What's really 'new' at New Musicals fest?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As Southern California's inaugural Festival of New American Musicals winds to a close, some observers and participants are raising this question: How, exactly, does this festival define the word "new"?

The wide-ranging event -- which began May 1 and closes with the July 10-13 staged reading of the musical "Dance With Me," based on the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz -- has included 148 events in 36 theaters from Santa Barbara to San Diego, reaching, according to the festival's leadership, an estimated 122,000 theatergoers.

But the fest -- organized by Marcia Seligson, founder and former producer and artistic director of the Reprise! musicals series, and marketing executive Bob Klein -- has included not only approximately a dozen world premiere productions and first readings or staged readings of musicals, but also about the same number of musicals that have had previous productions elsewhere.

West Coast premieres

Among the latter group are several shows that can claim to be West Coast premieres -- but one of those musicals, "The Times," by Brad Ross and Joe Keenan, had received a full production at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., in 1993, pushing the boundaries of what one might describe as "new." And one festival offering -- "Brain From Planet X," presented at the Chance Theater -- was produced locally at Los Angeles City College in 2006 and in the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2007.

Bruce Kimmel, who wrote "Brain From Planet X" with David Wechter, praised the festival's intent but, referring to "The Times," said: "You can't call a 15-year-old show a new musical, even though you can call it an L.A. premiere. It's just truth in advertising: New is new."

"The Times" also sparked a rather heated mid-June discussion on the theater website Talkin’ Broadway’s All That Chat, where a writer using the handle westcoastdrama wrote: "I love a great new musical. I even love revivals of great musicals. But I abhor when producers lie."

Such questions about the vintage of the festival's musicals does not faze Seligson, who said that choices were made on a case-by-case basis.

"We always said, from the beginning, what our definition of a musical that would fit for the festival, or was appropriate, was one that hadn't been done in Los Angeles before -- and that, for the most part, almost entirely was true," she said.

"That was not true of Bruce's show because he did it at L.A. City College, so that was an exception," Seligson continued. "There were a couple of exceptions -- and they were things that really deserved to be seen after the author had a time period to work on them. Until shows hit Broadway or the West End, they are works in progress. We weren't going to do 'Cats' at a festival of new American musicals, but I guess we were being sort of looser, and still are, about the word 'new' than some of these people who I guess we are talking about, who think this should have been the first time it's ever been seen outside of the composer's living room."

Works in progress

Seligson added that, despite the time that has passed since the 1993 production, "The Times" fit the parameters of this festival because "it's such a good show, and has so much potential and still needs work. And it has never been done here before."

If people object to her parameters, she added, "then you know what? I think they should do their own festival."

Gordon Hunt, who directed "The Times," said, "I don't have a problem at all" with the festival's loose definition of "new." "It's a difficult racket, the making of a musical, the developing of a musical, and anything done to encourage that and to celebrate that is really a good thing," he said.

Some reviewers have pointed out that one show, "My Antonia" at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre, is not really a musical. Adapted by Scott Schwartz from the 1918 novel by Willa Cather, the drama contains incidental music by Schwartz's father, the Tony Award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz. Seligson acknowledged that festival organizers are describing the production -- which was originally produced at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto in 2004 -- as "a new drama with music."

That's also OK with Seligson, who says that next year's festival will still be called "The Festival of New Musicals" and will espouse the same broad interpretation of the word "new." "If someone with a lot of time on their hands wants to carp about 'My Antonia' not being a musical, then that's fine with me," Seligson said.


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