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Center Helps Set Stage for Careers in Musical Theater

August 08, 1993|LIBBY SLATE | Libby Slate is a regular contributor to The Times.

"This bug I have is incurable," says Paul G. Gleason, artistic director of the American Center for Music Theatre. "When I was in the original company of 'Camelot,' as a replacement in 1962, we made up our own conservatory on tour. We had ballet, acting and speech classes, and the conductor taught sight singing."

The "bug"--a passionate desire to help actors, singers and dancers prepare for or enhance careers in musical theater--led him to join the faculty of the American Center's predecessor, the Musical Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, in 1966 as an acting and movement teacher. He became director in 1976 and has stuck by it through its declaration of independence from the Civic Light Opera and name change in 1984, and its departure from the Music Center five years later to its current space--the Pacific Theater building on Hollywood Boulevard.

The American Center for Music Theatre is now regrouping, with a new board of directors and ambitious plans. To increase its visibility and contribute to Hollywood's revitalization, it is performing music from stage and movies today and Aug. 15 and 22 in a new series, "The Broadway Brunch," at the Hollywood Galaxy film theater complex. The host is musical theater star John Raitt, who doubles as American Center president.

The American Center move to Hollywood is a homecoming: When the Musical Theater Workshop was created in 1962 by Los Angeles Civic Light Opera founder Edwin Lester, it was based at Hollywood's Masonic Temple. It later moved to USC before its long run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Whatever the name and location, the endeavor's mission has remained the same: to provide training and networking to performers to hone their skills and increase their chances for success. Its programs, which place heavy emphasis on audition techniques, preparing roles and looking for work, have produced such alumni as Dyan Cannon, Ann Jillian, William Katt, Joanna Gleason, Lorna Patterson and Leslie Easterbrook, as well as Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Opera singers Gary Bachlund and Suzanna Guzman, "Guiding Light" soap star Michael Zaslow and even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's singing ringmaster Eric Gillette.

Conducted by prominent working professionals, the American Center is believed to be the only training program of its kind in the nation. But, says Gleason'training' often means something different from what we do. We're a development program, coaching, mentoring."

The major component is the Professional Program in Musical Theater, an intensive twice-annual six-week course, scheduled to next begin Sept. 20. It is held five nights a week for six hours each night, for 22 men and women age 24 and older. The fee is $1,000 each, with scholarships available. Besides Gleason, faculty members include composer and conductor Lucas Richman, vocal coach Carlos Noble, Tony Award-winner Joanna Gleason, speech and dialect coach Larry Moss and Center Theatre Group production supervisor Frank Bayer.

Much of the Professional Program is devoted to musical scene study. Other classes include music preparation, interpretation and coaching, sight singing and music theory, effective auditioning, movement, theatrical makeup and the business of theater.

"It's a total growth experience," says Lorraine Kreuz, who graduated from the program in 1991 and has performed with local civic light opera associations.

Joanna Gleason, who won her Tony in 1988 for "Into the Woods" and was a 1973 member of the Musical Theater Workshop, adds: "There was a tremendous premium put on intelligence, not just on personality and looks."

The American Center also has a Young Masters Program for those ages 13-23, covering much of the same curricula as the Professional Program.

The American Center supplies performers for readings of new works from the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and rents its facilities for auditions and rehearsals by opera and theater companies. Paul Gleason and John Raitt also give master classes in musical theater at area colleges.

The Professional Program will probably always remain the heart of the American Center. Says Gary Bachlund, a 1978 Musical Theater Workshop member, "Without question, to this day I use things I learned in the program."

The Broadway Brunch series will be held at 1:30 a.m. today and Aug. 15 and 22 at Hollywood Galaxy amphitheater, 7021 Hollywood Blvd. Concerts are free ; no reservations needed. For more information, telephone the American Center for Music Theatre at (213) 871-8082.

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