Musical Theater Fans Flock to Goodspeed’s 10th New Musical Festival

goodspeed f logoBy Karen Isaacs

 Rather than hibernate, fans of musical comedy and many involved in the profession are making their way to Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam for the 10th annual Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals, Jan 16-18.

The jammed packed weekend includes staged presentations of three new musicals as well as a variety of seminar that look behind the creative process and a sneak peak of one of the new shows scheduled for Goodspeed in 2015.

This year’s festival opens Friday evening with Outlaws. The Saturday evening show is The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes by Christopher Dimond  (book and lyrics) and Michael Kooman (music). It is described as the story of an average man who discovers his life has become a musical.

The Sunday afternoon show is For Tonight  By Shenell Williams and Spencer Williams (music, lyrics, book) and Whitney Rhodes (book.)  It is about a brother and sister, who after their parents die,  survive in a small Welsh town before the brother heads to Liverpool with his guitar.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

On Saturday, the seminars include author Jennifer Ashley Tepper discussing her new book The Untold Stories of Broadway – Volume Two and set designer Paul Tate dePoo discussing “How They Do That?” about set designing.  DePoo is designing the sets for Goodspeed’s production of Guys and Dolls.  Michael O’Flaherty (Goodspeed’s resident musical director)  demonstrates vocal arranging with students from the Hartt School.

In the afternoon, in addition to the musical preview,  WNPR’s  Colin McEnroe will host the symposium with some of the writing teams at the festival.  One team — Oyen and Presson — have agreed to write a song on the spot.  Also participating is Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich who wrote The Great American Mousical which was produced at Goodspeed at Chester.

In addition, cabarets after the shows on both Friday and Saturday evening will features songs from the writing teams and others working at the Mercer Colony.

On Sunday morning there will be a tour of Goodspeed’s costume collection.

Looking back on the 10-year history,  line producer Donna Lynn Hilton, said the two biggest accomplishments have been the relationship with the Hartt School students and faculty at the University of Hartford and offering young writers opportunities to develop their material in a professional setting.

Photo from the 2013 Festival by Diane Sobolewski

Photo from the 2013 Festival by Diane Sobolewski

The Hartt students perform the majority of roles in the workshops.  “It is so valuable to be able to mentor young people,”  Hilton said. In fact one of the students is now returning to Goodspeed’s writer’s colony to work on a script.

“Many young writers,”  Hilton explained, “haven’t had the exposure to workshops and audiences.  It is thrilling for them and it energizes us;  it is very validating.”

In the ten years, many shows have gone to further workshops and productions.  Some have had off-Broadway productions (Nobody Loves You), some have had additional professional productions (Come From Away which is getting a production at La Jolla Playhouse) and others have been performed by high schools and community theaters throughout the country.  Band Geeks began at the festival and went on to a production  at the Norma Terris Theater in Chester. Now it has been performed throughout the country; this spring Haddam-Killingworth High School is doing the show.

The Festival of New Musicals is just one way, Goodspeed encourages writers.  The Mercer writing colony –named after Johnny Mercer — provides early development opportunities, Hilton said.

“We work with a lot of writers and projects; some may never get to completion.  It is an opportunity to write and to hear other voices in the room,” Hilton said.  “The art form is so collaborative.”

The shows selected for the Festival are discovered in various ways and are in various stages of development.  The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes is furthest along in the development process. Hilton said it has had several workshops and is close to ready for production.  She found For Tonight when she sat next to one of the writers at a National Alliance of Musical Theater meeting and he was commenting on the difficulties of getting his new work seen.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Another Goodspeed line producer found Outlaws and loved it.

The show on Friday evening, Outlaws is a new take on the story of Jesse James and his brother Frank.  While most of us know the two as bank robbers and killers, authors Alexander Sage Oyen (music and lyrics) and James Presson (book) offers a different vision of the brothers.

The idea originated with Oyen who has been fascinated with history and the James brothers since high school.  In a telephone interview, Oyen said he was originally interested in exploring the sibling rivalry dynamic.

The more he and Presson explored the history, Oyen said, the more they realized there was a lot more to the story. “I think there was something about the times — the chaos after the Civil War — that influenced them.  Everything was completely destroyed; his [Jesse James] understanding of what life had been destroyed.  So he felt the need to create order.”

In addition, Jesse James who was religious came to believe, according to Oyen, that not only was he living his life for God but that he came to believe that he was becoming a deity.

“Our show  is about two brothers, one who believed he is God and the other one who realizes he isn’t,” Presson said.

Oyen and Presson got together on the project several years ago.  They describe the music as country rock – blue grass theater music or Americana fusion.  “Every song is a tool to get to the story,” Oyen said.

He and Presson have received a Dramatist Guild Fellowship to work on the show as well as being a finalist in the National Alliance for Musical Theater and was a recipient of a NAMT workshop.

Alex Sage Oyen

Alex Sage Oyen

Oyen comes from a musical family; his mother was the well regarded cabaret singer, Lois Sage.  He learned to harmonize at the age of three, fell in love with music and at the age of 12 was on the reality show “In Search of the Partridge Family” on VHI in 2004 with James Snyder and Emma Stone. But he also met composer John Bucchino who has mentored him along with Steven Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) and Adam Guettel (A Light in the Piazza). He was also named one of Playbill’s Contemporary Musical Theater Writers You Should Know” and selected for the 2014 Johnny Mercer Songwriter’s Project.

James Presson

James Presson

Presson had performed in musicals as a child but his career had mainly been writing plays. His plays have been performed through the country including off-Broadway’s Abingdon Theater and The Vineyard Theater.  The teleplay he co-wrote for Voices in Conflict received two regional Emmy Awards.

A variety of ticket options are available from a gold package that includes all the events including a pre-show dinner on Saturday night and a meet the writers reception on Sunday afternoon.  The silver package includes the three musicals, the symposium and the new musical preview. Tours of the Opera House will also be offered those purchasing packages.

Single tickets are also available.  For more information visit www.goodspeed.org. Information is also provided for those who want to stay close the festival.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

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