For a city of its size, Dayton, Ohio has long been known as a wonderful arts town. The Muse Machine program introduces and fosters interest in the arts to school children and faculty. FutureFest brings new play submissions from all around the country/world annually. There are thriving theater, ballet, and opera companies, and the brand new 2000 seat Schuster Center will open in March 2003. Therefore, it is no surprise that an event such as the recent UNDER CONSTRUCTION: A Composers' Summit should take place in this mid-size mid-western city. This two-day conference, held on February 1 and 2, 2002, brought together some of the area's musical theater professionals, fans, critics, and composers to discuss, workshop, and perform new works. In addition, two composers who have already impacted the future of musical theater today were on hand to share their insights and experiences: Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon.
On Friday, the first evening of the summit, songs from shows by eleven composers and lyricists (comprising six song-writing teams) were performed in what was billed a Concert of New Works by Emerging Composers. Presented were excerpts from shows by Tim Nevits, Gihieh Lee, David Brush, Jim Farley, Scott Keys, Robert Hartmann, Gregg Coffin, Janet Vogt, Mark Friedman, Sean Michael Flowers, and Patrick Flowers.
The Saturday schedule was split into six specific sessions. The two morning events consisted of the two guest composers each discussing the creation of a specific show and the performances of songs from those musicals. Ricky Ian Gordon explained his very personal motivation for writing Dream True. Though Mr. Gordon often creates shows using previously written poetry as lyrics, he wrote this piece in collaboration with Tina Landau after the losing his lover to AIDS. Students from Wright State University performed "Wyoming" and "We Will Always Walk Together." Mr. Gordon talked about dealing with criticism, working with other collaborators, and writing for pieces that he described as "opsicals", a hybrid of a musical and opera. He also mentioned that he "hates writing, but loves having written" music, and called the task "a harsh mistress".
Michael John LaChiusa discussed his adaptation of of Schnitzler's La Ronde into Hello Again. A scene from La Ronde was presented and then the corresponding songs from the musical were performed ("Montage"/"Safe"/"The One I Love"). Mr. LaChiusa remarked that Hello Again was initially conceived as a ballet rather than a musical theater piece. For fans of the show in attendance, he mentioned two interesting tidbits on the casting of the show. In the show's workshop, the role of the Young Thing was written for a female and performed by Jane Krakowski. However, when John Cameron Mitchell auditioned, the creative team realized that he was a perfect fit for the role and the scene was altered to feature two men. Also, he mentioned that Audra McDonald auditioned for the role of the Young Wife. Though she didn't get the part, Mr. LaChiusa would eventually write Marie Christine for the Tony Award winning actress.
Following lunch, a discussion between the emerging composers featured the previous night and Mr. Gordon and Mr. LaChiusa was held in which ideas and advice on the creation and mounting of shows were shared.
Next, the two guest composers coached singers performing the work of these guest artists. Patricia Linhart, Ann Van Cleave, Scott Stoney, and Jay Pierce were each provided with insight on both the technical musical presentation and interpretation of their chosen material.
The afternoon sessions closed with Mr. Gordon and Mr. LaChiusa fielding questions from the audience regarding the future of Musical Theater. They emphasized that new composers needed to adhere to the craft of songwriting, in addition to just possessing talent. Mr. LaChiusa mentioned that the conservatism fostered by Reaganism had nearly killed the arts and that "risk" in theater had therefore become a bad thing. Both composers stated their belief that risk needs to be present to produce quality pieces. They also discussed the decline of "cultural criticism." When asked what they thought the future of musical theater was, they both answered that they felt that it was bright, but not so much on Broadway, but rather on the "edges".
The final portion of the summit was Under Construction: The Concert. Songs by both featured composers were presented by local performers, students from Wright State University, and a number of New York based singers. Songs by Michael John LaChiusa included "Tom" from Hello Again (Lee Merrill), "People Like Us" from The Wild Party (Ann Van Cleave, Brandon Cutrell), and "No Turning Back" from Marie Christine (Darius de Hass). Selections from Ricky Ian Gordon's work included "There Is Grace" from The Family Piece (David Kotary, David Brouillard, Damon Gravina), "Stars" from Only Heaven (Jonita Lattimore), and "Home of the Brave", which was written for Matthew Shepherd (Billy Flood, Kotary, Brouillard, Gravina).
Under Construction: A Composer's Summit was definitely a success for all of those in attendance. Plans are already being made for next year's conference, with the hope of bringing other high profile songwriters to Dayton. The event was sponsored by The Human Race Theatre Company and Music Theatre Ventures. For additional information on the summit, please contact the Human Race Theatre Co. at (937) 461-3823.