Elephant Eye Wants to Create "Book Musicals" for Broadway and Beyond; Tesori, Landau, Hwang, Warchus Tapped

News   Elephant Eye Wants to Create "Book Musicals" for Broadway and Beyond; Tesori, Landau, Hwang, Warchus Tapped
A new musical theatre production company is hoping to breathe new life into the creature known as the American book musical.

Producers Stuart Oken and Michael Leavitt, and Five Cent Productions, announced the formation of Elephant Eye Theatrical, a Chicago-based "theatrical development and production company that will create new book musicals for Broadway."

The company "will find and initiate projects, assemble creative teams, fund the genesis and ongoing evolution of the projects, and serve as lead producer when projects are fully staged."

Elephant Eye already has several projects in development, with such creatives as Jeanine Tesori, Tina Landau, Taylor Hackford and David Henry Hwang involved. No timetables for production have been announced.

"Our passion — our reason for founding Elephant Eye — is the creation of strong book musicals that not only entertain a wide audience but also strike an emotional chord," Stuart Oken, who will serve as producer and CEO of the company, said in a statement.

Oken spent nine years at Disney Theatrical Productions where he served as executive vice-president and co-head of the company (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aida emerged in his time). He also currently serves as artistic director of The American Music Theater Project at Northwestern University. "Experience tells us that creating new musicals for Broadway is not an easy thing to do," Oken stated, "and it requires a serious focus and a substantial commitment of time and resources. We've created Elephant Eye to provide creative leadership and financial support throughout the entire process."

"The world looks to Broadway for the very best in musical theatre, and we want Elephant Eye to be considered a home for adventurous people who share our passion for creating it," said Michael Leavitt, a Tony Award-winning producer who spent a decade with Fox Theatricals where he served as president of its theatrical producing division, which he launched in the early 1990s.

Leavitt, who will serve as producer and president of the new company, has also operated numerous venues, which included overseeing a $25 million redevelopment of the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago.

According to Oken, providing $2.5 million to the project's $8 million budget is a producing consortium of five major performing arts centers, whose leaders have joined forces to form Five Cent Productions. David Fay, president and CEO of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT is "managing member" of Five Cent.

"Elephant Eye will allow us to take a proactive role in the development of new material that can play not only in our theatres, but on the world stage as well," Fay stated.

The five performing arts centers of Five Cent Productions are The Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall Corporation of Hartford, CT; The Wang Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. of Boston, MA; The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. of St. Paul, MN; The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. of Philadelphia, PA; and The Pittsburgh CLO and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (shared) of Pittsburgh, PA.

The participating venues would get first crack at post-Broadway engagements of Elephant Eye product and perhaps house pre-Broadway tests of new projects. Presenters, nationally, in recent years have said they are starved for fresh shows to offer their regional audiences. Oken told Playbill.com Elephant Eye will focus on five projects to be developed over the next 10 years.

"I think [projects] will primarily be generated by us and by the arists we are in relationships with, or that we make new relationships with," Oken told Playbill.com. "They're artist-driven projects."

The title Elephant Eye comes from the Oklahoma! lyric that includes the line, "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye." The Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II show is a seminal American book musical.

By labeling itself as a champion of "book musicals," a uniquely American form that began its heyday when Oklahoma! bowed in 1943, the suggestion is that the new company will be passionate about strong story and characters and the interplay of dramatic scenes and music. (Oken told Playbill.com Elephant Eye will probably eschew works that use popular song catalogs for their scores, and might guide more serious-themed shows rather than musical comedies.) Only one of the three named projects has a composer listed (Jeanine Tesori).

Elephant Eye's projects in development include:

  • Bruce Lee: Journey to the West, written by Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Tarzan, The Golden Child), "follows the mythic journey of two Chinese legends: martial arts star Bruce Lee and the beloved Chinese warrior god, The Monkey King." Matthew Warchus (Art, Lord of the Rings) will direct.
  • 1968, being spearheaded by acclaimed film director Taylor Hackford ("Ray," "Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," "An Officer and a Gentleman") and Emmy nominated screenwriter and playwright Margaret Nagle (HBO's "Warm Springs"), "tells the story of one of the most tumultuous times in our history through the experiences of one family in Berkeley, CA that is torn apart and then reconnected by events of that year."
  • Beauty Sleeping from writer-director Tina Landau (Floyd Collins) and Tony Award-nominated composer Jeanine Tesori (Caroline or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie), "is an adaptation of Landau's acclaimed play Beauty, which took its own idiosyncratic look at the Grimm fairy tale 'Sleeping Beauty.'" *

    According to a statement, "Five Cent Productions is a consortium of five nationally renowned performing arts centers that have joined forces to take a proactive role in the development of new theatrical material."

    Although Five Cent Productions' "inception and initial investment is as a partner in the creation of Elephant Eye Theatricals, its on-going activity and scope will encompass a variety of endeavors, all with the goal of generating new theatrical material, both for the five theatres and for stages around the world."

    "Stuart and I feel that it's very appropriate that we're being joined in this venture by Five Cent Productions, an organization comprised of people and institutions who are finding new and innovative ways to answer the demand for musical theatre across the country," said Leavitt.

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