Increasingly, the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, based in Utah and sponsor of workshop retreats in Utah, Florida and Wyoming, is popping up as one of those important rest stops where new work is nurtured.
Among past Broadway shows that have enjoyed Sundance development are 2004 Best Play Tony Award winner I Am My Own Wife and 2005 Best Musical nominee The Light in the Piazza.
The 2007 Best Musical nominees Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening both benefited from time with Sundance: Spring Awakening was at the 2001 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in Sundance, UT, and Grey Gardens was at the 2005 Sundance Theatre Lab at White Oak in Yulee, FL. (A third Institute retreat, for playwrights, is held on the Ucross Foundation's ranch in Wyoming.)
Michael Mayer, the Tony-nominated director of Spring Awakening, said that "time" was the greatest gift that Sundance gave his project. He also appreciated that it was away from critics, away from New York and was all about process. The Sundance summer lab is in the Utah mountains, where artists can almost touch the sky.
What did the Grey Gardens team learn at Sundance in balmy Florida? "Amazing things," said Tony-nominated director Michael Greif. "With the lab, we were able to cast a two-week workshop with most of the people who are still in the company, so Sundance and their casting directors had a lot to do with getting us here."
The atmosphere at White Oak — a Florida plantation, again far from New York — was inspirational, Greif said.
"The most amazing thing that happened at Sundance was that [2007 Tony Award nominees] Christine [Ebersole] and Mary Louise [Wilson] started inspiring [Tony-nominated composer] Scott [Frankel] and [Tony-nominated lyricist] Michael [Korie] to write amazing material," Greif explained. "Michael wrote the lyrics to 'Another Winter in a Summer Town' while we were at Sundance; Scott and Michael wrote 'Around the World' while we were at Sundance. 'Another Winter' was first performed as a poem. Christine read it — it was truly extraordinary."
It was at the Sundance White Oak Lab that Tony-nominated librettist Doug Wright "found a way to create a structure for the second act based on the musical material," Greif said.
Act One of the musical is an imagined day in the life of the high society Beale Family in 1941 East Hampton, Long Island — very "Philip Barry," Greif said. Act Two borrows more from the "Grey Gardens" film documentary that inspired the musical. The vibrant mother and daughter of Act One are now dissipated, emotionally strained and living in the same mansion, but it's in shambles. Very "Samuel Beckett," Greif observed of Act Two.
Greif explained, "Doug said to Scott and Michael, 'We know what the material is — what the documentary is — begin writing the stuff that inspires you.' And then Doug started finding a way in which we could travel through a day, a year, a lifetime in that [second] act, connecting those musical anchors."
The entire show was not complete at Sundance, Greif said, but "in the time we were there, we actually read through and staged the first act and made some very significant changes to the first act."
Philip Himberg is producing artistic director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program.
For more information about programs of Sundance Institute, visit www.sundance.org.