"The Unsinkable Molly Brown," co-produced by the Long Beach Civic Light Opera and Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, is booked for a tour of regional theaters through June of 1990 and "Grover's Corners," co-produced by the Sacramento Music Circus, the North Shore Music Theatre in Boston and Casa Manana Musicals in Ft. Worth, Tex., will open next summer at North Shore and then go to the other theaters.
In October, the National Alliance played host to its first Festival of First Stage Musicals, a dozen readings in New York, with the hope that some theater representatives would see something they could use for their upcoming seasons.
The Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, for instance, picked up "The Real Life Story of Johnny BeFacto," a story of a rock musician whose career is boosted by an attempted assassination on his life.
Another festival offering is under consideration by Starlight, to be co-produced with other member theaters, but neither Thesing nor the Wards will name it, explaining that negotiations are at "a delicate stage."
No one wants to get anyone's expectations up about a project that may not come to pass. Working out contractual details for a new work can be as tricky as a marriage. The project has to fit the stages, styles and tastes of the cooperating companies, and the Wards have seen other projects slip through the company's fingers when one of the co-producing companies dropped out.
Still, with the commitment of both the artistic directors and the board to new work, the Wards are convinced that a world premiere in a Starlight season is just a matter of time.
And that couldn't please the Wards more. The two, co-artistic directors since 1982, grew up with Starlight as performers, playing opposite each other in "Carousel" in 1952. Bonnie Ward's father, Robert H. Baker, performed in Starlight's "The Mikado" 40 years ago. And some of the Wards' children, who began their theatrical careers as Munchkins in a Starlight production of "The Wizard of Oz," continue to return to the Starlight stage; Kirby Ward starred in "My One and Only" earlier this season.
"We desperately love musical theater," said Bonnie Ward. "And Don and I have known for a long time that Starlight hasn't begun reaching its potential. But I feel we are just hitting our stride. We are moving in the direction we want to move, and we're excited.
"There is no musical theater product coming out of the Broadway arena, and the regional theaters must take the initiative to get new productions to Broadway. It's terribly risky financially, but someone has got to do it or there won't be any 'Sound of Musics' in the future."
Board president Marshall Lucas concurs.
"We want to save the American musical," he said. "It's been my vision for a long time to see Starlight grow. I want to have a West Coast premiere, I want to have a world premiere, but it takes time. We need to make changes, but I don't want to make abrupt changes. We have to do it with style and with timing and respect."
Lucas' vision includes a six-play season, with three shows indoors as part of a winter season (possibly in the Lyceum) that stresses more serious work (like "Threepenny Opera") and three lighter choices outdoors in the Starlight Bowl. The board is planning to work funding for a new work in 1991 into the coming budgetary plans.
But a key question is whether Starlight will raise the money it needs in the months ahead.
Even though Starlight's 44th season was an unprecedented box office success, grossing $40,000 more than the projected $400,000 per show, the company has still not raised the 15% of the $2.5 million budget that it needs to end the season in the black.
"Expansion costs money," Goldman said. "We still have not met our fund-raising goals for this year. Depending on where we are by Dec. 31, we may or may not break even. At this point we are close."
Even if Starlight meets its fund-raising goals this year, the larger issue is that if Starlight has difficulty raising the 15% of unearned income it needed in this year's budget, what will the company do when it needs an even greater percentage of unearned income to put in the coffers for new works?
New works have many hidden costs--new orchestrations, new costumes, new sets and more rehearsal time for the inevitable revisions. In addition, there is no built-in audience for unknown works by unfamiliar composers as there is for a "Carousel."
Starlight's case is not unusual, Thesing said. Companies like the Goodspeed and the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, both of which regularly initiate new work (Goodspeed premiered "Man of La Mancha," "Shenandoah" and "Annie"), may be heavily supported by local patrons and state and national funding, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.