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COUNTERPUNCH

L.A. Can Be a Potent Force for New Musicals

October 09, 2000|KEVIN KAUFMAN and LIBBE S. HaLEVY and GAIL STAYDEN

While one can't fault Don Shirley's coverage of Broadway on Sunset's West Coast Musical Theatre Conference ("How to Succeed in Putting on a Show," Sept. 26), he reported on only a few aspects of the two-day event.

For some in the audience, the conference was, as Shirley noted, a sobering dose of the financial risks and realities of the musical theater business. But missing from the article was the scope of the weekend, which generated an excitement and energy not only for hundreds of attendees, but also for the participants.

Never before, to our knowledge, in New York or anywhere else has there been such a concentrated gathering of successful Broadway writers, composers, directors and performers for the purpose of sharing their expertise with musical theater creators. While many on the West Coast see Broadway as a monolithic entity 3,000 miles away, "Broadway" is really about the people who create the shows--and it's those creators who came to Los Angeles at their own expense because they wanted to be part of this conference. Their presence wasn't simply to share anecdotes and professional expertise, but to stimulate West Coast musical theater writers and encourage us to keep creating new shows.

While the message of the movie studio executives may have disappointed some, the encouraging fact is that they were eager to be a part of the conference and visible to the creators of new musicals. Led by Disney's big box office, with three Broadway hits in only six years, other studios realize it's only a matter of time before the shows they're developing enter the marketplace. With the majority of Broadway audiences older than 50, the studios, along with the entire theater community, want to know where the new shows, the unanticipated talents, the exciting new voices will come from.

That's what Broadway on Sunset is looking for too. At the conference, we created an open-mike format that provided a rare opportunity for writers and composers to promote their shows in an environment of like-minded musical theater lovers. Saturday's program ended with a musical presentation of nine finalist shows in a staged review, and on Sunday we presented a concert reading of our national First Look Competition winner.

Broadway on Sunset's name stands for what we believe--the need to connect successful Broadway professionals with West Coast talent who are here in abundance because of the film, TV and recording industries. Broadway veterans and audience members agree Los Angeles is the perfect place to develop new shows, not only because of the talent, but also because of the 99-seat theaters, where new shows can be produced for relatively little money. To that end, more than 60 conference attendees signed up for a future brainstorming session with Tony Award-winning director Grover Dale ("Jerome Robbins' Broadway") to explore new ways to keep the product coming.

It takes, on average, three to five years to develop a musical to the point where it can be shown to producers. Events such as this conference help keep writers' dreams alive by providing networking, information and that elusive commodity in Los Angeles: a sense of community. As an organization, Broadway on Sunset will continue working to provide the bridge between the impulse of talent and the realization of a successful, entertaining show.

We recognize that a single newspaper story by necessity cannot contain an entire weekend's experience, but we also feel it important to report on the inspiration, education, and sheer entertainment that was a large part of the conference. Having said this, we are taking Shirley's coverage to heart. For next year's conference, we're already planning a panel built around L.A.-based creators who have succeeded in getting their work to the stage.

And it might even be fun to include a panel of critics next year to discuss what they hope to find when the lights dim, the overture plays and the show begins. After all, when you're writing a musical, every bit of information helps.

Kevin Kaufman is executive director and co-founder of Broadway on Sunset. Libbe S. HaLevy is co-founder and literary director of Broadway on Sunset. Gail Wager Stayden is producer of the West Coast Musical Theatre Conference and a member of the board of Broadway on Sunset.

Besides Larry King, who knocked us out with his knowledge of musical theatre, and Gordon Davidson, who reminded us of the possibilities for creating theatre in Los Angeles, the talent presented on the panels had a hand in creating some of the most exciting and successful Broadway shows of the past 20 years: 'The Lion King,' 'Cabaret,' 'Jelly's Last Jam,' 'Jerome Robbins' Broadway,' 'The Life,' 'The Scarlet Pimpernel,' 'Dreamgirls,' 'Crazy for You,' 'The Wild Party,' 'Footloose' and 'The Full Monty.' Our panelists also covered the less well-known musical theatre skills of orchestration, musical direction and the ethics of collaboration. The entire event was hosted by the brilliantly talented Jason Graae, who repeatedly brought the house down with his ad-libs and satirical musical numbers.

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