NYU gives its grads -- not its regards -- to Broadway

The scene: New York's Greenwich Village.

The time: The present. Broadway is breaking all previous records for box-office grosses. But critics snort that those statistics simply reflect inflated prices for tired musicals and revivals. The demand for new plays, new musicals has never been stronger, they say. ''A Chorus Line'' is in its eighth year. ''Annie'' is touring the country for the fourth time. ''Woman of the Year'' and ''42nd Street'' are both revivals. And a new musical, ''A Doll's Life ,'' recently folded after a vitriolic review in the New York Times. Producers and directors are desperate for new writing talent. But where, oh where to find it?

Anyone growing up in the '60s with any musical talent seemed bound for the record industry, not Broadway. Apparently it was easier to write rock 'n' roll lyrics than articulate the concerns of, say, King Arthur or the Trapp family singers on stage. It was also more lucrative - and less risky. For the price of producing a play - any play, let alone a musical complete with singers, dancers, and orchestra (think of the contract negotiations!) - has grown to astronomical heights. The price tag for most Broadway musicals averages $3 million to $4 million. Who can afford to take risks at those prices?

What has been revered as this country's most significant contribution to the theater, the American musical, seems to be a damsel in distress. Whence the White Knight?

The hero: New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and the world's first-ever Master of Fine Arts in Musical Theater. Established just last year, the first 21 graduates will emerge this spring - thesis musical in hand and on the stage (the students will write, compose, and produce their own musical). Musical-theater masters such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Betty Comden , Adolph Green, and others are already wildly applauding the concept.

The other characters: Aspiring librettists, composers, and lyricists, all under the age of 35. Some have experience under their belts, all have their future ahead of them. In other words, could be the new, yet-to-be-discovered Irving Berlins, George Gershwins, and Richard Rodgerses.

Act I: A small bakery just off the New York University ''campus'' in Greenwich Village. It is early morning and as quiet as New York ever gets. Deena Rosenberg, director the MFA program, is partaking of an almond cookie, her breakfast, and singing what will become a familar refrain: ''You have to learn to teach this.''

''The problem has traditionally been that very few people take musical theater seriously. It is generally considered a 'popular' art form, so most people think that it's just meant to entertain and doesn't need to be studied.'' She snaps off a corner of her cookie and proceeds:

''But the musical is America's most significant contribution to the theater. It truly is a compiliation of all forms - opera, operetta, English music hall, American minstrel, ragtime, even cabaret music. All of these co-existed in New York City during the turn of the century. And it took the likes of Irving Berlin , the Gershwin brothers, Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, to twist all the strands together into what became the American musical.''

Dozens of musicals opened every year from the 1920s to the 1950s. But today, only a handful are staged, and these are mostly revivals. ''We don't seem to be able to foster the kind of climate where a talented person can apprentice himself to a master composer or lyricist,'' Ms. Rosenberg says. ''Economics just don't seem to permit it.''

Ms. Rosenberg is all New York accent, curly black hair, and dangling earrings that quiver as she talks with an intellectual passion about what she sees as an under-appreciated art form. The author of an upcoming book on musical theater and the holder of advanced degrees in musicology, Rosenberg was drafted by the Tisch School to write the original proposal for and then direct the musical-theater program.

The program has struck a chord with musical-theater magnates. ''This whole program is really their idea,'' Rosenberg says, shaking her head vigorously. ''You know, people like Leonard Bernstein, Harold Prince, Arthur Laurents, didn't feel that there was any way to pass on their knowledge to upcoming composers and lyricists. They really wanted to see a program like this come about and to be a part of it.''

Proof of that pudding is in a thick pile of mimeographed letters of support from the likes of Messrs. Bernstein, Prince, Laurents, and several others that Rosenberg shoves at any enquiring party. Further proof is the fact that these men, along with Steven Sondheim, Martin Charnin, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne participate in the program as master teachers.

''You can't just give lessons in how to write a musical,'' Rosenberg explains. ''We needed a workshop-type system that would provide feedback from mentors in the field, produce a feeling of artistic community, and provide the opportunity for collaboration among the would-be composers and lyricists. Traditional music and theater schools offered none of this. We wanted to recreate a fertile salon-type atmosphere.'' For the 21 students selected from the hundreds of applicants, history just took a giant step backward.

Background noise - street sounds and other bakery patrons - has risen in volume. The almond cookie has shrunk to traveling size; Rosenberg slips the remains into a waxed wrapper and then into her book bag. It is time for the doors of that salon to swing open.

Act II: The Salon, otherwise known as master class with master teacher Arthur Laurents, creator of ''Gypsy,'' lyricist for ''West Side Story,'' and screenwriter of ''The Way We Were.'' He teaches his class in the elegant bohemianism of his brownstone.

Chino- and jean-clad students, original oil paintings, and expensive, unmatched pieces of furniture mix easily in the spacious double living room. Two crystal chandeliers dangle ceremoniously overhead while plush Oriental rugs sleep underfoot. The mantelpiece of one of the two marble fireplaces is covered with silver cups and mugs that look distinctly like awards. Blue jays call from the back garden - a sufficiently pastoral sound to remind residents that this is indeed Greenwich Village and not the Upper East Side.

The total effect is relaxed opulence. These are the visible rewards of the musical-theater business. One wonders if the contrast between this luxurious setting and the students, most of whom are on scholarship and look like they could be waiting on tables, might be too great.

Apparently not. These students, it seems, are able to look straight past the chandeliers and oil paintings to focus strictly on the sheet music. Look now to center stage for a demonstration.

Winnie Holzman is at the piano. Or rather Steve Lutvak is at the piano. Winnie is standing by as the lyricist half of the collaboration. Both are searching the notes for a hit. Or at the very least, a suitable solution to their assignment: Set to music a crucial scene from ''The Way We Were'' between Hubbel and Katie (played by Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in the movie). ''The scene deals directly with the emotions, and so should the adaptation,'' Mr. Laurents has told his proteges. Steve, the composer, is deftly climbing to a crescendo:

I want so much for you. I thought I knew what I wanted before you, thought I'd show them all - never knew I can only show you. . . .m

(No one seems embarrased by this passionate display of music and words. Apparently these are the hoops that must be jumped through in order to earn the reward, ''Words and music by'' before one's name.)We can be better - can't we be in this together?Why can't we win this together? You'll never find someone who's better, someone more right. . . .m

The song grinds to a spine-tinglingly poignant halt. The room erupts into applause. ''OK, OK,'' says Laurents, a small nimble man with tightly cropped hair. ''Any comments?'' After a moment of respectful silence, a vigorous discussion ensues.

A student: ''There is something about the chords I didn't like.''

Steve: ''I'll sing you a verse.''

A student: ''Somewhere in there you went to a B flat, and I didn't like the effect.''

Another student: ''This is an obsession song.''Laurents: ''Yeah, OK.''Another student: ''I like that. But I still don't think there is time for the meaning to change.''

Laurents: ''The whole story is 'Beauty and the Beast' in reverse. I love all the repetition lyrically, musically. It builds emotionally. It really is terrific.''

Another student: ''When the music stops, we pay undue attention to the spoken lines following.''

Laurents: ''Well, that way you leave the audience with an uneasy feeling. They don't know whether they should applaud or what.''

In other words, the Holtzman-Lutvak collaboration has been a success in Laurents' and their classmates' eyes and ears. Of the seven composer-lyricist collaborations to perform during this four-hour class, only three teams are well-versed enough to be promoted to the next assignment. Laurents has some parting comments for the entire class:

''A librettist really has to write a script. Always be specific. Theater is action all the time. And the exploration of character, which shows in the emotions, determines plot. That is the key. And the reason for this assignment was to get you used to working with strong characters, strong emotions, and not shy away from either. This seemed to remove a fear of exposure. And it's the exposure that is terrific, that makes it all theatrical and emotional and moving , and that's a big part of theater.''

The entire room seems to exhale a sigh of relief. Blue-jeaned legs uncoil from curled positions on the pricey carpet. Someone unwinds with a few impromptu chords on the piano; a voice wafts into the air. Another master class has drawn to a close, and with it, its lesson of peer support and mentor feedback.

Act III: A Greenwich Village restaurant where a few students interested in keeping the classroom flow going have retired for lunch. It is the chicquest New York noontime of 2:30 p.m., although it's only hamburgers at a sidewalk cafe.

The principals in this scene are Jeff Lunden, a portly, red-haired composer who wears wire-rimmed glasses and hails from Baltimore, and his longtime collaborator, Arthur Perlman, a mustachioed lyricist wearing a plaid shirt and Adidas tennis shoes. They have known each other since kindergarten and have the birthday-party pictures to prove it. They've also been writing musicals together since ninth grade, ''so we could get out of class, pure and simple.'' So successful were their collaborations that they bailed their high school drama department out of debt. And while each attended a different college and majored in unrelated subjects, both remained determined not to wind up as ''frustrated real estate salesmen.'' Dreams of the stage die hard.

But things were not looking up a while back. Perlman was just about to sell out to Boston academia and go into teaching. Lunden, who had come to New York like many a creative hopeful, was ''waiting on tables and generally having a pretty miserable time,'' he confesses. ''But I was starting to meet some people.''

''Meeting people'' seemed like the usual, if the only, way to go. That is, until Lunden stumbled across the NYU program. ''Basically what the program does is give us two years without having to wait on tables to focus on musical theater and experiment and play and failm , without the pressure of the outside world,'' Lunden explains.

Like any collaborator worth his salt, Perlman slips smoothly into the stream of conversation. ''What we are trying to do in the program is find a way for song to function dramatically, to enhance character, and further the plot, rather than just turn off your mind and enjoy the dancing.'' The American musical, they insist, can be so much more than what is today - ''beautiful shows with no emotional center.'' ''I guess people think if you can see 40 people tap dance, you've at least gotten your money's worth,'' says one of them.

For a big-city effect, some trucks clang by, temporarily halting all conversation while the waitress brings four hamburgers. Jeff picks up a ketchup bottle and starts pounding on the bottom of it. ''Basically we're all very dissatisfied with the state of musical theater today, and we have a lot of ideas on how to change it, make it more intelligent, more emotional.''

The field seems wide open. ''Not one 40-year-old is writing musicals today,'' laments Perlman, ''largely because of the pull of the record industry. But now there is a group of people, and we're part of that group, that are harkening back to musicals as craft. Song writing can add so much depth to a play - it's inherently theatrical.'' Lunden chimes in with a favorite quote: '' 'Music makes you feel, words make you think, a song makes you feel a thought.' ''

''People really don't cry at musicals anymore,'' says Perlman. ''Well, they don't really laugh too much either,'' says Lunden, in between French fries.

The denouement approaches. The afternoon light lengthens on the street. Ice cubes melt in the glasses. Another student draws up to the table, reminding the two of an afternoon rehearsal. ''Basically we are talking about moving people to applause,'' Perlman concludes. One almost wishes for an reprise.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.