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Start of something new

The Thousand Oaks Festival of New Musicals is the first of two area ventures that aim to get Hollywood's professionals interested in creating shows.

August 22, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

The ultimate goal probably is Broadway -- but writers and composers of four new musicals are taking a detour through suburban Los Angeles this weekend to present staged readings of their work at the first Thousand Oaks Festival of New Musicals.

Included on the program are "The Grouch's Daughter," a new offering from Mark Hollmann, Tony winner for "Urinetown," and Jack Helbig; "Maccabeat!" by L.A.-based rock drummer Harvey Shield (Episode Six, Bay City Rollers), Richard Jarboe and Chayim Ben Ze'ev; "I Come for Love" by Jeffery Lyle Segal and Los Angeles-based actor-director Terrence Atkins; and "Showgirl of 52nd Street" by Charlies Leipart and John Kroner.

Tickets for the festival, taking place Saturday and Sunday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, are $24 and include admission to all four staged readings as well as workshops, discussions and a Saturday night party at a local deli where patrons can mingle with the writers.

Mark Edelman, founder and president of the nonprofit Kansas City-based Theater League -- which is presenting the festival in association with North Hollywood's Academy for New Musical Theatre and Cabrillo Music Theatre, resident company of Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza -- says the idea is to tap into the Hollywood's talent pool.

"There is such a talent base here, not just the acting base but the writing talent," Edelman says. "There are people who have made a lot of money writing TV and film who got their start in musical theater and want to go back to it."

"It's also a good place to find book writers; that's the hardest part," he adds. "Guys who churn out sitcoms every week, that's a talent that should be adapted for theater. There are a lot of writers of a certain age who aren't writing for television anymore, but they should be writing for theater."

A similar philosophy led to the establishment of another Los Angeles-area musical theater fest, this one to take place in May and June: In March, Marcia Seligson (formerly behind the Reprise! musical series) and partner Bob Klein announced the Festival of New American Musicals, a two-month festival during which more than 30 Southern California performing arts organizations will produce a new musical. Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Pippin") serves as an advisor.

Both Edelman and Seligson say that, if the timing is right, next year's Thousand Oaks events may take place under the auspices of the similarly titled Festival of New American Musicals. "I wish they'd change their name, but what can I do?" Seligson jokes.

While Edelman and Seligson each seek to foster the cross-pollination of theater and the entertainment industry, Edelman says this year's applicants for the Thousand Oaks festival included more New Yorkers than West Coast writers, though he expects that to change as the festival, which organizers hope will become an annual event, becomes more established.

He adds that he hopes to see Thousand Oaks become a breeding ground for the kind of musicals that might be suitable in the future for Theater League, an organization responsible for touring Broadway presentations to locations in Arizona and the Midwest as well as at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

"Ours is not the avant-garde stuff," Edelman says. "We -- and I think Cabrillo Music Theatre feels the same way -- are looking to nurture talent to create the new 'West Side Story,' the new 'Fiddler' and the new 'Legally Blonde,' shows that have wide appeal." Edelman is also a member of the Academy of New Musical Theatre, which holds its own annual festival, but describes its offerings as "a little artsy fartsy" for Theater League.

Wherever the musical may fall on the popular-appeal spectrum, Hollmann believes that Thousand Oaks is the right place for "The Grouch's Daughter."

"There are so many advantages to developing a show outside of New York," he says. Another musical that Hollmann has written with "Urinetown" writing partner Greg Kotis, "Yeast Nation," will have its world premiere Oct. 6 at the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska.

In the case of "Urinetown," Hollmann did start in New York, but that show was "roundly rejected" by New York producers, so the creators ended up self-producing their own reading in that city in 1999. Later that year, they submitted "Urinetown" to the New York International Fringe Festival, and it was accepted. "I think of all the musicals that I've worked on, it had the shortest trip to production, and that was just because no one else wanted to develop it," Hollmann says.

More commonly, the process happens slowly via readings and productions, many of which take place at festivals and workshops. While the granddaddy of annual new musical festivals is held in New York by the National Alliance of Musical Theater, others occur regularly around the country, including events in Chicago, Seattle and Palo Alto.

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