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Musical Writerzine #12

Spring 2010

Carol de GiereFrom Carol de Giere: If you've been focusing on musicals for adults, this issue will give you an alternative perspective.

IN HIS GROWING STAGES COLUMN: William Squier discusses the needs of theaters that produce original Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) Musicals with Jeff Church, Producing Artistic Director of the Coterie Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

You'll also find an interview with a writer who was accepted by the Coterie. First, we start with festivals to consider, and a few words about the newly released DVDs of the musical films "Nine" and "The Princess and the Frog."

[Carol de Giere is the website publisher for MusicalWriters.com and author of Defying Gravity, a career biography of Stephen Schwartz filled with musical development stories. William Squier has written numerous musicals and articles for a wide variety of publications.]

Musical Theatre WORKSHOPS

Festivals

This year's West Village Musical Theatre Festival of one-act musicals is scheduled for June 10 - 13. Find out what a one-act can do: The West Village Musical Theatre Festival

Special Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project Events - Stephen Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, and others. Here are the public events. Concerts in Chicago area - Aug, 2010 and for future reference, here's a link to the songwriter's workshop. Johnny Mercer Foundation/Northwestern

NYMF has been evolving and again offering options for their annual festival: New York Musical Theatre Festival - 2010

New on DVD

A STUDY IN ADAPTATION

Fellini's 8 1/2One the one hand, we have, as the description claims, one of the greatest films about film ever made. Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (Otto e Mezzo) turns one man's artistic crisis into a grand epic of the cinema. 8 1/2 - Criterion Collection

Then there's the adaptation of an adaptation. Sometimes it's good to study what hasn't worked so well commercially at the box office. Consider why. Yet NINE is a top seller as a DVD on Amazon.com. Maybe people want to watch it privately. Nine - Musical DVDNEW: The musical version of "Nine" on DVD

Roger Ebert says, "My problem may be that I know Fellini's "8½" (1963) too well. Your problem may be that you don't know it well enough. Both of us may be asking, who exactly was "Nine" made for?...

Princess and Frog

The Princess and the Frog (Single Disc Widescreen)  

A fairy tale set in Jazz Age-era New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog was slow to become popular, with a first weekend gross of $1,216,860. But if you haven't yet seen this musical movie, it's worth watching to discover Randy Newman's showstopping numbers. The movie ended up grossing $247,374,107 world wide. It is currently a top seller at Amazon.com.

GROWING STAGES by William Squier

For this Musical Writerzine #12 column, William Squier writes about THE COTERIE THEATER

The Coterie Theatre: The Lab for Family Musicals

When Producing Artistic Director, Jeff Church, joined Kansas City's, Coterie Theatre in 1990 the world of children's theater was undergoing a change. It had been re-branded as Theater For Young Audiences, aka TYA, and was attracting both highly-experienced theater professionals and much more sophisticated dramatic material. Church saw these developments as an opportunity to rethink the Coterie's approach to musical theater programming.

Coterie Theatre leaders Jeff Church and Joette PelsterThough the Coterie had occasionally mounted musicals since the theater opened in 1979, Church drew on an acquaintance with writer Clark Gesner ('You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown') to take things to the next level. "I had seen a really wonderful piece of his called 'Animal Fair' at the Denver Center," Church recalls. "But, it was about two and a half hours long and had a zillion people in it! We asked Clark if he could refashion it into a piece that would fit within TYA union requirements: 90 minutes or under. And he was game!"

Gesner traveled to Kansas City and worked directly with the theater to create the adaptation. "We loved him!" Church reports. "And that became a blueprint for us on how to approach a composer and say 'Your piece can exist within another realm of professional theater by creating a version for family audiences.'"

PHOTO: The Coterie Theatre's Jeff Church, Producing Artistic Director, and Joette Pelster, Executive Director

Since that time, the Coterie has formalized their development process into the Lab for New Family Musicals. And this season the Lab not only yielded two of theater's six productions, but their first musical intended for middle and high school aged audiences, 'Life on the Mississippi.' "We got more educator feedback on that particular show than in recent memory," says Church. "Lots of unprompted, personal letters that said 'This piece really connected with my group. This is exactly how we wanted to reveal Mark Twain to our students.' We were pretty elated with the outcome!"

The Coterie Theater is housed on Level One of Kansas City's Crown Center Shops, a complex of stores and hotels owned by Hallmark Cards, Inc. The intimate theater seats approximately 240, although during shows for their youngest audiences the front rows are removed so the kids can sit on the floor. The space functions much like a black box theater, with no fly space but the ability to easily reconfigure the playing area to fit each production's needs. "Sometimes we stage things that are partially out in the audience," Church explains. "We can reshape the footprint to be conducive to things like that."

Lucky Duck musical posterThe Coterie produces six plays or musicals per season and is only dark for about three weeks each August. "School audiences make up about 65% and then there's the weekend public," says Church. "There's a Family Series and a Young Adults Series. Traditionally we do at least one musical a year during the summer for the family audience." Thanks to an NEA grant for $35,000.00, this season the Coterie was not only able to plan a production of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's ('Side Show') 'Lucky Duck' for the summer, but also "Life on the Mississippi," which is based on a memoir by Mark Twain, during the school year.

The breakout success for the Lab for New Family Musicals came in 2004 when Church contacted Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty to see if they'd be willing to create a TYA version of their musical 'Seussical.' "They've always desired intergenerational audiences to experience their pieces," he feels. "So, I sent them a catalogue listing of all of the professional children's theaters in the country. My pitch was 'We can't do 'Seussical' in the Broadway sense. Yet, all of us feel that Ahrens, Flaherty and Dr. Seuss are the perfect fit. So, can't we figure out something?'"

Seussical the MusicalThis led to a meeting with the writers at the offices of their publisher, Music Theater International, in Manhattan. "All I had to do was suggest the idea of sticking to the 'Horton Hears A Who' / 'Horton Hatches An Egg' spine and really streamlining it," says Church. "Lynne and Stephen immediately saw what I meant. It just clicked into place and by the time I arrived home from New York, Lynne had already sent me a kind of a libretto!" The end result was a successful run at the Coterie, many subsequent productions at theaters around the country ("It may be the number one most produced piece in educational theater," Church speculates.) and MTI was inspired to start their Broadway Junior series of 70-minute adaptations.

PHOTO: "Gertrude (Loretta Pope) and Horton (Seth Golay) with their baby "elephant bird" in the Coterie's SEUSSICAL. Photo by Marianne Kilroy."

Since that early success, Ahrens and Flaherty have been back to mount TYA productions of 'Twice Upon A Time' -- which consists of a ten-minute musical version of Dr. Seuss's 'The Lorax' originally intended for 'Seussical' and a version of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' that was Ahrens and Flaherty's first collaboration for TheaterworksUSA – and 'Once On This Island.' The theater has also mounted Stephen Schwartz's 'Geppetto & Son,' Harry Connick Jr.'s 'The Happy Elf' and Willie and Rob Reale's ('A Year with Frog and Toad') 'The Dinosaur Musical.'

Douglas M. Parker (Book & Lyrics) and Denver Casado (Music) weren't exactly household names when the team contacted Jeff Church to try an interest him producing their musical adaptation of 'Life on the Mississippi.' "They met at the BMI Musical Theater Workshop," says Church. "They solicited me and I said if they were patient we could write grant around the production. And they were patient." In the meantime, the musical received a concert staging at the Goodspeed Opera House's Fourth Annual Festival of New Artists in January of last year. "That really clarified some things and we were the beneficiary," Church notes.

All the same, the Coterie was sailing into uncharted waters when the musical when into production. "Our staff was a little bit nervous," Church continues. "We have this long time relationship with our high school audiences of presenting dramas or adaptations of literature and now we're going to try a musical on them?" But, as was noted above, 'Life on the Mississippi' proved to be such as success it has inspired Jeff Church to once again rethink his theater's approach to musical theater programming.

"Until 'Live on the Mississippi' I didn't really have a sense that there were musicals out there that we would do by blind submission," he admits. "I've since changed my mind about that."

Musical theater writers interested in having their work considered for production at the Coterie Theater should begin by sending Church a query package that includes biographies of the creative team, a synopsis, a character list, a scene sample and a song sample. Ideally, Church says that TYA scripts should be about 75 minutes long and, for the Coterie, be able to be cast with between six and twelve actors. "A lot of people are writing so that you can perform them with an intermission or as a long one-act," he points out. "We're doing a TYA version of 'The Wiz' that's in two 40 minute acts. We're seeing that format a lot."

Coterie Theatre production of Geppetto and Son - David Stern; Stephen Schwartz - photo by Carol de GiereAs far as subject matter is concerned, it's helpful if your show has a distinct marketing hook. "The musical that we do in the summer has to run for eight performance weeks," Church cautions. "So, it has to have a really clear appeal for families." He points to the example of 'Geppetto & Son.' "It had Disney and Stephen Schwartz attached to it and was a literature adaptation," he says.

"And eventually they changed the title to 'My Son Pinocchio," because they still felt that they needed to have the name in there."

PHOTO: Geppetto and Son creators David Stern and Stephen Schwartz at the Coterie. Photo by Carol de Giere. (Read more about this show at "Geppetto and Son"- that has been renamed "My Son Pinocchio")

"For a non-summer musical, it's important that there be a tie to school curriculum, as strongly as the Mark Twain piece had," Church continues. "We did do a brand new musical that was not based on an existing piece of literature, called 'U:Bug:Me' (Book, music and lyrics by Jeremiah Clay Neal). But, the world of bugs had some sort of legs, so it did really well for us and it's been picked up by other professional theaters."

UPDATE 2015: The Coterie is still interested in new musicals but the submissions need to have a youth protagonist (or possibly relate to history or biography if no youth protagonist).   Playwrights should query with a title/cast list/description first before attaching script.

Musical theater writers interested in submitting material to the Coterie can do so by e-submission to:

jchurch@coterietheatre.org

Or by mail to:

The Coterie Theater
2450 Grand Blvd.
Suite 144
Kansas City, MO 64108
Attn: Jeff Church, Producing Artistic Director

More detail about the Coterie Theater can be found at www.coterietheatre.org

Q & A with Douglas M. Parker, Author of the Book and Lyrics for 'Life on the Mississippi'

Douglas Parker playwrightINSIDE A SUCCESSFUL EXAMPLE OF A SUBMISSION TO THE COTERIE

An interview by William Squier

Douglas M. Parker is a playwright whose works include 'Thicker Than Water '(2004), 'Bessie: The Life and Music of Bessie Smith' (2005), the one-act play 'Declarations' (2007) and a non-musical adaptation of 'Life on the Mississippi' (2006), which served as the basis for his musical with composer Denver Casado. Along with the readings and productions already mentioned, 'Life on the Mississippi' was named by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre as one of their Five Shows You Should Know. His work as librettist and lyricist also includes an in-progress musical with Denver Casado and two songs in the musical 'Everything About a Family.' (TADA! Youth Theater). We asked Park about the experience of putting up a TYA version of 'Life on the Mississippi' at the Coterie and here's what he had to say.

Q: Jeff Church says that he learned about 'Life on the Mississippi' through a cold submission. What do you think you did that attracted his initial attention?

DP: "What I've heard from a number of Artistic Directors is that, aside from the fact that they receive many, many submissions, quite a large percentage of those submissions are not appropriate for their particular theater. I make a point of researching each potential theater before submitting a show - not just in the Dramatists Sourcebook, but also on the theater's own website and by looking closely at which shows they've chosen to produce in the past."

Q: What did you include in your first pitch?

DP: "My initial pitch always includes several pieces: a cover letter, which gives a general idea of the show, its cast size, production needs, history, and why this show may be right for that particular theater; a synopsis; a sample scene; and reviews, if any exist."

Q: Jeff mentioned that it would take a grant to produce the show. How long a period was it from his initial interest until he had the funding in place to green-light the production?

DP: "It was a relatively short period, perhaps eight months."

Q: I know that you did some development work during that period, including a stint at Goodspeed. Were there any other readings or workshops? Did the Coterie put the show up in any other form before it went into rehearsals for the production?

DP: "Early on, we had a private reading for an invited audience of about 50 people. After we'd made some changes, the York Theatre gave us the opportunity to put on a staged reading as part of their Developmental Reading Series. After that, with a bit more tweaking, the show was chosen to be a part of Goodspeed's Festival of New Artists, which was an even more fully staged reading. The Coterie did not do a reading, but, ultimately, went right to rehearsals and production."

Q: Where you involved in the casting, first read-thru and rehearsals? On site or long distance?

DP: "The Coterie flew me and the composer, Denver Casado, to Kansas City for casting - which happened over six months before the actual production. They then flew us down again for the first week of rehearsals, and a third time for previews and opening nights."

Q: Was there room for any rewrites while the show was in production or did you just want to put it up "as is" to see what you had and what someone else could do with it?

DP: "We made a number of changes during rehearsals, but froze the show from the last preview forward."

Q: What's next for "Life on the Mississippi?"

DP: "The Coterie produced the young audience version of "Life on the Mississippi". This June, the full-length version will have its premiere at American Folklore Theatre, an 800-seat theater in Wisconsin, where it will run through the end of August."

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