Back in 1973, producer Stuart Ostrow established the Musical Theatre Lab at Harvard University to serve as a non-profit, professional workshop for original musical theatre. Now he's doing the same thing in a bigger way, in his capacity as a Professor of Theatre at the University Of Houston.
Holder of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Chair of Distinguished Professor Of Theatre, Ostrow is the first person ever endowed for a Musical Theatre Chair in the U.S. (An honor that shocks and dismays him -- there should be many, he says). Fellow faculty members at UH include Edward Albee and Jose Quintero. Ostrow's Broadway credits include M. Butterfly, Pippin and La Bete.
Ostrow's Musical Theatre Lab program got underway Sept. 1995 with the musical Doll, which will end up at London's Donmar Warehouse Sept. 1997 with an eye towards Broadway or regional productions. Doll concerns the relationship between Alma Mahler and painter Oscar Kokoschka.
The Lab's latest project is Coyote Goes Salmon Fishing, which received a workshop production at the University, Nov. 1996.
Significantly bumping up the stakes is the financial support of PACE Theatrical Group, a major producer of shows on tour and on Broadway, which provided partial funding to develop Coyote and will help fund future projects in the Lab. The set-up is special because this is the first time a student, curriculum based program has been supported and looked at with an eye towards commercial productions. (As opposed to, say, Lloyd Richards trying out a new August Wilson play at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center.) "Students will be developing these works in the classroom," spokesman Gary Springer told Playbill On-Line. "They act in the workshop production, and are involved in putting together the entire production -- sets, costumes. . ."
Ostrow wrote, "Houston has tremendous resources for creating new theatre, with the University of Houston and its professional theatre faculty, commercial theatre represented by PACE, and not-for-profit arts groups such as the Alley, Theatre Under The Stars and the Houston Grand Opera. It also has a sophisticated theatre-going market that includes potential investors. With this mix, the next Broadway blockbuster should come from Houston."
For PACE's part, chairman Allen Becker said, "The Musical Theatre Lab...represents a cutting-edge approach to developing new musical theatre. The industry will benefit from this kind of risk-taking, and we wanted to show our support of the concept."
No further plans have yet been announced for Coyote Goes Salmon Fishing, a five-character jazz musical about the creation of the world, but Springer said, "the students are still working on it, and there will likely be a production down the line." Ostrow elaborated: "It's an epic piece that will probably cost about $10 million to mount, but we have interest from Madison Square Garden on it."
Why $10 million for a five-character jazz musical? "It's about the creation of the world -- literally. When we workshopped it, we did it with ladders and sawhorses, but in production we'll see the big bang. We'll give the first four rows of the audience a heart attack when the molten lava comes down. It's a mythical, morality tale, and it marries that theme-park style entertainment audiences want with really great writing. We're thinking in terms of Houston's Mitchell Pavillion, which has 5,000 seats under a canopy and another 5,000 outdoors. One of my dreams is to parade those animals across the stage and have people sitting on the hill going, `Oh, look at that, it's an elephant!' the way they did in Billy Rose's Jumbo."
Ostrow also anticipates reading the latest project on his desk: 1040, a new musical about tax reform by authors Jerome Bock (Fiddler On The Roof) and Jerry Sterner (Other People's Money). "It's on my desk," Ostrow said, "but I haven't read it yet because I'm waiting to see the three new collaboration musicals in the program."
Springer summed the project up by saying, "A very successful Broadway producer has teamed up with a university to teach students the formation of a Broadway musical. Now he's been teamed up with a very successful commercial producing entity, PACE, to develop commercial theatre, yet still within the university curriculum."
Ostrow put it this way: "Anyone who brings us a show essentially gets a gypsy run-through, that is, four weeks of rehearsal, then two performances for an invited audience, a week to do rewrites, and then two more performances. It's the equivalent of finding the exact moment when a musical is ready to go out of town."
--By David Lefkowitz