Starlight Thinks About Changing Its Tune : Musicals: The decline in new Broadway productions is prompting many theaters, the Starlight included, to ponder the risk, and cost, of producing original works.


It’s fitting that Starlight Musical Theatre chose “La Cage Aux Folles” as its last production of the current season.

The 1983 Broadway hit, about a young man brought up by a loving gay couple, is the song-filled story about a crisis of identity (not with the couple, but with the man who dreads the sight of his “mother” cross-dressing when his fiancee’s parents come calling).

It’s a crisis of identity, albeit of a different sort, that propels Starlight toward its 45th season.


The questions it confronts are these:

Will Starlight continue to be a house of revivals?

Will it continue to scout Broadway for new shows even as a dwindling number of them open on Broadway, and only a fraction of those receive enough acclaim to even last?

Or will Starlight pursue the goals iterated by its 70 fellow members of the National Alliance of Musical Theatres, a group which resolved to devote itself to the development of new musicals, with the hope that those shows will eventually go to Broadway?

Can Starlight and other musical theaters make that move without losing what made them viable in the past--giving subscribers the old-fashioned, familiar, warm musical that they’ve always liked and that many still seem to want?

The questions became pointed when “A Change in the Heir,” a new fairy-tale musical by a new composing team (Daniel Sticco, music and George Gorham, lyrics), was proposed for the

1990 schedule by executive producer Harris Goldman. It was tentatively booked in the Spreckels Theatre and then dropped before the new season was announced.

Daniel McSweeney, executive vice president of the 31-member board of trustees, said he opposed “A Change in the Heir” because the funding was not yet in place for a new work. In 1990, Starlight will present four musicals new to the company: “Follies,” Starlight’s first attempt at a Sondheim musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Me and My Girl” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” (The fifth, “Carousel,” will mark the fourth time the painted ponies will be going up and down for Starlight.)

The 1991 season will be soon enough for a world premiere at Starlight, McSweeney said.

“It’s a question of timing. We have to be very careful, because we don’t have the funding sources that would support something like that. That’s why ‘A Change in the Heir’ was controversial. It was such a new thought (introducing a new play) that many people on the board were afraid. But that’s not to say that next year we wouldn’t do something just like that.”

Still, the elimination of the project, which now may go directly to New York, exacerbated conflicts that had been brewing all year. The principal players were Goldman, who was brought into the organization because of his commitment to new works; co-artistic directors Don and Bonnie Ward, equally committed but with different tastes and management styles, and the board. Some blame the problems on the tensions of being in the transitional state in which Starlight now finds itself.

No one will be surprised if the two years remaining on Goldman’s contract are bought out within the month.

“Starlight is pretty much in the mainstream of musical theater companies in this country,” said Jim Thesing, president of the National Alliance, who just returned to New York after a trip to San Diego to see Starlight and other local theaters.

“Most of these companies have relied very heavily on what you would call the traditional repertory, but how many times can you do the old standards?” Thesing asked.

The National Alliance was founded in 1986 because musical theaters across the country recognized they had two common problems: The cost of producing quality musicals was rising and the pool of new work was shrinking.

Non-musical regional theaters have been addressing those problems over the past decade by relying more heavily on fund-raising and by commissioning or producing new work themselves.

In the last few years, besides their presentation of new musicals, the Old Globe Theatre sent “The Cocktail Hour” and “Rumors” to New York and the La Jolla Playhouse sent “A Walk in the Woods” and “Dangerous Games.”

“Some of us feel there is a real opportunity right now to create a regional theater movement for new musicals just like the wonderful regional theater movement for new plays,” Thesing said. “I think San Diego is one of the best places in this country for this type of thing happening. And I think the necessity for Starlight to do it is a little more keen because of the other institutions here doing this work.”

Three years ago, Thesing said eight new musicals were presented by National Alliance members. Last year, there were 25 new productions. Two shows, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Grover’s Corners” (the latter a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”), were co-productions by various National Alliance theaters which shared the expense of orchestration, costumes and sets among the co-producing theaters.

“The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” co-produced by the Long Beach Civic Light Opera and Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, is booked for a tour of regional theaters through June of 1990 and “Grover’s Corners,” co-produced by the Sacramento Music Circus, the North Shore Music Theatre in Boston and Casa Manana Musicals in Ft. Worth, Tex., will open next summer at North Shore and then go to the other theaters.

In October, the National Alliance played host to its first Festival of First Stage Musicals, a dozen readings in New York, with the hope that some theater representatives would see something they could use for their upcoming seasons.

The Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, for instance, picked up “The Real Life Story of Johnny BeFacto,” a story of a rock musician whose career is boosted by an attempted assassination on his life.

Another festival offering is under consideration by Starlight, to be co-produced with other member theaters, but neither Thesing nor the Wards will name it, explaining that negotiations are at “a delicate stage.”

No one wants to get anyone’s expectations up about a project that may not come to pass. Working out contractual details for a new work can be as tricky as a marriage. The project has to fit the stages, styles and tastes of the cooperating companies, and the Wards have seen other projects slip through the company’s fingers when one of the co-producing companies dropped out.

Still, with the commitment of both the artistic directors and the board to new work, the Wards are convinced that a world premiere in a Starlight season is just a matter of time.

And that couldn’t please the Wards more. The two, co-artistic directors since 1982, grew up with Starlight as performers, playing opposite each other in “Carousel” in 1952. Bonnie Ward’s father, Robert H. Baker, performed in Starlight’s “The Mikado” 40 years ago. And some of the Wards’ children, who began their theatrical careers as Munchkins in a Starlight production of “The Wizard of Oz,” continue to return to the Starlight stage; Kirby Ward starred in “My One and Only” earlier this season.

“We desperately love musical theater,” said Bonnie Ward. “And Don and I have known for a long time that Starlight hasn’t begun reaching its potential. But I feel we are just hitting our stride. We are moving in the direction we want to move, and we’re excited.

“There is no musical theater product coming out of the Broadway arena, and the regional theaters must take the initiative to get new productions to Broadway. It’s terribly risky financially, but someone has got to do it or there won’t be any ‘Sound of Musics’ in the future.”

Board president Marshall Lucas concurs.

“We want to save the American musical,” he said. “It’s been my vision for a long time to see Starlight grow. I want to have a West Coast premiere, I want to have a world premiere, but it takes time. We need to make changes, but I don’t want to make abrupt changes. We have to do it with style and with timing and respect.”

Lucas’ vision includes a six-play season, with three shows indoors as part of a winter season (possibly in the Lyceum) that stresses more serious work (like “Threepenny Opera”) and three lighter choices outdoors in the Starlight Bowl. The board is planning to work funding for a new work in 1991 into the coming budgetary plans.

But a key question is whether Starlight will raise the money it needs in the months ahead.

Even though Starlight’s 44th season was an unprecedented box office success, grossing $40,000 more than the projected $400,000 per show, the company has still not raised the 15% of the $2.5 million budget that it needs to end the season in the black.

“Expansion costs money,” Goldman said. “We still have not met our fund-raising goals for this year. Depending on where we are by Dec. 31, we may or may not break even. At this point we are close.”

Even if Starlight meets its fund-raising goals this year, the larger issue is that if Starlight has difficulty raising the 15% of unearned income it needed in this year’s budget, what will the company do when it needs an even greater percentage of unearned income to put in the coffers for new works?

New works have many hidden costs--new orchestrations, new costumes, new sets and more rehearsal time for the inevitable revisions. In addition, there is no built-in audience for unknown works by unfamiliar composers as there is for a “Carousel.”

Starlight’s case is not unusual, Thesing said. Companies like the Goodspeed and the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, both of which regularly initiate new work (Goodspeed premiered “Man of La Mancha,” “Shenandoah” and “Annie”), may be heavily supported by local patrons and state and national funding, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Philanthropists don’t tend to give to musical theater companies, said Thesing, because “There is a kind of a stigma attached to musical theater. Musical theater is traditionally thought of as Broadway, and, since Broadway hits make a pile of money, people think musical theater makes a pile of money.”

Instead, said Thesing, even full houses don’t enable theaters to meet their expenses any more.

As a result, Starlight executives said the company will be unveiling a new fund-raising campaign in the next few months. Recently, they held a fund-raising party targeted to audiences in their 30s--quite a bit younger than the usual Starlight crowd. They are also trying to ease their audiences both into accepting works that Starlight has not done before and into an indoor season to complement the outdoor one in the Starlight Bowl.

The Starlight Bowl itself is a historical cause of dissension in the organization because it is in the flight path of Lindbergh Field. In 1967, when attendance at Starlight, dipped from a high of 4,000 a night in the ‘50s to early ‘60s, when the theater was called Ford Bowl, to under 2,000 a night, the Starlight management team blamed its problems on the airplanes and made a series of moves--from the San Diego Civic Theatre to San Diego Zoo’s Wedgeforth Bowl (where they swapped airplane noise for screaming peacocks and barking seals) to San Diego State University.

Attendance dropped to a low of 500 before Starlight limped back to the Starlight Bowl in 1974, where the attendance has been climbing to stabilize at about 3,000.

Still the air traffic increases each year, reaching a high of 45 a night this season alone. To compensate, Starlight uses a series of freezes in which traffic lights direct the actors to stop suddenly and simultaneously when a plane is coming.

“There is no limit to what Starlight can become except in our own minds,” said Don Ward. “But we have to find a new venue. We can’t survive with the airplanes. But we also have to respect an audience that loves the park.”

That leaves the organization looking for not only a new indoor theater--where new work can be produced without the distraction of the planes-- but a new outdoor stage because, eventually, with the ever-increasing air traffic, even the cleverness of the freeze-frame system may wear thin.

In the meantime, San Diego audiences will not be the only ones watching to see what Starlight pulls out of its hat in the next few years.

New productions benefit all musical theaters said Philip Wm. McKinley, musical theater project coordinator at the Paper Mill, a company that also narrowly passed on “A Change in the Heir” this year.

McKinley, who just put the finishing touches on a new cowboy musical called “Rhythm Ranch” for the Paper Mill, said new work from new sources would be as welcome as water in a desert.

“Any involvement that any musical theater has in the production of new works is only going to benefit everyone,” McKinley said.