LOS ANGELES — It's a far cry from the lavish, high-tech sets of "Titanic," one of the season's most expensive Broadway productions. When "Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert" opens May 17 at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus, theatergoers will be greeted by a 10-piece orchestra, singers, and simple sets that don't move for the entire performance.
Modeled on the wildly successful New York "Encores!" series at New York's City Center, now in its fourth season (see below), "Reprise!" will present a series of classic American musicals in pared-down form and most important, at significantly pared-down prices.
"Fully mounted musicals today are costing $5 [million] to $10 million to produce. As a result, fewer are being done and mostly, it's the big, splashy ones that producers know will draw the audiences," observes Marcia Seligson, producing artistic director of the not-for-profit enterprise, who points out that the entire "Reprise!" budget is $500,000.
A lifelong devotee of the musical theater, Ms. Seligson says "Reprise!" was inspired by a sense of crisis about the state of classic musical theater today.
"My biggest fear is that it will die out with my generation because nobody can afford to do it and people are not getting exposed to it, especially the next generation" - and especially in Los Angeles, the television and film capital of the world.
The artistic director's hunch that there was an untapped audience for this sort of music, deep in the bosom of the celluloid entertainment world, has been borne out by response to the initial mailing.
"We were overwhelmed. We had to add an additional night for the entire series," she laughs, noting that it was not just the audiences that came out of the woodwork. Once the local talent pool got wind of "Reprise!," Seligson says, she has been deluged with rsums and phone calls from all sorts of well-known film and television performers, hungry to get back on the stage - if only for the two-week run of the shows (one week for rehearsal, another for performances).
The first production, "Promises, Promises," features Tony Award-winning "Seinfeld" star Jason Alexander, followed by Andrea Marcovicci and Keith Carradine in "Finian's Rainbow" and Tyne Daly in "Wonderful Town."
In addition to presenting works of "landmark quality," musical director Peter Matz emphasizes the need to keep reintroducing this music to each generation. "A lot of younger people have never heard this music."
Accordingly, "Reprise!" is working with a local foundation to develop school-based programs showcasing the music for students. In addition, groups of local students are invited to the dress rehearsals.
Matz, whose credits include the television production of "Bye Bye Birdie" and the "The Carol Burnett Show," says he sees teenage kids discovering classics such as Tony Bennett and George Gershwin and being impressed with the depth and complexity of the music.
"Today, the lyrics reflect the shorter attention span of the kids. The music today is less complex throughout," he notes, adding that "Reprise!" is all the more important given his personal conviction that "the popular song is a good indication of the literacy of the next generation."
Attilio Favorini, University of Pittsburgh professor of Theater Arts, who is working on a book about theater and cultural memory, likes the new choice of title. He observes that in contrast to encore, which simply means "again, the word reprise actually means a partial repetition, without development."
This choice of focus makes it clear that in these productions, the spotlight is strictly on the score, not the scenery. He does, however, have a concern about the whole revival trend.
FROM the start of theater, Professor Favorini says, the past has been in dialogue with the present. But if the present doesn't continue to grow, a culture is left with nothing but the residue of the past recirculating in the present.
"With all these revivals on Broadway and off, you begin to wonder if the American musical theater is so wonderful, shouldn't this money and effort go into the development of new musicals?"
Both Seligson and Matz are quick to emphasize that "Reprise!" is not just about nostalgia. Matz says that the company hopes to add a fourth show next year, adding, "We aspire to doing one new show alongside the historical shows each year," creating programs to encourage and spotlight new composers.
Clive Elliott, a British actor/director and artist-in-residence at Drake University in Des Moines, says the trend toward semi-staged musicals is one of the healthiest developments he's seen in theater in the past 20 years.
"With the world musical market dominated by the blockbusters from the likes of Lord Andrew [Lloyd] Webber and the 'Les Miz' group, there is a lot of new work that is simply not getting a chance to be heard. Backers are not going to put money into unknown talent."
Elliott says that developing an audience for the pared-down concert version of a musical puts the focus back on the music, where it belongs.
Indeed, says Alexander Bernstein, son of the legendary American composer and president of the Bernstein Education Through the Arts Fund in New York, the question he asks when evaluating any musical is, "Can it be done with street clothes and a piano?"
As for reviving old shows, Mr. Bernstein says, "There's no question about the importance of developing audiences for this music."
Classic musical theater "is our American culture," he adds, pointing out that the music will sell itself. "If it's available and well done, people will continue adoring it."