By Karen Isaacs
What draws so many people from New York City, Connecticut and surrounding states to East Haddam Friday, Jan. 13 to Sunday, Jan. 14, that tickets are scarce?
It’s the Goodspeed Annual Festival of New Musicals now in its 12th year. The Festival features a weekend long roster of activities and according to Bob Alwine, associate producer, many of the festival’s special packages that include tickets for multiple events sell out.
The focus of the festival is just as its name implies: developing new musicals by giving the creative teams a chance to work with directors and casts to rehearse and then put on a staged reading in front of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience.
Over the years, Goodspeed has developed a relationship with the Hartt School at the University of Hartford and uses its senior students majoring in musical theater for the roles. Students from the Boston Conservatory of Music also audition for some of the roles.
This year, Alwine has been instrumental in putting together the shows being staged, although each came to his and Goodspeed’s attention in a different way. Yet they share one thing in common; all of the writing teams had been part of the Johnny Mercer Foundation Writers Workshop. This month long program allows writing teams to work intensively on new works while having the support of an on-site dramaturg, producer and Goodpseed’s music department. The Mercer Colony Workshop begins Monday, Jan. 16 for four weeks.
Selecting the musicals for the Festival is part balancing act, according to Alwine. “We consider, of course, the quality of the work, but we also have to consider more practical matters. Since we cast with students we look for shows that have appropriate age ranges in the cast and ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, there is not always a lot of diversity in the student bodies at some of the schools.”
“Lots of new musicals feature small casts,” Alwine said, “because for new writing teams small cast shows are easier to get produced. But we want each student to have a role, so we need to consider cast size as well.”
Over the years, the reputation of the Festival has grown which means that more works are asked to be considered and more established writing teams submit works for consideration.
ZM is just such a show. Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis created the satiric musical Urinetown which ran for just under 1,000 performances on Broadway and won Tonys for best book and score. It has toured and played London. They had been working on ZM at the Mercer Colony and submitted it for consideration; they thought it was “fit to work on with students,” Alwine said. Urinetown was known for its political satire – it is about a time when water is in such short supply that toilets are controlled by corporations and people must pay to use them. The show also paid homage to other social-conscious musicals such as Threepenny Opera, The Cradle Will Rock and even Les Miz.
This show, Alwine said which is about a fast food chain’s “special sauce” that turns people into zombies, is not as satiric as their other show. “It’s still tongue-in-cheek and a little campy,” Alwine said, “and it does make some comments about corporate greed.”
The show that opens the festival, Picnic at Hanging Rock is by Daniel Zaitchik whose musical Darling Grenedine will receive a workshop production at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater in Chester this year (Aug. 18 to Sept. 17). The show is based on a novel by Joan Lindsay and is set on Valentine’s Day, 1900, in Victoria, Australia. It is described as about a trip a group of young women college students take to Hanging Rock, the ancient geological rock formation. According to Alwine, Zaitchik worked on the show at the Mercer Colony and this past summer it had a reading as part of the O’Neill Center’s musical theater program.
The third musical, Row, is by Daniel Goldstein, who is both a writer and director; he directed Damn Yankees at Goodspeed. Row with music and lyrics by Dawn Landes) has had several readings but this will be the first staged reading. (The difference is that there is more movement, some costumes, etc). The smallest cast of the three shows, Row is about Tori Murden who in 1998 attempted to row across the Atlantic in a homemade vessel.
“Last year, as part of the Festival’s symposia, we had several writing teams give ‘5 minute pitches’ about their projects to show the attendees the process of getting a work produced. Daniel gave a pitch for Row; that was how it came to our attention,” Alwine said.
A major part of the festival is the multiple symposiums and other activities on Saturday, Jan. 15. Attendees can get to tour Goodspeed, preview a musical that will be produced at the Terris Theater this year, as well as choose from a variety of speakers and panels.
On Friday, Jan. 13 and Saturday, Jan 14, following the staged readings, the Festival Cabaret takes place at the Gelston house, next door to the theater. Alwine said “some of the most enlightening things occur at the cabaret.” Writing teams from the Mercer Colony as well as the three teams showcasing works often present material from the shows they are working on performed by themselves or the students. In fact, Alwine said that the Cabaret was how the Festival found the musical Band Geeks.
This year, the Friday evening cabaret features Matthew Lee Robinson whose music has been heard at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center’s Broadway’s Future Songbook series. Two of his works, Atlantis and Happy People have received workshops.
Mark Sonnenblick will be featured in the Saturday evening cabaret. He is participating this year in the Mercer Colony (he also did last winter) and has been a Dramatists Guild fellow, a librettist for the Kennedy Center’s American Opera Initiative and the Yale Institute for Music Theatre.
The Festival would love to expand, but space is a problem, Alwine said. While tickets are available for the actual staged readings, space is limited for the other events which use the next door Gelston House restaurant and the restaurant La Vita, which is across the street, for the symposiums and cabaret.
Over the years, shows that had staged readings have gone on to production and to licensing agreements which allow schools, colleges and both professional and community theaters to produce them. Among those are Band Geeks, Theory of Relativity and Harmony, Kansas.
One show that began life at the Festival will open on Broadway this Spring: Come from Away tells the story of how the people of Gander, Newfoundland respond when dozens of jumbo jets where diverted to their airport after Sept. 11.
For information on tickets and packages, contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.
Content courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.
“Come from Away” which began life at the 2013 festivval (above) will open on Broadway this Spring. Photo by Diane Sobolowski.