Tales From the O'Neill: A History of the National Music Theater Conference
By Sophia Saifi
There is a sense of stillness at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. The paraphernalia of the puppetry conference has vanished, and rainy days have given way to rolling vistas of sunshine. Overnight the barn, that for a week had housed gigantic pumpkin-headed ghouls, has been stripped bare and chairs, pianos and tables have been neatly laid out to for the National Music Theater Conference (NMTC).
The cafeteria has filled up with college students as the National Theater Institute’s summer semester has begun and they now have the have the chance to dine with some the cast and creative talent of the NMTC.
Now in its 36th year, the NMTC is still run by its original artistic director and co-founder, Paulette Haupt. She is a dominant presence at the conference, always hovering in the shadows as rehearsals progress.
"There isn’t a single reading I’ve missed," Haupt said. "Except for the one time I had a cold!"
Conversing with Haupt offers an education in the history of the O'Neill. We meet to speak on the porch of The White House (which is actually yellow) and she weaves the story of the NMTC.
In the spring of 1978, the founder of the O'Neill, George White, gave Haupt the task of setting up a conference similar to its flagship playwright’s conference that was tailored for musical theatre. With only a few months to prepare, she brought together a selection panel that included Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Ward as well as Ezra Laderman, Jack Beeson and Sheldon Harnick. Within the space of three weeks, they had already received eight applications.
"We didn’t have time to ask for recordings," Haupt said. "So we sat around a piano and we played through the scores of the eight pieces that we had been sent."
Fortuitously, the first piece that was picked was a folk opera version of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under The Elms. With music and book by Joe Masteroff and Edward Thomas, the musical was the first in a line of many prestigious works that would be sculpted at the O'Neill.
A year later, while going through applications, Haupt stumbled across a musical called 8½ . She recalled the moment she heard its music for the first time.
"I’ll never forget, I was on an airplane and I put a cassette into my Walkman and listened to Maury Yeston singing," she said.
8½ was developed at the O'Neill and would go on to become the award-winning Broadway musical Nine. Other works in development over the years have included Violet, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, Avenue Q and In the Heights.
The NMTC has set the precedent for music theatre conferences across the country. Over the years, under the direction of Haupt, librettist and composers come to the O'Neill to cut down to the bare bones of their work.
"It’s a tapestry of storytelling elements," Haupt said. "You want to pull that tapestry apart and throw it together as fast or slow as you want without other things being in the way."
Performances are a series of open rehearsals where actors perform with their scripts and music in hand; conjuring up sets and color simply through song and dialogue and using chairs as props.
This year's conference has three plays that consist of Broadcast (the story of radio from 1901 to 1950), The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes (the quest of a man who hates musicals and wakes to find himself stuck in one), and Goddess (a mythical love story set in the jazz bar of a contemporary West African city).
Each of the plays are a testament to the diversity of work that has passed through the NMTC and it is a fact that Haupt is keen to stress.
“Goddess could not be more different than Howard Barnes which could not be more different than Broadcast, which is what I love about music theatre," he said. "It is such a spectrum, such a rainbow.”
Across the campus actors are sprawled across porches and huddled over cafeteria tables, pouring over the changes to their scripts, under a tree someone warbles a song, and behind shut doors there is the constant melody of the composer-in-residence banging out tunes on a piano.
There is a sense of safety as art is nurtured and created while surrounded by a perpetual buzz of activity. Haupt remembers the first time she came to the O'Neill.
"I thought that it would be a really nice thing to do for a couple of years but I’m still here," she said. "I'm here because every year is a new year for me. There are always new people and there will always be new projects."
Single tickets to the Music Theatre Conference performances are now on sale to the general public. They can be purchased by calling (860) 443-1238 or visiting theoneill.org.
The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center was founded in 1964 and is based in Waterford, CT. Programs at the Center include the Puppetry Conference, Playwrights Conference, Critics Institute, Music Theater Conference and the National Theater Institute. The Monte Cristo Cottage, O'Neill's childhood home, is also owned and operated by the group.
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