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Tired of 'Grease' and 'Phantom of the Opera'? So is L.A.

In Southern California, an ambitious Festival of New American Musicals aims to generate new great works to replace the constantly recycled old ones.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 4, 2008

The Festival of New American Musicals hosts a wide variety of new musicals, including the sci-fi spoof, ‘The Brain from Planet X,’ shown here.

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Los Angeles

From Santa Barbara to San Diego, Southern California is alive with the sound of new music as it prepares to host the first of what organizers hope will be an annual "Festival of New American Musicals" in May.

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Venues ranging from the tiny, 45-seat Chance Theater in Anaheim to the 2,265-seat Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles are rehearsing projects such as "Norman's Ark," an epic with a cast of 300 based on the floods of recent years, and "The Brain from Planet X," a 1950s retro-sci-fi spoof. [Editor's note: The original version of the story mischaracterized "Norman's Ark" as an opera.]

This explosion of creativity is the idea of co-executive producers Marcia Seligson and Bob Klein, who see the nearly nine-week-long event as both a celebration of the vitality of current American musical theater, as well as a warning about recycling classic productions to diminishing artistic returns.

For Ms. Seligson, the idea came on the heels of a 10 year stint at the helm of "Reprise! Broadway's Best," a Los Angeles revival showcase devoted to presenting rarely seen, but important, musical theater.

"We got to a point where we realized we were running out of material," says Seligson. "Unless something was done to seed the next generation of great musicals, we wouldn't have anything to produce in the future."

As the team turned its focus from producing classic material to nurturing new talent, it became clear they were riding a wave of what many in the industry call American musical theater's second golden era.

"There is no doubt that the musical theater as an art form is in a renaissance," says nearly 40-year veteran composer Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Godspell," "Pippin"). Whether it's a result of the MTV generation coming of age, or the fact that we are living in an environment saturated with sound, "this is the art form that young talent appears to want to work with now – the art of words put to music," says Mr. Schwartz.

Evidence of the current affection for the heightened art form that weds music with words is strewn across the popular culture landscape, observes New York director Isaac Robert Hurwitz, pointing to such diverse examples as the musical comedy episodes of popular television shows ("Scrubs," "Family Guy," "That '70s Show") and the proliferation of popular musicals being made into movies such as "Legally Blonde" and "Hairspray."

The musical theater veteran recalls the dark days a few decades back when mega-hit musicals such as "Phantom of the Opera" were being produced, yet experimental work was all but impossible to finance.