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Lessons Learned in Musical Production

January 09, 1990|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — What do you do when you're young, talented, not famous and bent on writing musicals in a market in which it takes a Broadway producer several million dollars and a regional theater anywhere from $150,000 (at the Gaslamp) to $500,000 (at the La Jolla Playhouse) and often more to take a chance on anybody?

You can get your head examined or--like the New York-based team of Steven Lutvak, 30, and writer Mitchell Ivers, 33, or independent San Diego producer/writer/director Wayne Tibbetts, 35--you can examine alternatives to getting that all-important first production mounted.

Such soul-searching, along with an invitation by Robert Chapel, chairman of the musical theater department at San Diego State University, led Lutvak and Ivers to SDSU where, thanks to the perks of free academic labor, the school can bring a full production of "First Star," a 13-person musical with 14 songs and a 20-piece orchestra, all for a budget of $15,000.

Tibbetts, for an undisclosed sum that a source approximated as at least three times over the SDSU budget, has raised money through private investors to mount his new musical, "O'Mary's," a seven-person play with two musicians, running through Jan. 21 at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre's Hahn Cosmpolitan.

Both Tibbetts and the Lutvak/Ivers team first examined the possibility of being produced as part of a regional theater's regular season. When that didn't pan out, they all pronounced themselves happy with the alternatives they found.

The advantages of the SDSU system are clear to Lutvak and Ivers, who finished their first workshop of "First Star," a fictionalized story of American's first theatrical troupe Tuesday. They will take their notes back to their homes in New York and will rewrite for a full production at the school in May.

"No regional theater could have afforded to develop the piece in the way the university is doing it," said Ivers, who wrote the book and lyrics to Lutvak's music. "If we were Stephen Sondheim, Playwrights Horizons (the New York workshop theater that had the first reading of "Into the Woods") we might have raised the money for something of this size. But for people writing in this vein who don't have that kind of reputation, it's just too expensive.

Chapel sees the project as mutually rewarding for the university because not only does new theater offer students a special challenge, it gives the university something unique to offer audiences in an increasingly competitive San Diego theater market, he said.

For Tibbetts, the for-profit production presented in cooperation with the nonprofit Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, gives him the opportunity to work with Equity actors in a well-known local Equity theater where he is likely to attract attention and reviewers. The Gaslamp, in turn, benefits from rental fees at a time it would be dark and by being credited in any future productions of "O'Mary's."

Tibbetts' effort, a story about local patrons of a bar called "O'Mary's" who are trying to save it from being shut down (portraits of the patrons are based loosely on people who frequent the SRO Lounge on 5th and Elm), in many ways seems reminiscent of the story behind "Suds."

"Suds," the San Diego musical that began as an independent project by a group of friends at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, was picked up by the Old Globe Theatre as part of its regular season and ultimately played Off-Broadway.

"O'Mary's," like "Suds," is a collaborative effort. Victor Zupanc wrote the music and Tibbetts co-wrote the play with Beverly Bremers, Ric Barr and Michael Thompson. Of course "Suds" eventually lost $600,000 on the Off-Broadway venture (they have since gotten the loss down to just under $500,000), which is not Tibbetts' goal.

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