NEA grants go to musical works about Marilyn Monroe, My Lai massacre

The National Endowment for the Arts' latest grants total $29.1 million, including $4.2 million in California.

The arts can make strange bedfellows, and now there’s a reason to mention Marilyn Monroe, Sweeney Todd and William Calley in the same breath.

In its latest round of grants, the National Endowment for the Arts has embraced productions by three California-based groups that will bring to life the ill-fated sex symbol, the blood-soaked London barber and the even-more-blood-soaked U.S. Army lieutenant.

The federal arts-funding agency announced $29.1 million in grants this week, funneling taxpayer money to 1,116 recipients -- 36 individual poets who got writing grants, and the rest nonprofit groups. 

California will reap $4.2 million in grants -- a 14.4% share of the money for a state with 12.1% of the population, by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 estimate. Only 32% of the applicants nationwide found favor with the expert panels in various arts disciplines who review and rank grant proposals, and with the NEA’s new chairman, Jane Chu, who has the final say after considering recommendations by the presidentially appointed National Council on the Arts. Grants ranged from $10,000 to $100,000.

The NEA made 41 grants in Los Angeles County, totaling $1,379,000, and five totaling $150,000 in Orange County.

The arts endowment's budget for the current fiscal 2014-15 fiscal year is $146 million, unchanged from the previous year. Eighty percent of the money will be paid as grants.

San Francisco Opera’s staging of composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd” was the only California proposal winning a top grant of $100,000. Opera spokesman Jon Finck said the dates will be specified next month, when it announces the 2015-16 season that begins in the fall.

The NEA’s announcement tentatively named Gerald Finley and Stephanie Blythe as the stars playing the butcherous barber, Todd, and meat-pie purveyor Mrs. Lovett in San Francisco. The director is Lee Blakeley, who originated the production to great acclaim in 2011 at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Before coming to San Francisco, the production will be staged in April by Houston Grand Opera, starring Nathan Gunn and Susan Bullock.

The San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet will receive $80,000 for its attempt to musically evoke the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which at least 300 Vietnamese civilians were killed. The aftermath saw only platoon leader Calley convicted of the crime.

The NEA said that composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Chessman are developing a score for the quartet, augmented by Vietnamese percussion and a traditional Vietnamese zither played by the Vietnamese American musician Van-Anh Vanessa Vo.  Singer-actor Rinde Eckert will carry the narrative. Eckert’s website says “My Lai” will premiere next year at Stanford University, where Berger is a music professor, and in Chicago.

The NEA is giving Long Beach Opera $30,000 to help it dive into the Marilyn Monroe myth with the U.S. premiere of “Marilyn Forever” by composer Gavin Bryars and librettist Marilyn Bowering, scheduled for two performances in March at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.  It premiered last year in Victoria, Canada, cast with two singers -- one playing Monroe and the other a “chorus of men” in her life. The accompanists were a chamber orchestra and a jazz trio that included Bryars on bass.

Among the top grant recipients in Southern California are:

Los Angeles Philharmonic, $90,000 for “Next on Grand,” a series of concerts of new American music in May and June.

Public radio station KCRW (89.9 FM), $85,000 for new programming by independent producers.

Los Angeles Opera, $80,000 toward staging and recording its February-March production of “The Ghosts of Versailles,” an opera about Marie Antoinette by composer John Corigliano and librettist William Hoffman.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, $70,000 for “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada,” a retrospective opening in June on the Los Angeles artist who was a founding director of the Watts Towers Arts Center and began sculpting from charred wreckage of the 1965 Watts riot.

Heart of Los Angeles Youth Inc., $70,000 for its “YOLA at HOLA” program, a partnership with the L.A. Phil in which the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles offers music training for elementary and middle school students.

Los Angeles Master Chorale, $60,000 to support concerts.

L.A.’s Center Theatre Group and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, $50,000 each for new play development. SCR’s grant will fund its annual Pacific Playwrights Festival.

The Venice-based mural group Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) will get $40,000 to help extend Judith Baca’s 1979 half-mile-long “Great Wall of Los Angeles” mural in the San Fernando Valley. Painted along a walled-in flood channel, Tujunga Wash, the original work depicts L.A. history up to 1960. The NEA money will help the Baca-led SPARC in its bid to extend the mural with scenes from the '70s and '80s.

In a relatively new initiative, the NEA is trying to find ways to foster intersections between the arts and technology. A $40,000 grant goes to the Pasadena Arts Council to help it launch a new art-and-tech program called AxS Incubator. It includes what the NEA calls “an artist resource program offering cross-navigational assistance,” which, if Culture Monster’s interpretation of government jargon is not mistaken, means something akin to establishing a dating service where artists and techies can meet, in hopes they’ll click as couples and have beautiful brainchildren together.

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