Beyond Broadway: The Middle of Somewhere
“I don’t like to think of Nebraska as the middle of nowhere,” she says with a laugh.
Alisa Belflower is speaking to me from Lincoln, Nebraska. And if you were to draw a map of the musical theater world, it would be easy to imagine Lincoln as the middle-est nowhere possible. If musicals are to be believed, you’d expect it to be populated by a chorus of gingham-clad locals with perfect pitch and universal dancing skills.
That’s how it can feel for a lot of us who create musical theater outside of New York. Not the dancing part, necessarily, but the need to defend our homes and our work against being dismissed. A need coupled with the nagging awareness that we really are on the outside of our industry.
But here’s the important thing to remember: Lincoln is somewhere. And because of Alisa Belflower, it’s actually a pretty exciting place for musical theater.
Alisa teaches in the music and theater schools at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, as well as producing and directing stage productions (over 100 at this point) for both the students and the campus’s large performing arts center. When we spoke, she was prepping for fall semester classes, finishing the script for a two-day musical extravaganza she is producing, and starting a French scene analysis of City of Angels, which she is directing this fall.
But perhaps the most amazing thing that she does (well, to me as a writer, at least) is she brings emerging musical theater writers out to the UNL campus to develop their work with her students.
“It started in 1999 or 2000,” she recounts, “when I went to see a thesis reading at the NYU musical theater writing program. And then that fall, I went to the NAMT Festival of New Musicals for the first time. I saw how many young writers there were out there, and realized how hard it was to get their work produced—largely for financial reasons. What occurred to me was that it could be hugely beneficial, both for them and my students, to do readings, where we could focus on just the writing.”
Her track record is pretty impressive. Since 2002, she has produced developmental projects with premier readings of musicals by Michael John LaChuisa, Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, Adam Gwon and Julia Jordan, Georgia Stitt and John Jiler, and Matthew Skalr and Chad Beguelin (as well as composer Scott Murphy and myself). Besides that, she also introduces her students to work by pretty much every other cutting-edge songwriting team out there (before you’ve even heard of them).
But while she is doing a lot for new musical theater in the heartland, does she ever work with writers who are not from the Big Apple? She pauses after that question and considers a moment.
“I have had work submitted to me from other places. Mostly from the Midwest or California. And actually, we just recently gave a commission to Ben Clark out of Chicago. And now he has his show with Hunter Foster up at Goodspeed. But most of what I have seen coming from outside New York has not excited me.”
“New York is unquestionably where the most musical theater is being done, from shows being put together in a church basement all the way up to Broadway. So when you’re there, you are exposed to all types of theater, you get to see what’s being done, and what’s possible.”
And for writers who don’t have that opportunity? “The important thing would be for them to create that for themselves, to surround themselves with a stimulating, creative environment.”
Are there other schools out there with opportunities similar to what she has created at UNL? “More and more universities have become aware of this opportunity, and how their students want and need to be exposed to new material. I know University of Minnesota has a program, for example. And there’s something similar at Oklahoma City University. The impression I have, though, is that most of these programs are more focused on performance than helping the writers develop their work.”
Since the time when Alisa began her work, staged readings have grown to become the dominant outlet for new writers. Low budget, low risk and easy to stage, they are the simplest way for schools, theaters and other producing entities to dip a toe into musical development. Unfortunately, if this is the only form of performance available to new writers, then it begins to influence the way they write.
“There are lots of composers who like to create story and character in their songs, and they make their recordings and have concerts, but when it comes to putting their material on the stage, they are lacking in theatricality. A musical has to be theatrical to work on stage. Something has to happen to change their world and ours.”
The exciting thing about Alisa is that she doesn’t just have opinions and observations, but that she is rolling up her sleeves and doing what she can to make great things happen. And while Lincoln, Nebraska, may still not be capital of musical theater, you can at least see it from there.
What is your favorite musical?
Whichever one I’m working on now.
What is a dream project of yours?
I have two answers.
Practically speaking, there is only one time in my life when I have seen something that was not a musical and thought, “That has to be a musical.” And so I have obtained the rights to this particular material, and I am looking for the right team to help bring it to Broadway.
Philosophically speaking, I want to help make artistic, ambitious musicals more successful than commercial musicals. Well, not more successful. We need both. I’ll say equally successful.
As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?
Helping writers, students and audiences become their best, most positive selves.