Talkin' BroadwayV.J.

Musical Theatre Works
by Nancy Rosati

For almost twenty years, Musical Theatre Works has devoted their energies to the development of new pieces of musical theater. One way in which they do this is through the Resident Writers Program, which invites new writers to create, develop, and hone their works in what Managing Director, Randy Lutterman calls "a safe and protected environment before throwing it out into the cruel commercial world." They give them a place to work, office space, lounge, casting assistance and several other resources in order to help them get up and going.

Located on Lafayette Street in New York, across the street from The Public Theater, MTW has a series of studios and rehearsal spaces that they rent out as a source of income to the organization. These spaces include 12 full studios, a black box and a 99 seat theater. It is in this space that they will be presenting their second "Intimate Conversations" lecture series May 13 - May 23.

According to Randy, the series evolved rather abruptly last fall. The first lecture series was scheduled to begin October 18, 2001. Their original plan to sell higher priced tickets in a series of four was tossed aside. "As a way of responding to the challenge of people not wanting to leave their houses after 9/11, and mail not landing, we ended up opening the doors and saying, ‘This is a community and we want to be a part of it.' We wanted to invite as many people as we could, so we dropped our ticket prices and we faxed all the schools. We invited all the people studying musical theater to come in and help us, and be a part of it. As a result of that experience, the program became was it was supposed to be - a series of nights where people who spend their lives doing this, share their stories, and where a combination of people are in the audience - everybody from your typical New York musical theater audience member (whatever that means!), to kids who've been in New York for three months and think they want to be on Broadway, to people who have been writing in a closet for years. It was a very eclectic audience. It became like somebody in your living room having a chat with this crazy, wonderful mixture of people."

This year's series will follow the same structure. Tickets to each lecture are $25. By keeping the price low, they're hoping to make the experience available to a wider group of people. "We always say the Resident Writers Program is about giving an opportunity to new voices at a time when it's difficult to find money to develop new work. The idea is to create and cultivate audiences for those voices. In opening the doors for a program like this, we try to embrace this new set of eyes and ears and hearts that are interested in musical theater and either don't know as much as they want to know, or are curious to get a toe in. Before they spend $85 for a musical on Broadway, they're going to sit for $25 and listen to how it was made."

New this year are the "making of" nights. "In the fall we did a series where we had one night that was performers, one night directors, one night book writers and one night for composer/lyricists. What ended up happening was that over the course of the three or four weeks, if you kept coming back, you would learn about the community of creative collaborators. On one day you would have Alfred Uhry talking about writing Driving Miss Daisy and then becoming involved with the Leo Frank story and bringing it to Hal Prince. The night before, Hal Prince was talking about how Alfred Uhry approached him with the story of Leo Frank, and he had to address a series of issues dealing with Atlanta and Judaism and theater. Three nights later, somebody else would come in and say, ‘When I thought about the music for that piece, this is what I was thinking of.' What we realized was that musical theater is the most collaborative process. A better solution was to put everybody up there together and talk about the weaving of talents and ideas that comes from the collaboration of the book writer, the director, the composer/lyricist team." As a result, they have scheduled four nights this spring, presenting the creative teams of The Last Five Years, Fiddler on the Roof, Rent, and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

In addition, they have four guests who will appear in one-on-one chats: Bebe Neuwirth, Mandy Patinkin, Betty Buckley and William Finn. "We bring down our fanciest chairs from Lafayette Street into the theater. It's a very cozy space. There is a moderator who works through a series of loose questions, only as a jumping off place. Invariably the first three questions are ‘Where are you from? How did this happen? What do you love?' Then the moderators are encouraged to follow the energy of that particular guest. Some people want to tell stories about how they got their first job. Some people want to talk about their artistic metaphors. Some people want to tell you how they solved a problem in a particular piece. The moderator gently leads, and in some ways, follows the conversation.

"After about an hour of talking, the lights are brought up and there's another half hour of Q & A. That's a big exchange. It almost becomes a bit of a rally. It's not ‘a hand up, a question, and a response.' It's really a conversation. It's amazing how energized and interested the guests are to hear from the audience. Also, the audience is very focused and very interested. The most amazing thing is watching this exchange between our guests and our audience. Our first night in the fall was Hal Prince. The next day I said to him, ‘How did it go?' He said, ‘I had the best time. The questions were excellent!' I was so excited. I felt as if I had just gotten an "A" from Hal Prince! That's the best part - to know that whatever happens in the first hour informs that next half hour, and it can just go anywhere.

"When we structured it, we had so many different things in our minds. We did not imagine what it would become. I always say we're held together by masking tape. We're a small not-for-profit theater and somehow in this series, we drop this red curtain that is generously loaned to us from The Public across the street, and the chairs come out and the lights go on. It's transformed into this little living room of theater. It's a magical place to be. My staff worked like crazy all fall and everybody got a night where they had to work. By the second week, everybody was just around. Nobody wanted to miss anything. It's so interesting and so warm. I'm excited by it. It feels like the best of what we do in a lot of ways. It's a way for the community to feel a part of it. In some ways writing is a group activity, but a lot of the creation part of it is solitary. Then there are these lectures when everybody is part of this journey. Everybody walks away with a little piece of it. It's very special."

Musical Theatre Works presents its 2nd Intimate Conversations symposium series May 13- May 23, celebrating the magic of musical theatre.

"The Making Of" series in which creative teams of your favorite shows come together to discuss the collaborative process:

Monday, May 13:
Jason Robert Brown, Daisy Prince
The making of the Last Five Years

Tuesday, May 14:
Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick
The making of Fiddler On The Roof

Monday, May 20:
Michael Greif, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Anthony Rapp
The making of Rent

Tuesday, May 21:
Michael Mayer, Jeanine Tesori, Dick Scanlan
The making of Thoroughly Modern Mille

The One-on-One Chats:
Wednesday, May 15: Bebe Neuwirth
Thursday, May 16: Mandy Patinkin
Wednesday, May 22: Betty Buckley
Thursday, May 23: William Finn

Guests subject to change

All lectures begin at 7pm, except for the Rent conversation which begins at 6:30pm, last approximately 1½ hours, and will be moderated by industry veterans. Enjoy an intimate and lively question and answer session during every symposium. Seating for each lecture is limited to 75. Tickets: $25 For More Information And to buy tickets, call 212/677-0040 ext. 312.

All proceeds go towards MTW's Resident Writers program, supporting a new generation of emerging artists.

- Nancy Rosati

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