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New musicals getting a leg up

March 01, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

INSPIRED by the Broadway success of musicals nurtured in Southern California, such as "Wicked," "Jersey Boys" and "The Drowsy Chaperone," two local impresarios are launching a two-month festival during which more than 30 Southern California performing arts organizations will each produce a new American musical.

The Festival of New American Musicals -- organized by Marcia Seligson, founder and former producing artistic director of the Reprise! musicals series, and marketing executive Bob Klein, a founding board member of Reprise! -- will be the first festival of its type in the area.

Serving as advisors to Seligson and Klein will be composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Pippin") and Michael Kerker, director of musical theater for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

The inaugural festival, announced Wednesday, will take place in May and June of 2008. Organizers are seeking to raise between $750,000 and $1 million for the event, which will receive support from Los Angeles County.

While the schedule has not been solidified, announced events include a Los Angeles Master Chorale presentation of music from "The Grapes of Wrath," by Ricky Ian Gordon. Last month, Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon conducted the full-length opera, a co-production of Minnesota Opera and Utah Opera, in St. Paul, Minn. Also on the roster will be the West Coast premiere of a musical based on the novel "Sarah Plain and Tall," produced by Pepperdine University, and the premiere of "Snapshots," a new musical revue based on songs by Schwartz, staged by Ventura's Rubicon Theater. Organizers hope the festival will become an annual event.

Schwartz said a renewed connection between the movie industry and musical theater makes L.A. and its environs an ideal location.

"American musical theater is showing enormous signs of health, and I think that is in part because of the movie companies doing large-scale new musicals for Broadway," Schwartz said of a phenomenon that includes Disney's "The Lion King." "Don't forget that for a while the healthiest musical writing that was being done was in animated features, at least American musical theater writing, and those were sort of a West Coast thing.

"Some are maybe more accustomed to using less well-known writers than maybe the old Broadway producers were," Schwartz said of the movie moguls who have taken on Broadway. "I think that's been encouraging for new writers who used to say, well, if I'm not Stephen Sondheim or Kander and Ebb, why bother? That's not true anymore."

Seligson said the festival will not produce individual works but will connect arts companies with new work and provide a marketing umbrella. Participants will include larger entities, such as Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse and Pasadena Playhouse, as well as small theaters, colleges and even high schools.

High schools, Seligson said, will not be involved in writing or composing, but the festival may provide access to new professional work and workshops. "We are particularly interested in working with multicultural schools, in this not being a sort of Westside project," she said.

In the case of some larger theaters, the festival is simply spreading its "umbrella" over previously planned productions. And that's OK with Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps, who serves on the advisory board.

"I'm not sure it is tremendously advantageous to a theater like ours, because we produce musicals on a large scale already," he said. "But because Pasadena Playhouse celebrates musicals new and old, we'd certainly be happy to join in any celebration of that art form."

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