Hey Kids, the Musical Ain't Quite Dead Yet

Not the Same Ol’ Song and Dance

** Clearly, then, there's no lack of promising talent, a fact that Schlesinger, who runs perhaps the country's most comprehensive musical theater training school, confirms. And she's been putting her convictions where her mouth is by honing a curriculum that inculcates the mechanics of musical theater collaboration. The process takes two years, during which 32 carefully selected students—16 in each year—learn the rudiments of musical theater, then go on to write a complete show as part of their graduation requirements.

Schlesinger blames the new-musical bottleneck on what she calls "the delivery system," by which she means the expensive proposition of getting shows on. Since it's so difficult, she insists, today's aspirants are denied an opportunity to learn their craft doing show after show, as was once the case with Broadway writers. The program she runs—staffed by practitioners like William Finn, Sybille Pearson, Mel Marvin, Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon and Tina Landau, and with guest speakers including Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and producer Margo Lion—becomes a network of theater professionals to which newcomers, deprived of the kind of apprenticeships that once existed, have access. Graduates of the NYU program—which was started in 1981—include George C. Wolfe, Jeff Lunden and Arthur Perlman, Enid Futterman, Brad Ross, Mary Bracken Phillips, Fred Carl, Mindi Dickstein, Jenny Giering, Leon Ko and Robert Lee, and Kirsten Childs—all of whom have lauded productions to their credit.

Speaking about the reason for her foundation, Sondra Gilman says she and her husband, Celso Gonzalez-Falla, believe that "to write in the confines of your room is only half the experience." So the pair, who began their annual giveaways by donating production money, have added showcase and reading categories. Opportunities to learn the basics are also provided by individual funders like Cameron Mackintosh and at institutions like New Dramatists—where intensive two-week composer-lyricist-librettist seminars are held regularly—and the O'Neill Festival—where, for some years, Paulette Haupt has supervised the National Music Theater Conference. Haupt blames high prices for the scant visibility of new work. "The risks are so much greater than the opportunities for trial and error," she says, "and a second chance is almost impossible." Haupt stresses that the success of musicals like Violet and Avenue X, both of which were unveiled at her conference, "may have to do with the fact that the cast is manageable and [a show] can be done on smaller stages." That's what she's seeing more of—even if Broadway-ites haven't yet.

Coming to a Playwrights Horizons near you: Kirsten Childs’sThe Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin
photo: Joan Marcus
Coming to a Playwrights Horizons near you: Kirsten Childs’sThe Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin

To confound Cassandras, the current season is providing more evidence that the musical is on the upswing—with some of the most important entries happening off-Broadway and so far off-Broadway they're out of town. Michael John LaChiusa is present with not one, but two efforts (Marie Christine and, with coauthor George C. Wolfe, The Wild Party). In addition to a second Wild Party by Andrew Lippa at the Manhattan Theater Club and Childs's piece at Playwrights Horizons, Pen's The Night Governess has a spring bow at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, and Schlesinger and Mike Reid's The Ballad of Little Jo is to be the first musical ever at Chicago's Steppenwolf.

Perhaps the most pertinent words on the subject are Richard Rodgers's. Despite whatever changes in the social climate, what he said in his 1976 memoir, Musical Stages, seems just as apt today: "I am often asked where I think the musical is heading. It's one question I always try to dodge, because I don't think it's heading anywhere until it's already been there. One night a show opens and suddenly there's a whole new concept. But it isn't the result of a trend; it's because one, two, three or more people sat down and sweated over an idea that somehow clicked and broke loose. It can be about anything and take off in any direction, and when it works, there's your present and your future."

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