Musicals in the Works : Programs bank on attracting area talent to workshops providing cost-effective ways of producing successful stage works

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Libby Slate writes regularly for The Times.

In a dance studio in Burbank, Tony Award-winning director Grover Dale, creative adviser to the “Broadway on Sunset” musical development program, watches a scene from a work-in-progress in which a young man who believes he is gay sits awkwardly with a woman on a park bench, voicing his fear and confusion in a song.

Afterward, Dale gives notes to the show’s librettist-lyricist-composer, telling him the dialogue preceding the song does not prepare the audience for the music’s emotional content.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, two dozen student members of the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop gather to share and critique the results of their latest assignment, designed to sharpen characterization skills: the writing of a song for the character of Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”


And in a Beverly Hills Public Library auditorium, home of the American Musical Theatre Repertory, guests watch a staged reading of a new musical called “Oh, Rats!” described as a zany farce loosely based on the legend of the Pied Piper.

Los Angeles--where the film and television camera is king--as a Mecca for new musicals? You’d better believe it, say the directors of this trio of programs. They say that given today’s economic climate, the city’s large talent pool, and the fact that New York no longer has a lock on the opening of original musicals, they hope to provide a cost-effective means of developing the musicals of the ‘90s.

“Musical theater is a very important American form, and it’s in jeopardy in terms of its usual presentation,” says John Sparks, a co-director of the Lehman Engel workshop, which the late musical director founded in 1968.

“For most audiences, musicals come to them via Broadway. Now it costs $10 million to do a show, so you have maybe only three or four a year, one or two of which are successful. If they’re successful, they’ll run a national tour and won’t be licensed to civic light operas and local theaters for a decade.

“It used to be that other than the enormous hits, shows would open and close, and those were the ones that would go to civic light operas and summer theaters. But those shows don’t come anymore, so I think it’s time for those of us in the regions to develop them.”

The Hollywood-based Broadway on Sunset, with five programs offered three or four times annually, is the most comprehensive of the three enterprises. (UCLA Extension last summer also offered a course, “Creating the Musical,” which may repeat in the future.)


Playwright Libbe S. HaLevy and composer Kevin Kaufman--who have collaborated on five produced musicals--established the Hollywood workshop in 1981. It is now sponsored by the Songwriters Guild of America, which has headquarters on Sunset Boulevard.

The curriculum includes a six-week Practical Course overview, which is the only program in Los Angeles covering the business aspects of musical theater production. Among other topics are finding a collaborator, the psychology and ethics of collaboration, libretto and lyric writing, and musical styles and content. The six-week Practical Course overview is $185, $149 for Songwriters Guild members.

In addition, HaLevy and Kaufman also conduct an interview series with professionals from all walks of theatrical life. The interview series is $35, or $25 for guild members. HaLevy, whose non-musical play about incest survivors, “Shattered Secrets,” ran locally for 2 1/2 years, also directs a four-week libretto workshop, which costs $120.

Presented occasionally is a reading program, with a $150 enrollment fee, in which a writer’s completed musical is read before a group of invited directors and discussed. After a month for rewrites, a second reading is held for a wider field of theater professionals.

The most ambitious program is the Practicum, a $75 developmental workshop held at the Gypsy Playhouse in Burbank, in which participants choose one scene and song from their shows, to be staged by a director and/or choreographer and performed in front of an audience of theater pros and the general public. Recent projects have drawn the likes of Carrie Snodgress and Donna McKechnie as performers, with the latter also directing one excerpt. In addition to a post-performance discussion, the audience fills out comment cards.

“It’s amazing how much you can learn from the microcosm of one song and one scene,” HaLevy observes. “It gives writers a taste of production, starts getting their feet wet in dealing with directors and actors. We suggest they pick one of their weaker scenes, because that’s where they’ll learn the most. The Practicum is not a matter of showing off but of safely learning to work on a show and doing what you have to do to make it better.”


Eleven musicals developed through Broadway on Sunset have subsequently received full-scale productions. HaLevy and Kaufman are also planning a development program independent of BOS, for which they hope to attract the support of film and other entertainment industry resources.

For its part, the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop--with annual dues of $200--focuses primarily on the craft of musical writing. In the first year, students complete four book-writing and four songwriting assignments, such as the aforementioned “Streetcar Named Desire” ballad, or the writing of a comedy number for the character of Lola in “Come Back, Little Sheba.”

“You have an emotional detachment from these assignments, as you wouldn’t have for a work of your own devising,” explains Sparks, himself a workshop member. “After a year of critiques, you have objectivity when you start your own project. The assignments have an interesting effect: Everyone has to solve the same dramatic problem. Writers are surprised at how many solutions there are. It’s a very expanding experience to see how other people deal with the same problem.”

Students are also asked to devise a 10-minute original musical scene. Those who survive the year become associate members, usually for two years, during which time they must complete a full-length musical and have it presented at a reading.

Then, upon attaining full membership status, writers are expected to continue to create professional-caliber projects. The workshop offers producing organizations a catalogue of 19 musicals, full-scale productions of which have been mounted in Chicago, Juneau, Portland and Bakersfield.

The project is now beginning to look beyond its initial mandate to also develop commercial shows, possibly for local civic light operas that do not have the time and money to do so. Another possibility is the offering of a workshop show as a free bonus to subscribers at local theaters. One such project, “Roleplay,” was presented under that guise at the Colony Studio Theater, whose producing director then recommended it to a friend who runs the Village Theatre Company in New York; the show has now been running there for several months.


As for the American Musical Theatre Repertory, founder-artistic director Ron Celona’s raison d’etre from the beginning was to present fully staged original musicals. A former singer, dancer and actor, it was his experience performing in local productions that inspired him to create the company.

“The shows were horrible,” he recalls. “The producers were always the writers, so they couldn’t be objective and see that there was anything wrong with their piece. I thought that if there were an artistic staff instead of the writer doing the production, the writer could stand back and do what was for the good of the piece.”

Accordingly, his 2-year-old company, which includes “A Chorus Line” original cast member Kay Cole as choreographer and another musical veteran, Ron Husmann, as director, has so far presented staged readings of two musicals, “Oh, Rats!” and “The Gig,” both chosen from a catalogue by the National Music Theater Network, based in New York.

The performances are preceded by a weeklong intensive development period in which the creators work with Celona and his staff to whip the show into its best possible shape; after the show, the audience of theater pros and the general public fills out questionnaires about content and other matters.

Like his colleagues, Celona wants to reach the point where he can develop musicals for a long commercial life. His next workshop, which is free to participants, will probably occur in January or February, and he also hopes to start a children’s workshop.

Though all of these programs are conducted in the interest of the shows’ creators, those who ultimately benefit, of course, are the audiences for whom the musicals are intended. As HaLevy says, “I feel people are hungry for the emotional richness you can get through the musical art form. It’s beyond dialogue. There’s an emotional interchange which, when done correctly, brings you to a whole new level.”


For information about these programs: Broadway on Sunset: (818) 508-9270; Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop: (213) 465-9142; American Musical Theatre Repertory: (310) 659-2687.