New `Pompeii’ musical erupts in San Francisco

Ask a group of San Francisco theater enthusiasts what they think about a show and you’ll get more than an earful.

That’s what R.C. Staab found out – the hard way – when he held a reading of his new musical, Shadows of Pompeii, at 42nd Street Moon’s Moonspace last January.


In a rare move, Moon, the group that dusts off old and forgotten musicals, agreed to present a workshop production of Pompeii, which has a book by Staab and a score by Keith Herrmann, Tony nominated for Romance/Romance in 1988. That production, directed by Dianna Shuster, opens Thursday, April 16 and runs through April 26 at the Eureka Theatre.

But first came the reading, that painful reading.

Given Staab’s background in marketing (he works for the San Jose Mercury News), he knew exactly wanted from his capacity audience at the reading. They were instructed to fill out a detailed form immediately following each of the two acts asking about specific songs and characters, then they were asked to fill out a third questionnaire with more general comments about the overall show.

“That audience was brutal,” Staab says over coffee in his downtown San Francisco neighborhood. “One guy wanted us to change the location of the show from Pompeii to Herculaneum. Another wanted the volcano to erupt at the beginning of the show. I was fairly depressed the next day.”

A musical theater lover since his high school days, Staab got involved in theater as a performer at the University of Missouri (where he studied journalism) and then worked in a number of community theater productions in Harrisburg, Pa. When he and his wife, who works in television, were living in Raleigh, N.C., Staab decided it was time to try and write a show. Trouble was, he didn’t write music.

Through ASCAP’s Collaborator’s Corner, he was able to connect with composer Jeff Pflaumbaum and the pair wrote the musical comedy Fountain of Youth, which received a workshop production last year from American Musical Theatre of San Jose before it went belly up.

When he set out to write another show, Staab wanted to work with a Bay Area composer, so he put an ad in Theatre Bay Area magazine. One of the respondents had the idea to write a musical about Pompeii, the Roman city in the shadow of Vesuvius, the volcano that would eventually bury the city in ash and lava. That collaboration didn’t work out, but Staab was left with a working libretto and no score.

So it was back to ASCAP, where he found Herrmann, and the work continued.

With the goal of entering his new musical in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival of New Musicals, Staab needed the help of a member organization here in the Bay Area, which meant one of four groups: AMTSJ, Woodminster Summer Musicals, TheatreWorks or 42nd Street Moon. The deal was that Staab would pay for the production if he could present it under the auspices of a member theater.

AMT took on Fountain of Youth (which has been submitted for the 2009 NAMT festival), and 42nd Street Moon’s Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhoads asked their board about helping produce Shadows of Pompeii and almost immediately got the green light.

Since the January reading, Staab has been busy making changes to his show. He took the suggestions from that brutal audience quite seriously. Songs have been changed and re-ordered. The volcano eruption happens much earlier in Act 2. Character names have been made less Roman and more contemporary. And the opening number has been almost completely re-shaped.

“We never wanted this to be a toga musical,” Staab says. “It’s set in 79 AD, but we wanted it to feel contemporary. We eliminated a lot of the references to the Roman gods, which seemed kind of stilted. We wanted the story to feel more real to the present.”

Because this is a workshop production, there’s no set but there are original costumes by Maya Linke and Krista Nelson, who have taken their inspiration from the fall 2009 line by Alexander McQueen.  For the leading character, a Pompeii artist named Lila, Linke was inspired by the prodigious silhouettes created by Cristobal
in the late 1950s and ’60s.

Composer Herrmann isn’t able to be in San Francisco for the workshop production, so Staab is, as he puts it, “the driver.” He says he has “deputized” the entire cast – which includes Russ Lorenson, Sarah Aili, Carrie Madsen and Carmichael Blankenship — to become librettists and to feel free to offer their observations, insights and suggestions for change.

“They have taken up that job with a lot of gusto,” Staab says.

And though it might mean more pain, Staab says he will be soliciting audience feedback throughout the entire run.

“When some people say they want feedback, they really just want compliments and approval,” he says. “I really want feedback. That’s the whole point.”

Shadows of Pompeii runs through April 26 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Call 415-255-8207 or visit or for information.

New musicals are hot, hot, hot

Audiences around the country are clamoring for …wait for it…wait for it…musicals.

Sue Frost, a founding partner of Junkyard Dog Productions, a group dedicated to the development and production of new musicals, says that last year, she was part of a new musicals panel at a Theatre Communications Group conference and it was overflowing with 800 attendees.

“That represents a sea change in interest in new musicals,” Frost says. “A few years ago, we’d have been lucky to get eight people at that panel discussion.”

Frost comes by her interest in new musicals from years of work with new musicals. She is a past president of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, a 23-year-old service organization dedicated exclusively to musical theater. The group’s 150-some members are from 31 states and eight countries and represent major regional theaters such as the Bay Area’s TheatreWorks and American Musical Theatre of San Jose, as well as theaters, presenting organizations, universities and individual producers.

Frost, who has two new musicals on their way to Broadway – Vanities, a New Musical, which had its world premiere at TheatreWorks in 2006, and Memphis, which played TheatreWorks in 2003 – says that because new musicals are so complicated, especially when compared to a play, the path to production is much more complicated.

That’s where a group such as NAMT comes in.

“Creating musicals is expensive, and with so many collaborators they require more resources,” she says. “One thing that NAMT has honed in on in the past several years is how members can work together. You can take a show that has perhaps been given a small showcase and had early development but for whatever reason has languished for lack of someone to take it to the next level. Within the organization we can find folks with similar goals or aesthetics who might help take the show to the next level. What would take the writers many years, you can condense into a reasonable timeline by working effectively, collaboratively.”

Kathy Evans, executive director of NAMT, has been with the group since 2002, and in addition to organizing two conferences a year, she also helms the Festival of New Musicals, which is happening this week (Oct. 20 and 21) in New York. During the festival, eight new musicals are given 45-minute staged readings featuring often stellar casts, and the performances are attended by 500 or so invited producers, investors and agents from around the world. Each show is performed twice, and show creators likely have their fingers crossed for the entire two days.

Back when NAMT was started, musicals were perceived as being solely the province of commercial theater and did not get much love from funders. Producers and creators of musical theaters decided to take matters into their own hands.
“So about 12 regional theaters pooled their resources to develop new musicals that would then, with luck, be seen beyond the membership,” Evans explains. “The genesis of the festival, which started in 1989, was to allow members to look at each others’ work.”

Among this year’s festival offerings are big-ticket shows such as Pamela’s First Musical, with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Wendy Wasserstein, lyrics by David Zippel and a score by Cy Coleman.

The show, based on a children’s book by Wasserstein, was originally announced as part of a recent TheatreWorks season, but the one-two loss of both Wasserstein and Coleman was a powerful setback. But Zippel is carrying on, and we will likely be hearing about Pamlea at regional theaters in the near future.

This year’s festival also includes The Cuban and the Redhead, Robert Bartley and Danny Whitman’s musical inspired by the rocky marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and See Rock City & Other Destinations, a musical about tourist spots and losing one’s self to find one’s self, by Adam Mathias and Brad Alexander, winners of this year’s Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre.

Hopes are, of course, high that this year’s crop of musicals will find receptive theaters and audiences around the country. Past success stories from the festival include Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Drowsy Chaperone and Songs for a New World.

Broadway is always a lofty goal, but it’s not necessarily the benchmark of a musical’s success anymore.

“One thing I’ve learned as we’ve seen the membership of NAMT grow is that there’s a huge audience for musical theater, and it’s not all within these 20 Broadway blocks,” Frost says. “Shows that have never come to New York have done remarkably well.”

One such example is Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden, which NAMT members were crazy about. The show was done in London but has yet to make it to Broadway. Still, the show has managed hundreds of productions.

And sometimes the musicals do make the leap to Broadway. Vanities, another hit at the NAMT festival two years ago, is set to begin performances in New York next February after an out-of-town tryout at the Pasadena Playhouse that closed last month.

Frost, along with partners Randy Adams (who spent 21 years TheatreWorks’ managing director) and Kenny Alhadeff, says the out-of-town run was hugely helpful and that the creative team – book writer Jack Heifner (author of the original play), composer David Kirshenbaum, director Judith Ivey and choreographer Dan Knechtges – is now at work exploring a more emotionally cathartic ending as well as a more focused opening.

“We really listened to the audience,” Frost says. “We tried doing it in two acts, but after three previews we were back to being one act. We learned that the pastiche sound – the show begins in 1963 and ends in the late ’80s – should be used sparingly, so David’s score is evocative without being derivative. Discovering what lands, what doesn’t – it’s why you go out of town to develop a new musical.”

Visit for information on the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. Visit for information on “Vanities, a New Musical.”