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Musical Writerzine #14

Winter 2011

Carol de GiereFrom Carol de Giere: Are you working on a new musical? We hope that MusicalWriters.com site and our online newsletter Musical Writerzine will help support the birth and growth of new shows.

In his GROWING STAGES column for issue 14, William Squier learns from Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin how Metro Stage became the Washington, DC, area's premiere home for intimate new musicals.

We also get an update from upstate New York on how plans are going for the Auburn Musical Theater Festival. You'll find other festival news and resources below. Keep reading!

[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 Announcements

Collaborator Speed Dating

Are you looking for a new partner for your pet project? Or just pondering what's next? Producer Ken Davenport is hosting a collaborator speed dating event on March 1st in his New York City studio. Who is welcome? Librettists, composers, and lyricists can come network and see what happens. Refreshments will be served. Collaborators Speed Dating (Producer's Perspective site)


This year's New York Musical Theatre Festival will be held Sept. 26 - Oct. 15, 2011. Submissions deadline for the "Next Link" project is March 1st. www.nymf.org/

The LA musical theatre festival will hold it's 4th annual event in various locations. Check their website now and then for updates. LA Festival

For Australia's festival, the next round of submissions will open in April, 2011. See www.newmusicals.com.au

Publications and Ideas for Musical Writers

In David Spencer's wonderful book, The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide, you'll find many down-to-earth suggestions for shows. One of the tips he writes about is studying other people's musicals as a way to expand your craft. "....I became rigorous about deconstructing every musical I knew or saw, to understand the ways in which it did and didn't work, commerciialy and artistically...."

On MusicalWriters.com, Noel Katz provides comments on important musicals to study. One example is Fiddler on the Roof - study guide for musical writers.

Independent songs

Note from Carol: I sometimes hear from schools or performers wanting to add one or more original songs to their creative projects. If you are a songwriter, and you'd like me to share your contact information to be considered for such projects, please email me at carol@musicalschwartz.com.

GROWING STAGES by William Squier

(photos courtesy of MetroStage)

Carolyn Griffin MetrostagesTHE LITTLE GEMS AT METRO STAGE

"Musicals always scared me," admits Carolyn Griffin, Producing Artistic Director of Metro Stage in Alexandria, VA. And yet, in the 25+ years that she has been associated with the oldest professional theater in northern Virginia, Griffin has shepherded Metro Stage from an tiny playhouse that specialized in dramatic works like The Blood Knot and Burn This to the area's home for premiere productions of Off-B'way-sized musicals that she likes to refer to as "the little gems."

If you look at her history, it's hard to imagine Carolyn Griffin being timid about putting on a musical, much less anything else. "I always encourage people to follow their gut and take advantage of things that happen unexpectedly," she insists. And so, after graduating from college with degrees in both psychology and business, Griffin did exactly that.

"I got out of Georgetown with my MBA, looked around and asked myself, 'Why did I do this? I don't even like business!" she remembers. So, instead of going into a conventional line of work, Griffin aligned herself with Jill Kamp, a drama professor intent on establishing a professional stage in Alexandria. The theater opened its doors in 1987 as the American Showcase Theatre Company.

Though they were the only game in town, the venue wasn't without formidable local competition. "We're five minutes from Washington, DC, where, at the time, there were probably a dozen theaters like Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center," she explains. "But, the timing was right and it makes you think that it was meant to be."

Over the years that followed, Griffin moved up the ladder from Managing Director to Producing Director and then, in 1992, she took charge as the Producing Artistic Director. When she assumed leadership, the theater was renamed Metro Stage to reflect the change.

Metro Stage as a Destination

Along the way, Griffin also saw the theater through two moves, from a 65-seater in a converted storefront to the current location in the northern part of Alexandria's historic Old Town district. "We're a little off the beaten path, but a real destination," she says. "Along with us, on this little triangular piece of property, is an award-winning French bistro, Bastille, and an Asian furniture and accessories import store, Abaca."

The structure that houses Metro Stage's 130-seat performance space and administrative offices is a converted lumber warehouse. "We're not a fancy-schmancy, multi-million dollar theater building," Griffin concedes. "But, we have a unique configuration: a semi-thrust stage; a deeply raked house; very fine acoustics and a good sound balance." She feels that their newest venue contributed to more of theater's programming being given over to musical theater. "It's a very live space, so you really feel the music," she says.

Musicals are Center Stage

The shift toward presenting more musicals actually began when Metro Stage was in between spaces. Rather than offer a full season of plays while they were homeless, Griffin decided to mount occasional cabarets in the 100-seat Lyceum, a hall in the city's museum of local history. "Just to keep our name out there," she explains. At first, she stuck with familiar titles like Starting Here, Starting Now and Side by Side by Sondheim and revues that featured the music of Harold Arlen and Cy Coleman.

Then, Griffin met Thomas W. Jones II, a composer, actor and writer based in Atlanta. She discovered that he had been developing original pieces similar in size to those that she was producing. "That started our relationship with African American musicals," Griffin recalls. "We discovered there was a real audience for that, as well as a tremendous number of artists in the area who could perform his work. So, every year we've done at least one and sometimes two." Among them were Three Sistahs, an evening of gospel, rhythm & blues, funk and folk inspired by Chekhov's similarly titled play, and Bricktop, which wove together the lives of Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Alberta Hunter and Mable Mercer.

But, it was the move into the new space that established Metro's Stage's reputation for presenting "the little gems." "They look and sound great in a space like ours," Griffin emphasizes. So, recent seasons have included pocket-sized tuners like The Last Five Years, The Musical of Musicals (The Musical) and tick, tick…BOOM! as well as musical biographies of Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson.

"We went from one a year, to two a year, to years where we had four out of five productions that are musicals," Griffin notes. Their popularity also led to changes in the way each season was scheduled. "It's flexible," says Griffin. "The season is set at four shows, but could be five and might be six! We have a flexibility that bigger institutions may not have. Every show is different."

Metro Stage World Premiere of RoomsWorld Premieres

Photo: the Premiere of Rooms.

Then, in 2008 Griffin was approached by producers who wanted to interest her in mounting a new show with music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman (Bright Light, Big City). "Rooms put us on the map with New York," she says. "It was the first time that we were sent a show, fell in love with it and produced the world premiere." (Rooms was directed by Scott Schwartz)

More recently, Metro Stage presented the first full production of Glimpses of the Moon (Book & Lyrics: Tajlei Levis, Music: John Mercurio, directed and choreographed by David Marquez) which originated at Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel.

Fitting in New Musicals

"We don't have the means, the space, the man power or the money to go into early stages of development," Griffin emphasizes. "New musicals need to be developed to the point where they are close to ready for a full production. But, I think that when we find one that we love, we serve it well."

"We have one, unisex dressing room, so we aren't doing epics like Les Miz," she continues. "I love a 4-person musical. We've gone up to 7, but it busts the budget. Also, a unit set works really well for us. It's more interesting if its not a realistic set."

Metro Stage typically schedules performances on Thursday through Sunday with matinees both Saturday and Sunday. "We've often moved the Saturday matinee to 5:00 pm – a twilight matinee – and then, done an 8:30 pm show," Griffin says. "That's because a lot of the shows are an hour and a half with no intermission. Our audiences seem to really like that scenario."

Musical theatre writers interested in having their work considered for production at Metro Stage should mail a Synopsis, A Character Breakdown, the Script and a Demo CD of the Score -- "Ideally, not the composer singing off-key at the piano!" Griffin suggests, about the demo. "Give me a legit sound, so I can get a sense of the music." Metro Stage doesn't accept electronic submissions.

As indicated above, African American material is particularly attractive to the local audience. "It's about an interesting story, great music, and, it sounds like a cliché, but I really do believe in musical theater that will touch your heart in some way," Griffin says. "I'm not really interested in portraying the underbelly of society. Some contemporary work is a little to dark for my taste. I get enough of that on cable news!"

NOTE: Musicals submitted to Metro Stage should be small musicals with small casts (e.g. 4-5 people) and a maximum of five musicians in the band/orchestra.

Metro Stage
1201 North Royal Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Att. Carolyn Griffin, Producing Artistic Director


In 2007, we reported that a new musical theater festival was testing the waters in New York State's Finger Lakes region. Tentatively dubbed the Auburn Musical Theatre Festival, the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and the Auburn Public Theater were in talks to collaborate on presenting an annual eight-to-ten week summer festival of musical theatre. We recently spoke with Emily Fischer, the festival's Development Associate, to see how things were developing.

Q: Where are you with the festival at this point?

A: We're fundraising. We have a twelve million dollar campaign. But, to open our audience to what the festival is going to eventually be, this year we're presenting a show at different venue. We've always produced at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. But, one of the shows in our season will take place at a different theater in downtown Auburn, NY, so that our audience can get used to coming to see something produced by the playhouse at a different space. And we can figure out what it means to run two shows simultaneously. We'll be doing Hairspray and 42nd Street at the Merry-Go-Round at the same time.

Q: What's the musical that you're presenting downtown?

A: We're doing Cooking with the Calamari Sisters (www.thecalamarisisters.com). It had a very successful run in Rochester. We hope that it will do the same with our audience and, hopefully, attract a new audience as well. It's two gentlemen dressed as women who have a cable access cooking show. It's a different type of show than you'd typically see at the Playhouse. But, that's the point. This festival is going showcase all different types of musical theater.

Q: Does it use an original score or existing tunes?

A: It has a lot of traditional Italian music. It took off in a way that the creators never thought that it would, with audiences that they never anticipated would love it. So, we're pretty exciting.

Q: When are you hoping to launch the festival?

A: In 2012, as a summer-long event. We're starting to look at that season now. We'll be using the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse (501-seat), the Auburn Public Theater (199-seat) and another small space: the Carriage House Theater behind the Cayuga Museum (it was a stage that the original Merry-Go-Round Playhouse actors used to perform on when it start out as a children's theater) – a 125-seat theater that's being renovated for smaller shows. We're excited for the opportunity to do things that are a little bit different -- shows that our venue just isn't equipped to present. Then, in 2013 we'll be adding what we're calling the Arts Education and Performance Center. We're working with Cayuga Community College to put together a space in downtown Auburn that they can use during the school year for a technical theater arts program. It'll have 384-seat technologically advanced, state-of-the-art theater. We'll use it during the summer and the students will apply for internships to work with professionals in the same space. Beyond that, we have plans to build a larger theater that would double the size of the Playhouse, but that's an eventual goal.

Q: Will you be performing any new shows?

A: We don't know that we'll be able to float that in the first couple of years. But, eventually we'd love to have a hand in things that are new.

Q: What's the best way to keep tabs on with things as they develop?

A: We have a website: musicaltheatrefestival.org. It's very rudimentary. But, there's information and any sort of article and media coverage. We're moving along. It's going to be here far sooner than any of us are ready for it to be! We love it because it's an arts project. Others are recognizing the benefit of the festival as economic development. When folks around here look at the Shaw Festival, for example, they understand that's what we're looking to do.


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Dramatists Sourcebook #26


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