham and Tyson hope to follow in the footsteps of the program's illustrious alumni like playwright/director George C. Wolfe, "The Daily Show" head writer David Javerbaum, or maybe Winnie Holzman, bookwriter for this year's Wicked.

BMI Workshop

And NYU isn't the only haven for newcomers. The veteran music organizations ASCAP and BMI have programs that draw writers from across the country. The learning experience here, however, is quite different.

BMI is the granddaddy of mentoring programs, founded by Wonderful Town's original musical director Lehman Engel more than 40 years ago. Participants like composer Adam Overett, a Denver native, attend class once a week to present songs that will be criticized by 30 of his peers. "You get a familial sense there. Everyone is very much like you if not in their aesthetic at least in their passion."

Kristen Anderson, a lyricist at BMI whose work has been featured on TV's "Dawson's Creek" and "Joan of Arcadia," says that the class "encourages 'promiscuity' among lyricists." She claims that this is a good thing because it makes you write with people with whom you never thought you had anything in common. Anderson not only found future collaborators at BMI, she also met her husband at the workshop. Robert Lopez, a Tony nominee this year for his score of Avenue Q, still attends the advanced class with his wife.

Lopez, who wrote solo before joining BMI, also met his writing partner, Jeff Marx, there and claims he owes his entire career to the workshop. "If it wasn't for them, I'd probably still be single, temping and living with my parents."

Marx, on the other hand, came to the city to be an entertainment lawyer and auditioned for the class simply to find prospective clients. "To my shock, I was accepted into the workshop, but I was afraid I'd be taking the place of a real writer." He need not have worried as the class responded immediately to his work. After linking up with Lopez, the team played 75 percent of their Avenue Q score, song by song, as it developed, to the class. Both collaborators credit the show's success in large part to that unique process.

ASCAP Workshop

While BMI focuses on the nuts and bolts of songwriting, ASCAP's program, under the direction of Michael Kerker, helps authors look at "the whole package." Composer Stephen Weiner traveled from Phoenix where he spent time "just reading books about musical theatre in 110-degree weather trying to figure out how to be a writer." After attending BMI under the tutelage of Maury Yeston (Titanic, Nine), he and his lyricist Glenn Slater were invited to make a presentation at ASCAP.

Here Weiner and Slater previewed their aborning musical version of "Lost in America" to a panel of professionals led by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked). It's a daunting challenge because ASCAP invites producers, artists and directors to dissect creative work in front of an audience. But it pays off. "People begin to follow your career as a result of a showing at ASCAP," says Weiner.

The team is now working on a musical treatment of the 1994 film "The Hudsucker Proxy." Thanks to his participation at ASCAP, Slater's lyrics were heard in the recent Disney animated film "Home on the Range" and will be featured in the upcoming stage version of The Little Mermaid.

Both BMI and ASCAP's alumni rosters read like a Who's Who of musical theatre writers. That honor role includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, Ed Kleban (A Chorus Line) and Jonathan Larson (Rent). Coincidentally, both Kleban and Larson's workshop experiences became the fodder of stage works produced after their untimely deaths. You can find Kleban's BMI experiences with Lehman Engel musicalized in A Class Act and Larson's workshop process at ASCAP alluded to in Off-Broadway's tick, tick...BOOM!

Why do people still travel to New York to write musicals despite the comparatively few new author names on Broadway marquees? It was probably best summed up by Glenn Slater who says, "I don't have a choice, because whenever I have an idea it always has music attached to it. It's an Everest you have to climb."

So, once you're ready to climb, where do you find Sherpas to guide you? How do you take that next step?

Gone are the days when the conventional route to the Tony Awards for composers, lyricists and librettists involved pounding the pavement in front of producers' offices, playing backers' auditions and stumbling through out-of-town tryouts.

"The old mechanisms have broken down," says lyricist Maryrose Wood, co-author with composer Andrew Gerle of the 2004 Richard Rodgers Award-winning musical, The Tutor. The Rodgers is one of a set of developmental awards to emerge in the past two decades that provide stepping-stones to success for a new generation of musical theatre writers. These awards have one key factor in common: They reward writers early in their careers and recognize their musicals while they are still in the process of being written. The idea is to help them make the difficult leap from the page to the stage.

These awards come with a crucial practical attachment: cash. While the Rodgers Award subsidizes presentations at not-for-profit theatres, others, including the awards that carry on the legacy of Tony winners Kleban and Larson, arrive in the form of outright grants to artists. Among winners of this year's Larson Awards were Jim and Ruth Bauer (The Blue Flower) and Amanda Green (For the Love of Tiffany), daughter of actress Phyllis Newman and lyricist-librettist Adolph Green.

The Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Foundation's Music Theatre Award offers unrestricted, quit-your-day-job support. "In the late eighties my husband and I realized the great American musical was disappearing," says Sondra Gilman, the First Vice Chair of the American Theatre Wing's board, who also serves on various Tony Award committees. She and her spouse, Celso Gonzalez-Falla, established their award to "directly help and encourage composers, lyricists and bookwriters." Past recipients include Ray Leslee and Tony-nominated (or Tony-winning) artists Jeanine Tesori, Jason Robert Brown, Richard Nelson, Michael John LaChiusa and Craig Carnelia.

"The cushion of financial support helps you concentrate on your work and gives you the freedom to write," says Matthew Sklar, half of the team that won the 2003 Gilman award in December. His partner, lyricist Chad Beguelin, chimes in, "So that you don't have to spend time temping or bartending. There's a renewed sense of confidence, reinforcement from the community. From the day you win, you are part of the family." That is exactly what Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla were after — to create a fertile ecosystem that nurtures artists. "We met a past winner at the awards ceremony," Beguelin says, "and now we're talking about doing a project together."

Beguelin and Sklar's in-progress works include The Rhythm Club and shows based on "The Wedding Singer" and "Get Shorty."

Richard Rodgers established the award that bears his name in 1978, entrusting its administration to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Two shows that have won Rodgers development grants later picked up Tonys for Best Musical: Nine and Rent. In the case of The Tutor, support has come over three different award cycles. "It's dizzying," says lyricist/librettist Wood, "but that's realistic in terms of the amount of time it takes to develop a piece and make it production-worthy."

The Tutor's first Rodgers grant in 2002 funded a staged reading. The next came a year later and helped underwrite a workshop production at Off-Broadway's York Theatre Company. "We got to show it to a 'real' audience" — York subscribers — "not just our friends," says Wood. The third round of Rodgers support was announced this winter: seed money for a full staging of the work. "The American Academy has thrown down the gauntlet," she declares. "They're challenging someone from the not-for-profit theatre world to step up and produce it."

It was Playwrights Horizons that produced Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's Violet, which received a Rodgers Award in 1997. Tesori, composer of 2002 Best Musical Thoroughly Modern Millie and this season's Caroline, or Change, is also a Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla alumna. "It was incredibly inspiring to receive that validation," she says, because working in the musical theatre "is not a career that gives back quickly or with any certainty."

Tesori herself is now giving back by serving on the Rodgers Award selection committee, along with another past honoree, Tony-winning Ragtime lyricist Lynn Ahrens. And so the torch passes from generation to generation. "The panelists come to your show and give notes," Wood says. "There's a very powerful sense of being mentored. It's like having sages looking over your shoulder."

TOMORROW'S PLAYWRIGHTS

That's all fine for writers of musicals. But who's helping to train and develop the new generation of writers of dramas and comedies? As it turns out, the elder playwrights, many of whom are involved in mentoring programs. Such programs exist across the U.S., but as playwright and mentor Edward Albee will be the first to tell you, New York is "where most of what is significant in the arts in the U.S. occurs."

This season, in fact, a number of young playwrights who are getting their first Broadway productions came directly from pockets of developmental groups and mentoring programs.

Nilo Cruz, who earned the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Anna in the Tropics, spent seven years as a resident playwright at New Dramatists, the Tony-honored nonprofit enclave that is referred to as "the Fort Knox of playwriting talent."

First-timer Eliam Kraiem's Sixteen Wounded — this season's now-closed drama about the state of Israeli/Palestinian relations in the early 1990s — was first developed at the Cherry Lane Theatre's Mentor Project in Greenwich Village, where Kraiem was guided through rewrites and revisions by one of the project's founders, playwright Michael Weller.

Stephen Belber, whose Broadway debut, the recent Match, opened at the Plymouth Theatre, credits his maturation as a writer to the two-year mentoring he received from Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman, who have co-chaired the Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School since 1994. "Chris and Marsha pushed us and nurtured us at the same time," Belber says. "I learned the difference between something that reads well on the page and something that sounds good when spoken aloud, which is a hugely vital skill for a playwright to acquire."

According to Durang, Juilliard takes in only eight writers a year, and Belber was one of four graduates in its pilot year. "The program is an incubator of new work," says Durang. "We give writers time to write. It's not a lecture class where we say that 'all good plays must have rising or falling action,' none of which I subscribe to anyway. In many cases, the writer brings the same play back into the lab, where it is read and performed by Juilliard actors. Artistic creation is judged subjectively."

Training programs give emerging writers the opportunity to take huge artistic risks while receiving full productions featuring top actors, directors and designers. But even more significant is the imprimatur bestowed upon these new talents by their close working association with the likes of Albee, Durang, Norman, Weller, Charles Fuller, David Henry Hwang, Tony Kushner and Craig Lucas.

Albee, whose Albarwild Playwrights Unit in the 1960s remains one of the leading models for the development of experimental works, has created a foundation that, for 30 years now, brings together playwrights, poets, novelists, sculptors and painters. "We provide a place for people to get to know one another in the various disciplines," Albee says. "I also teach playwriting at a university, where I've chosen my own students. I try to help them stay honest and take chances. We allow writers to see their works on their feet without the terrible commercial pressures — without having to worry whether or not they will appease the critics."

The Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein cites Young Playwrights, Inc. as a "great organization" that gives voice to young people below the age of 18. Founded almost 25 years ago by Stephen Sondheim and headed today by Alfred Uhry, the annual Young Playwrights Festival "is a national phenomenon," Wasserstein notes. "It's kids in school writing plays. Many of them grow up and become playwrights like Kenneth Lonergan and Rebecca Gilman."

Wasserstein insists, however, that it's not just writers and artists who need mentoring. Theatre audiences, too, need to be trained on how to appreciate untried, original works. "We need intelligent, caring audiences," Wasserstein explains. "As an artist and a New Yorker, I believe that the future of the theatre comes from the quality of its audiences. We must remember that the theatre belongs to all of us."

In addition to mentoring new playwrights at the Cherry Lane Theatre and participating in the play-selection committee of the Young Playwrights Festival, Wasserstein founded in 1998, along with her longtime stage manager Roy Harris, the Theatre Development Fund's Open Doors Project. She has recruited directors James Lapine and Scott Ellis, composer/lyricist William Finn, director/choreographer Graciela Daniele and journalist Frank Rich as mentors. Each of them works with a group of eight inner-city kids from the New York City public high school system. Most of these students have never seen a play before, and they are required to keep a journal of their theatregoing experiences.

As Albee confirms, "It's the playwright's responsibility to bring new generations along." Nurturing new works and new ways keeps the city's heart beating. "It regenerates your own art," Wasserstein says. "You're not just passing it down — you're passing it back to yourself."

John Pike is a theatre historian and teacher, and the former publisher of ShowMusic magazine

Ben Pesner is the Content Producer of TonyAwards.com

Randy Gener is Associate Editor of American Theatre magazine