Beyond Broadway: Returning Champions

After two installments chatting with the wonderful Cheryl Coons about the wonders of the Chicago theater community, I was all ready to move on and find musical theater magic somewhere else in this big country. And somehow my efforts to do so led me immediately back to the Windy City.

“The American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) is an initiative within the School of Communication at Northwestern University”—that would be in Northwestern Chicago, in case there was any question—“that brings together leading music theatre artists and writers to work in collaboration with Northwestern’s faculty, staff and students.”

I’m speaking with Ryan Garson, AMTP’s general manager.

“AMTP was founded in 2005 as a way to develop new works in a time where exploring the possibilities of music theatre were (and are still) risky and uncertain.”

It makes my heart a little bit lighter every time I hear something like that. It’s no secret that musicals are difficult and expensive to develop—writers know it, theaters know it. And while it’s increasingly important for writers to make our own opportunities, most of us would rather just focus on what we do best and write. But in order to do that, we need more individuals and institutions that are willing to step up and help.

“We provide students with incredible opportunities—actors are able to be a part of creating a character, directors help shape a scene written that morning, producers get the chance to make the first time the words of the show are heard by an audience happen. For the writers, we provide a place to develop their work—they can focus on writing, rewriting, hearing, rehearsing, and then starting the process over again the next day.”

Just to make sure this wasn’t all just too good to be true, I checked with some writers who were recently hosted by the program. Composer Joshua Salzman and bookwriter/lyricist Ryan Cunningham were there in May of 2014 to work on their show The Legend of New York.

Salzman & Cunningham's The Legend of New York at AMTP.

Salzman & Cunningham’s The Legend of New York at AMTP.

RC: “It’s a Sodom and Gomorrah story that takes place during the 1977 New York City blackout.”

JS: “Our central hero, Abe, is visited by an angel and told that he must find three worthy souls by sunrise, or the city will be destroyed.”

RC: “He goes on a journey through Central Park, Studio 54, Times Square, CBGBs, and the subway—it’s a love letter to New York at that time.”

Where are you currently in developing this?

JS: “The show has been performed in three university settings—Northwestern University, Millikin University, and NYU Steinhardt.”

RC: “I sent Josh the first outline of the show the day his daughter was born—and she is now in kindergarten, so that gives you some sense of how long this has taken. As long as we get to an opening night before she can legally drive us there, I’ll call that a success.”

Is AMTP primarily for musicals that are already in the polishing and fine-tuning stage?

FOUND by Eli Bolin, Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree.  Photo by Justin Barbin.

AMTP’s workshop of FOUND by Eli Bolin, Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree. Photo by Justin Barbin.

RG: “Some shows come in with a first draft and just need to hear it read from beginning to ending for the first time ever, whereas some shows come to AMTP and only have half of the score or script written.”

What made the two of you think that this was the right time to take this step with your show?

RC: “We did our previous show, Next Thing You Know, at AMTP, so when we felt we were ready to see it in a reading format we immediately called David Bell, who runs the program.”

JS: “Having recently come off of a production at NYU, I knew that there were some things I wanted to try my hand at in the way of revisions. AMTP gave me the opportunity to tinker with a lot of transitions in and out of songs, and the opportunity to write a completely new piece for the male lead. I was able to hear it for the first time as a result of the process.”

RC: “Upon seeing the reading we made the decision to cut a major character which has really helped to crystalize the piece. We would not have known that the character was unnecessary without seeing it in such a supportive format.”

So this was an, in-rehearsal, work-with-the-actors experience?

JS: “Our workshop was a two week process in Illinois—and I live in New Jersey and have day job there. So I was only able to get out for a three day weekend in the middle of the process. Ryan lives in Chicago and was much more present in the rehearsal room. Via Skype and lots of emails, phones calls, and then in person rehearsals mid-process, I learned a tremendous amount about the show, and was making every edit possible in that short window.”

RC: “I love developing new work with college students. They really help to reveal what you have on the page–they give you a very honest look at the work. And their enthusiasm for the process is really refreshing.”

Ryan Garson, what made you think this was the right piece to choose out of what I have to assume are plenty of submissions that come your way?

HERO by Michael Mahler and Aaron Thielen.  Photo by Justin Barbin.

AMTP’s workshop of HERO by Michael Mahler and Aaron Thielen. Photo by Justin Barbin.

RG: “When selecting a show, it needs to be the right combination of many elements—the writers, the students, the music, the show and the show’s goals, to name a few. The first time I read The Legend of New York, I knew it was something I wanted to bring to our students. The show uses a known historical event and an unknown story to explore the feelings and frustrations so many of us feel about the city. And of course I still can’t get over the score. Josh and Ryan are the real deal. They’re writing some of the best new musicals out there right now, so the opportunity to bring them to AMTP was really a no-brainer for us.”

And how often do you bring in new shows to work on like this?

RG: “It varies—we usually produce three to four readings or workshops of new musicals every year. In addition to these developmental processes, we also partner with the Johnny Mercer Foundation each summer to produce the Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project—a week-long songwriting intensive for emerging songwriters. We also produce various master classes and special events with Broadway writers, directors, music directors and actors.”

Wow. I’m not sure yet how I can tap into the positive Chicago momentum in my own town in Oklahoma, but score one more point for you, Windy City. I think you’re giving New York a run for its money.


What is your favorite musical?

JS: “The nature of your question suggests a single answer, and yet I feel compelled to mention three I can’t choose between: Company, Ragtime, and West Side Story.”

RC: “Guys and Dolls.”

RG: “I never like to choose favorites—but if I have to, I’d say Next To Normal.”

What is a dream project of yours?

RG: “I have a lot of projects I want to produce and bring to AMTP (and beyond), but I don’t think I have found the one that I would label the ‘dream project’ quite yet.”

JS: “I have always wanted to musicalize the movie A League of Their Own. Here’s hoping to have the opportunity to write a pitch for it one day – pun fully intended.”

RC: “Several years ago I was watching TV (remember when people used to watch TV?), and saw an episode of Pushing Daisies. I immediately picked up the phone and called Josh (remember when people used to call each other?). It was screaming to be musicalized. We reached out to the producers of the show, but because it was still on the air they had no interest in turning it into a musical. Ten years later, it seems like it may actually happen, and we are doing our best to get the attention of the folks who are putting it together. It has so much to say about life and love and death—it could be a hilarious and beautiful musical.”

As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?

RG: “For me, success is all about what I can make happen for a show or a team. Success is the journey I take with a show, the writers and everyone involved.”

JS: “Whatever the task you set yourself as a writer, most importantly, success means you’re always pushing yourself, challenging yourself, and learning from what you write and those you collaborate with on your material.”

RC: “I’ll consider my career a success as long as I keep writing shows the help me to answer the questions I have about life–and hopefully help other people find answers to some of those questions along the way.”

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