New Works in the Midwest: a Q & A with Michael Baron

A few weeks ago I took a short trip down to Oklahoma City to see the world premiere of Bernice Bobs Her Hair at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the new musical features music by Adam Gwon, book by Julia Jordan, and lyrics by both Gwon and Jordan. Michael Baron, who also serves as artistic director for the theatre, directed the production. After the show, I caught up with Michael to talk about new works in the Midwest and their importance to the larger theatre community.

MW: Tell me a little about the new musicals you've premiered at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, and what your role was in their development.

MB: The first two new musicals we have done were both given 45-minute concert readings at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Annual New Works Festival in NYC. I attend the festival each year to see what musicals are being developed and I approach the writers if I think their work might be right for Lyric to produce. [Before we produced them,] both TRIANGLE by Tom Mizer and Curtis Moore in 2014 and BERNICE BOBS HER HAIR by Adam Gwon and Julia Jordan in 2015 had never been fully produced before. The scripts and scores had been worked on for many years and the writing teams, with myself, felt they were ready to be fully staged with sets, costumes, and orchestrations. While in rehearsal for both musicals, I worked with the writers to make changes based on what the show needed now that it was “on its feet” and was no longer just being read behind music stands. My main goal is to give the writers a production beyond one that they had been envisioning and to clarify the story they are trying to tell.

MW: Has the Lyric always been committed to producing new works, or is this something you've started in your time there, and if so, what inspired it?

MB: Lyric has in the past been involved in some new work development, but I felt that it was time to solidify Lyric’s commitment to adding to the canon of musical theatre on an annual basis. I had experience working on new works at Signature Theatre in DC where I served as Associate Director before coming to Lyric. Signature is nationally known for its new works programming. I always intended to start a new works initiative here at Lyric once my year-round programming was solidified. For a new works program to really have meaning and work, you must develop shows with some regularity – both so writers will consider you a place that cares about new works and for audiences to get excited about seeing them and being a part of their development. Next season we are producing MANN… AND WIFE, our third new musical in 3 seasons. Audiences are growing and I’m getting more submissions by writers, making Lyric a more exciting place to see theatre.

MW: Is working with composers, lyricists, and bookwriters on new musicals a pleasant experience for you, and what are some roadblocks you've encountered in producing new musicals?

MB: It’s one of the creative highlights of the season, both for our audiences and the entire staff of the theatre. To be in at the ground level of creating a musical on stage is thrilling. The only real roadblocks I’ve found so far are the extra funding needed to bring in the writers and having the score expanded for a full orchestra. I purposely program more known and popular shows throughout the season to offset the extra costs of doing new works.

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MW: How do you go about selecting the new musicals you want to premiere? 

MB: I look at four essential things when producing new works. First, does the story and music affect me on an emotional and intellectual level? Second, is the show ready for a fully staged production? Many theatres do reading series, but I think Lyric has the ability to best serve new works by giving them their first production. Third, do I have an artistic relationship with the writers, or do I think one can be developed? The collaborative process is a tricky one and Lyric is not the right venue and audience for every project. Fourth, does Lyric have the ways and means to produce the show at the highest level? We currently are producing new works in our Plaza Theatre, which seats 279 people. It isn’t the right venue to do the first production of a large-scale musical. Musicals with a cast of 15 or less and an orchestra of 6 or less seem to be ideal so far. One day I would love to produce a new musical in our summer space at the 2400-seat Civic Center Music Hall, but it would take some major financial investment to do a new musical on that scale.

MW: Does a script remain completely intact throughout the staging process at your theatre, or is there a certain amount of development that takes place?

MB: It’s expected that the script will change in rehearsals as well as during the first week of the run. I have conversations with the writers each day about changes that might be made based on what is happening in rehearsals. During the first week of the run, we make changes based on audience reactions and feedback.

MW: Do you think it's important for Midwestern audiences to have the opportunities to see world premiere productions in addition to the classics that many theatre companies in our region produce?

MB: Of course! I feel that while we are producing shows that started other places, other places should produce shows that start here in Oklahoma. It’s that kind of exchange that keeps musical theatre from being only focused in NYC and/or London. Also, I feel that as a not-for-profit arts organization, we should be adding to the canon of musical theatre and not just reviving it for a local audience.

MW: In your opinion, why aren't more regional theatre companies committed to producing new works? There's certainly no shortage of new, innovative works, so why do writers have so much trouble getting their shows up?

MB: Producing new works is rarely a moneymaker on the page, but I think if more theatres understood the long-term rewards, they would begin working on new shows. In the short time Lyric has been doing them, I already find our audience and the city as a whole taking ownership of the new shows and Lyric as a place that creates them. Doing new works also puts the other shows we do in a new light. By educating your audience as to the process and difficulties of creating a new musical, it makes shows like DREAMGIRLS or FIDDLER ON THE ROOF even more impressive as works of art.

MW: What advice would you give to musical theatre writers who are still trying to get their work out there?

MB: My advice would be to write consistently, get your work heard at every stage of the process, take feedback from those you trust, seek out theatres that will understand what you are trying to accomplish, apply to festivals and development programs, and get universities involved in your process. I would wait to approach regional theatres about a production until your show is well on its way to being complete. Also, if no one seems interested or you are just starting out and have no track record – produce it yourself! Anywhere. What you learn from seeing it on its feet will only inform your current and future work. I tell all artists to take your career into your own hands until someone who thinks like you notices. 

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