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

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    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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    The Festival of New American Musicals hosts a wide variety of new musicals, including the biblical ‘Norman’s Ark.'
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    The Festival of New American Musicals hosts a wide variety of new musicals ranging from the biblical ‘Norman’s Ark,’ to the sci-fi spoof, ‘The Brain from Planet X,' to South Gate high school’s comedy, ‘Fever,’ shown here.
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    Channeling Joplin: 'Love, Janis,' inspired by Laura Joplin's book about her rock-star sister, will be playing at the Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles as part of the 'Festival of New American Musicals.'
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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.

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.

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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.

Mr. Hurwitz helped found the New York Musical Theatre Festival, now in its fifth season, to address the problem. He welcomes the L.A. Festival as a valuable tool in the ongoing effort to nurture one of America's two native art forms (the other being jazz). Hurwitz says it takes many misfires to find the few hits that keep the American musical healthy.

"The festival format provides an important spotlight and platform for getting new work produced," he says. "If you want a vibrant musical-theater culture, you need to have that critical mass to sustain it during the downtimes."

But it's not enough to nurture the art form; audiences need to be cultivated as well, say festival organizers. Community engagement is a key strategy of the festival's planning. In addition to nearly 40 productions, there will be workshops, readings, seminars, and master classes.

One of the event's largest productions, the epic "Norman's Ark," features a large number of amateur children and adults from the community, "much as the early primitive storytelling did," says Glen Roven, the composer. Back in the earliest days of drama there was no separation between audience and performers, he says.

Developing the next generation of musical-theater lovers is a high priority for the L.A. festival, too. Nine area high schools and colleges – including South Gate, a high school located in a low-income neighborhood – are staging productions.

South Gate's drama teacher, Howard Dando, has written a modern musical update of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the event. "It's important for the kids to feel the excitement of new material, and not just perform another year of 'Bye Bye Birdie' or 'Grease,' " says Mr. Dando. Beyond that, he adds, who knows what might come from it? After all, he points out, one of off-Broadway's most enduring hits, "The Fantasticks," originated from a drama teacher in a little town in Texas.

Dando is set to retire this year and worries about the future of his musical-theater program. He says he is one of only 10 high school drama teachers in all of Los Angeles's Unified School District, the nation's second largest. Most schools do not make theater a high priority, an attitude the festival is hoping to address.

The festival faces certain challenges, most notably the sheer sprawl of Los Angeles. Unlike New York, which can hold a theater festival where all the venues are within walking distance of one another, this city lacks a geographical center. But it has one important asset for the development of new material: a pool of musically gifted talent that has migrated here for movie and television work.

The city's mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, believes the festival will galvanize Los Angeles's creative community.

"Los Angeles is pushing this country's cultural envelope across the arts spectrum – from experimental architecture to our unabashed pursuit of edgy, young composers – and I could not be prouder to add performing arts to the list," he writes in an e-mail. "I hope this ambitious festival blossoms into a magnet for new talent for years to come."

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