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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."