Under its new artistic director Michael Weber, Porchlight Music Theatre is going to concentrate on this pithy and concise mission: "American Musicals. Chicago Style."
So what, exactly, does that mean?
"Well," Weber said in an interview earlier this week, "for one thing, Porchlight is the only theater that exclusively does music theater and is in (the city of) Chicago proper."
Theo Ubique Theatre might have issues with that, but that Rogers Park company has done the odd play. And what Weber says is true. The big musical houses — the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, the Drury Lane Theatre — are in the suburbs. Major Chicago theaters like the Goodman or Court (never Steppenwolf) have occasionally done musicals, but that is not their mission.
But that's not all Weber wants "American Musicals. Chicago Style" to evoke.
"We hope to approach musicals with the same attitude and Chicago-style intensity as our great theaters like Steppenwolf or those terrific places like Steep Theatre do with plays," he said. "We're not interested in being Chicago's version of the Marriott or Drury Lane. And if people want to see road shows, they can go to Broadway in Chicago tours. We want to develop our own voice. We don't plan to look over our shoulder and wonder how they did it on Broadway and how we might be able to cut it down."
That last sentence is a pretty accurate description of how Porchlight did things under its previous artistic director, L. Walter Stearns, who now runs the Mercury Theatre. In general, Stearns took mainstream musicals like "The King and I' or "Sunday in the Park With George" and tried to remount them on a smaller scale. Sometimes it worked remarkably well; sometimes it did not. There were some decent Porchlight shows during the Stearns years, but few would say that Stearns picked a distinctly Chicago style of musical, or was interested in edgy shows.
All ambitions, of course, must be tempered by available resources. And with musicals, that issue is especially acute. In Chicago, you can put up a play on a few bucks. But musicals require musicians (whose idea of minimum acceptable pay usually differs from that of actors), musical directors, conductors and often higher royalties and rental costs. If you're doing a new musical, that usually means orchestrations and other costs. Porchlight, which has a budget of only about $250,000 per year, has never been a wealthy company. Weber will have to raise a lot more money.
Then there's the matter of talent. The distinction between Equity and non-Equity talent is, all things considered, more pronounced in musicals than in other plays. Under Stearns, Equity contracts at Porchlight were few. Most of the performers on its stage were early in their careers.
Weber said he plans to change that. "I want this to be an Equity company," he said. "We want to bring our audiences the same actors you see working in the musicals at the Marriott or Court. We want to give them the chance to do the kind of work that they do not usually have the chance to do."
By that, Weber means darker, edgier musicals such as "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" or "The Scottsboro Boys," titles that would never appeal to those big suburban venues.
Weber, who is also an actor currently appearing in "For the Boys" at Marriott, certainly has the Rolodex for Chicago talent. He previously ran the Theatre at the Center in Munster (a union musical house), and he had a short, largely fraught term working for the late Tony De Santis, producing musicals at the Drury Lane Water Tower.
Weber has clearly been itching to get back into the game as a musical director.
Porchlight's 2011-12 season, which opens Tuesday night at Theater Wit with the Stephen Sondheim revue "Putting It Together," was picked before Weber was officially hired, so you won't fully see his new ideas reflected in the choice of shows. But Weber has been in on casting, and he says that he's been able to increase the number of Equity contracts and bring in some known players. McKinley Carter and Adam Pelty (who has a raft of Broadway credits) will star in "Putting It Together." Rebecca Finegan and Craig Spidle have been signed for the Chicago premiere of the moody Broadway musical "A Catered Affair," with direction by Nick Bowling and musical direction by Doug Peck.
With any itinerant company, space is a perennial issue. For the last several years, Porchlight has operated at Stage 773. "Putting it Together" is opening at Theatre Wit because Stage 773 is under renovation. So will Porchlight return?
"They've done a ton of work at Stage 773, and I think those are going to be really nice theaters," Weber said. "But I'm interested in finding the right space for the individual show."
"Putting it Together" runs through Oct. 16 at Theater Wit; 773-975-8150 or porch
'Putting it Together'
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.