The Rhythm Club, the new American musical about young people in Germany mesmerized by the freedom and vitality of swing music during the Hitler era, is still hoping to be heard in New York City.
Billed as Broadway-bound when it made is regional debut at the respected Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, in fall 2000, the show was announced to have a Broadway bow at the Virginia Theatre in March 2001. When the production lost a backer, the show was postponed to fall 2001, but a staging did not materialize.
Off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club hosted a reading The Rhythm Club June 4 featuring much of the Signature 2000 company, including Jonathan Hogan, Jeremy Kushnier, Lauren Kennedy, Florence Lacey and Barbara Walsh. Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer (Putting It Together, The Witches of Eastwick) helmed again.
Producer Beth Williams, attached to the project with Allan Williams, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Although MTC explores many properties in readings or workshops, there is a never a guarantee the project will have a future with the not-for-profit organization. Industry folk indicate The Rhythm Club is still on MTC's radar, perhaps for 2003 04. The Rhythm Club is by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist-librettist Chad Beguelin. The 1930s set show is set in Hamburg, Germany.
Director Eric Schaeffer didn't exactly call the Sept. 5 Oct. 22, 2000, run at his not-for-profit theatre a "tryout," but rather an extension of his company's mission to nurture and present new works: It was the season-opening world premiere at the hot, award winning resident theatre in the fertile Washington DC theatre community.
Popularity has its advantages when new work is being tested: The subscriber-based Signature run was sold out, virtually assuring that outsiders, naysayers, national critics and others wouldn't t spoil the delicate process of creating the new musical. (Think of what you've heard about Rhythm Club in contrast to the rather ugly and public tryout process of Seussical in Boston, for example.)
Key to the process of creating Rhythm Club was being able to present it in front of a crowd every night, Schaeffer told Playbill On-Line Oct. 3, 2000.
"The audiences have been so supportive of it," Schaeffer said at the time. "We've learned so much putting it on in front of a real audience every night."
Feedback from audiences — and from DC-area critics — has helped in the process, he admits. Changes were ongoing since the first preview Sept. 5.
The Washington Post raved about the direction and choreography and questioned plot points and the tone and nature of the story itself — about two Nazi-era German musician pals (Jeremy Kushnier as a bandleader named Erik and Tim Martin Gleason as a Jewish pianist named Adam) who fall for the same singer (Lauren Kennedy) as they all indulge in decadent swing music in 1938 Hamburg.
Schaeffer said he does indeed read reviews, because he wants to know if the story is coming through clearly. He said he much prefers the term "world premiere" to tryout. Other people might suggest the run is a long "workshop" for the show — a chance to cut and paste and refine in an eight-week bubble fairly free of financial pressures. Minus the big flashy production trappings, Schaeffer said, "we can focus on words and music and story."
Schaeffer said at the time Natasha Katz will be the lighting designer in New York and the cast size will increase, as will the scale of the set and costumes, but the creative team would remain.
The Signature cast of The Rhythm Club, once called Swing Alley, includes Megan Lawrence, Kirk McDonald, Kevin Kern, Barbara Walsh, Florence Lacey, Larry Cahn, Jonathan Hogan, Buzz Mauro, Marsh Hanson, Joseph Kolinski, with Tesh Buss, Gina Carlette, Catherine Chiarelli, Brien Keith Fisher, Michael Goddard, Jamie Harris, Joni Michelle, Rusty Mowery, Jim Osorno, Jennifer Swiderski and Denton Tarver.
At the June 4 MTC reading, Hunter Foster played the role originated by Tim Martin Gleason. The MTC reading included Peter Marx, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Megan Lawrence, Jeremy Kushnier, Neil Benari, Kevin Kern, Joseph Kolinski, Michael Flanigan, Stacey Harris, Joni Michelle, Rusty Mowery, Katie O'Shaughnessey, Jennifer Swiderski, Richard Vida, Florence Lacey and Barbara Walsh.
At an August 2000 press preview in the rehearsal studio, Schaeffer told Playbill On-Line: "Here is a new book musical — and there are not many book musicals out there these days — and a really young songwriting team. One of the things that also attracted me is the storyline. It's great story. And what it does is the story provides two worlds — the youthful kids with all this energy and excitement; and the world of reality with the adults, the whole Hamburg situation in 1938. Both of those two worlds colliding has made for a fantastic story and I've think they've captured that."
Writing partners for nine years, Beguelin and Sklar came on the idea for Rhythm Club after writing Wicked City, a 1940s film noir take on the Oedipus story, when both partners were ready to try something different. Sklar was exploring swing and jazz music at the time and wanted to write in that milieu. So Beguelin went looking for a story.
"I was looking through old books on jazz and swing and kept coming across the story of the Hamburg Swings, about these kids who lived in 1938 in Hamburg where you could get arrested and go to jail for listening to a swing record," Beguelin told Playbill On-Line at the time. "It's hard to imagine the sort of climate where if you just played a song on the piano you could get taken away."
Sklar is best known around Broadway as a pit conductor, the youngest to ever take up the baton when he lead Les Miserables at age 21. The writers were named one of the "50 Creatives to Watch" by Variety, and won the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award.
The Rhythm Club website is still alive, at http://www.therhythmclub.com.
— By Kenneth Jones
and Christine Ehren