Music in a Box, a new collective devoted to reviving intimate musicals of the past and nurturing new tuners, makes its Off-Off-Broadway debut Oct. 7 with the 1975 Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musical, Philemon, at New York City's 28th Street Theater.
Oct. 10 is official opening for the presentational show, a musical fable about a group of players telling the heroic story of a street clown in 287 A.D. Performances continue to Oct. 31.
MIB's managing director Ralph Sevush told Playbill On-Line that the nonprofit company began almost two years ago with discussions by like-minded theatre professionals from various disciplines. They drank coffee and talked about how they wanted to see intimate, human, emotional musicals -- new and old -- presented in an economically and artistically satisfying way, Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway.
"The [87-seat 28th Street Theater] was chosen because of our aesthetic," Sevush said. "We wanted to show you can do musicals without falling chandeliers: musicals about character and emotion...musicals that aren't just rides for tourists."
The company's first production fits the mission: Jones and Schmidt's musical begins with a group of players singing "Within This Empty Space," a celebration of theatricality. "It spoke to what we wanted, not only physically, but thematically and spiritually," Sevush said.
In the musical, the clown, Cockian, reluctantly becomes involved in a Roman commander's scheme to erase Christians from the community. Playing a Christian leader named Philemon, Cockian infiltrates the group and, posing as a saintly figure, becomes an unlikely hero.
Schmidt and Jones, of course, are the songwriters who penned the intimate, 40-year-old Off-Broadway musical, The Fantasticks, as well as Broadway's 110 in the Shade and I Do! I Do!
The Philemon cast includes Will Erat, Michael J. Farina, Bryan Johnson, Randi Megibow, Megan Morrison, Marc O'Donnell and Gloria Ptak.
John Schak, a longtime Jones-Schmidt collaborator who was involved in the show's initial development in the 1970s, directs. Designers are Michael Bottari and Ronald Case (sets and costumes) and Traci Renee Klainer.
Seed money for the group's debut comes from a spring 1999 benefit, at which Broadway performers such as Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley sang.
Sevush, who runs MIB with artistic director Gregory Bossler, said the company is split into acting, writing, producing and staging collectives, with lots of ideas shared. For new works, there will be a collaborative workshop atmosphere with people from teams "informing the work."
The hope is to stage another revival in spring 2000, begin a reading series for new musicals in 2000 and then present two revivals and a world premiere in 2000-2001.
"There isn't much in the way of musicals Off-Broadway or Off-Off Broadway," said Sevush. "But we think it can be done."
The current goal is not to present long runs (the company doesn't have the structure or the money yet; currently there is an 99-seat Equity "showcase" contract), but MIB would not discourage a producer from embracing a new show or revival and offering it an extended life.
It's not impossible: The small-cast, no frills Fantasticks is in its 40th year, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse.
After many meetings and pots of coffee, an artistic board emerged from the initial group of 15 or 20 people, Sevush said. The friends and colleagues linked to the group are countless, however.
The board includes Sevush (who is also associate director of the Dramatists' Guild), Bossler (director of publications at the Dramatists' Guild), general counsel Cheryl Davis, resident director-choreographer Lindsey Hanahan and musical supervisor C. Colby Sachs. The group's advisory board includes Lynn Ahrens, Douglas J. Cohen, Jones & Schmidt, Richard Maltby Jr., David Shire, Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman.
The group's name, Music in a Box, refers to the flexible sort of space they want to work in, such as the 28th Street Theater: "The 'box' is the black box theatre," Sevush said. "We were striving for something that was evocative but simple and spare, the idea of 'no frills.'"
The 28th Street Theater is at 120 W. 28th Street. Philemon performances are 8 PM Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 PM Sundays. Tickets are $12-$15. Call (914) 337-5095 for information.
-- By Kenneth Jones