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.”

Helping Broadway musicals go (sh-k-) Boom!

Kurt Deutsch didn’t mean to get into the record business.

The self-described “total theater guy” grew up in St. Louis going to theater whenever possible (usually at The Muny) and then studied directing and acting in college. His big break came when Evan Handler had to leave the Broadway production of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound for health reasons (he was diagnosed with leukemia, survived, wrote a fantastic book about it, Time on Fire, and went on to star in, among other things, Sex and the City, so there’s a happy ending here).

Deutsch replaced Handler and did the show for a year and half, and then went on to Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men.

After he moved to Los Angeles, Deutsch met the woman who would become his wife, actress Sherie Rene Scott, while working on Randy Newman’s musical Faust. The show didn’t go anywhere, but the relationship did.

When Scott was getting ready to do Disney’s Aida on Broadway, she was offered a record contract – every performer’s dream, right? – and Deutsch looked it over.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” he says during a phone interview. “I thought we should just do it ourselves, and one thing led to another. I had no intention of doing cast albums or any of the stuff we ended up doing. I was just going to do a record with my wife.”

That was eight years ago, and Sh-K-Boom records, co-founded by Scott (the Sh) and Deutsch (the K), has become a major force in the realm of Broadway music. Originally the label started as an outlet for Broadway performers to show their musical colors outside of cast albums. Scott, along with the likes of Adam Pascal of Rent and Alice Ripley of Side Show, released pop-rock, singer-songwriter albums.

Then original cast albums began to creep into the picture as Deutsch began to learn more about the music industry, recording contracts and business models.

“The usual recording contracts are awful,” Deutsch says. “The record company pays for the record, but then the artist never makes any money off the record. The same kind of contract is given to shows. The royalty deal is horrible because you have to sell so many records to see any money off of it. I thought it was so unfair. I couldn’t believe producers would sign these things. I realized cast albums could be an asset and make money, theoretically. Producers spend all this money creating the shows, why wouldn’t they want to create their own cast album? So we created a different model for producers to share in the revenue from cast albums in an equitable way.”

The music industry is an industry in turmoil. Technology has wreaked havoc with traditional means of recording and distribution – thank you, iTunes. Deutsch has had to be creative and to develop a mission.

“When I go see the shows, there are two aspects I’m considering: preservation and money making,” Deutsch explains. “I know certain shows will probably never make back their investments. I’m very honest with the producer or the not-for-profit that is producing it. We then find angels to support the cast album, which is probably the most important tool if the show is going to have a life beyond this production. If a recording exists, productions will happen.”

Deutsch, of course, is not running a not-for-profit organization. He has to make money to stay in business. But he has gotten good at helping shows find money, whether he taps a moneyed believer in the show, the music publisher or other sponsors.

For releasing cast albums, Deutsch created a separate label called Ghostlight Records (named for the single bulb lamp left on stages after a performance), and among the cast albums he has released are this year’s Tony-winner for best musical, In the Heights, Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and another recent Tony-winner, Passing Strange, which was recorded live and has the distinction of being the first original Broadway cast recording released in a digital format before it was released to brick-and-mortar stores.

“There will always be something physical people will buy, especially collectors of recordings,” Deutsch says. “Some people will always want to read the lyrics, see photos to get a sense of the show or just have a souvenir of the show, a tangible thing.”

But there’s no denying the fact that the digital revolution has made things easier for distributors: there’s no manufacturing cost, no shipping and customers around the world can acquire the product with the click of a mouse.

With this summer’s airing of MTV’s reality show search for a new lead in Legally Blonde, Deutsch says that Blonde music sales, already one of the label’s strong sellers, increased, with about 50 percent of sales going out digitally.

There was one potentially major gaffe associated with the conclusion of the MTV show, which revealed the winner and new Blonde star to be Bailey Hanks. Deutsch and his crew had already recorded Hanks singing the show’s “So Much Better,” which was scheduled for release the day after she was crowned the winner. But someone at didn’t get the memo and posted a 30-second clip of Hanks’ song days before they were supposed to. There was no name on the clip, but anyone watching the show would recognize Hanks as the singer.

“I was on vacation in Italy and got this frantic e-mail from the executive producer of the Legally Blonde show,” Deutsch recalls. “We had had to sign a confidentiality agreement with the show, and a mistake like that one could have cost us $500,000. They eventually took the clip down. Hopefully someone was fired.”

Part of Deutsch’s creative mission with these recordings is to make original cast albums vital again. He gave away a copy of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels disc with every ticket sold during the show’s Broadway run. For “In the Heights” he created radio-friendly three-minute versions of some of the show’s songs. And Passing Strange went digital in time for its award-season appearances.

He also takes risks, like he did with the musical bare (which will have its San Francisco premiere next year). The small-scale musical about teens in Catholic school, was generating buzz off-Broadway. After meeting with producers, Deutsch recorded a 12-track disc that was essentially given away, mostly to youth groups and summer camps.

“We spent $50,000 to make the record and market it,” Deutsch says. “The idea was to create buzz to get the show to Broadway. Then the money fell apart, and it never opened on Broadway.”

Upcoming releases for Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight include an archival recording of Patti LuPone’s legendary concerts at Les Mouches (Nov. 11), Michael John LaChiusa’s
Little Fish (Sept. 9) and Orfeh’s What Do You Want from Me (Sept. 30). Recent releases include Kelli O’Hara’s Wonder in the World, the cast album for the first Broadway musical of the season, [title of show],
and Lea Delaria’s The Live Smoke Sessions.

“The whole point of this is that we’re part of the community,” Deutsch says. “Sheri is part of the Broadway community. We have a lot of friends in the Broadway community. We’re performers and producers on Broadway, not some big, bad record label guys. We want to help grow Broadway and off-Broadway. This is a great time in history with a lot of great people, and we can help make something to remember them by.”

For information visit or

AIDS fundraiser getting very `Drowsy’

The cast of the national tour of The Drowsy Chaperone will raise money for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation Monday, Aug. 11 at Club Fugazi, the home of Beach Blanket Babylon. Photo by Joan Marcus

For one night only, and to raise money for a good cause, the cast of The Drowsy Chaperone, along with special guests Susan Anton and “American Idol” contestants Constantine Maroulis and Vonzell Solomon, will come together for an evening of vivacious entertainment.

The evening, dubbed One Night Only Cabaret, benefits the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation, an organization started by two mothers who lost their sons to AIDS and that now distributes money to AIDS service organizations around the Bay Area. To date, the REAF has distributed more than $2 million.

The cabaret evening at Club Fugazi (home of Beach Blanket Babylon) will feature the performers singing songs of their own choice, and audiences can expect an evening of upbeat, high-energy music, dance and comedy.

Tickets are $20 to $100. Call 415-421-4222.

The Drowsy Chaperone continues through Aug. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre. Visit for information.

Review: `The Drowsy Chaperone’

Opened July 23, 2008 at the Orpheum Theatre

The cast of The Drowsy Chaperone joins stage star Janet Van De Graaff (Andrea Chamberlain, center, leg in air) in the show stopper “Show Off.” The Tony Award-winning musical is at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Photos by Joan Marcus

Shadows hover over daffy, delightful `Drowsy’
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Musicals don’t come much sweeter than The Drowsy Chaperone.

The little Canadian musical that began life as a wedding present and then blossomed in to a 2006 Tony Award-winning hit is on the road and is now at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season.

For a frothy musical, it’s fairly high concept. A nameless man in a chair (a completely charming Jonathan Crombie, below) attempts to stave of his miserable life for a while by listening to a favorite original cast album.

“I hate the theater,” he mutters in the darkness as the show begins. He then proceeds to tell us how modern musicals are dull and dreary and overblown and that his greatest pleasure in life has been from gorgeous, silly musicals of yore. To make his point, he pulls out some classic vinyl: the 1928 score for Gable and Stein’s The Drowsy Chaperone starring Jane Roberts, the “Oops Girl” and venerable British actress Beatrice Stockwell before she was made a dame.

It’s a complete fiction, of course, invented for the purposes of this musical, but the fake show’s authenticity is half the fun as it begins to unspool in the man’s dingy studio apartment with ongoing commentary from the man, who is in musical theater heaven while the music plays, and only occasional interruptions from the ghastly real world.

Crafted in vintage ’28 style, the musical numbers of The Drowsy Chaperone, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, are light and airy, funny and forgettable – in other words, just right. As the Man in the Chair says, musicals should help one “escape the dreary horrors of the real world.” And this is a musical that does…to a point.

While the silliness of “Drowsy” trills and tap dances along its merry way, book writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar (two of the brains behind the brilliant Canadian TV series “Slings and Arrows”) sneak in some welcome depth through the character of the Man in the Chair. That’s not to say this is heavy going, but this is mindless entertainment with a mind.

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw brings a precise knowledge of old-fashioned musical theater to the production that keeps the effervescence bubbling and the charm churning. As the man’s record turns, his apartment becomes more and more overlaid with the country estate sets (by David Gallo), and Ken Billington and Brian Monahan’s lights become more fantastical and beautiful.

We’re never fully caught up in the story of the silly musical – a great follies star is about to forsake the stage to marry an oil tycoon and her producer and the producer’s mafia connections fear that losing their star will mean losing their fortunes – because the Man in the Chair keeps pulling us back.

In his oversized sweater and threadbare corduroys, the Man weaves in and out of the musical theater stars, sometimes pausing the record so he can tell us that this actor was eventually found dead in his apartment, but not until five days after his actual death and his body had been partially consumed by his poodles.

“Try not to think about the poodles,” the Man says before the actor begins a song.

The Man also gives us glimpses of his real life – his failed marriage (he didn’t know how to stop it from starting), his Zoloft addiction and his hermetic, anti-social ways. This is a man who, for all his charm, is lost to the world. He may love musicals, but they’re really just a patch on his concerns about, among other things, pornography and global warming.

But that’s what makes The Drowsy Chaperone more interesting than other retro-musicals such as No No Nanette or Sugar Babies.

And then there’s the energy of the high-spirited cast. The touring show features some standout musical performers, namely Andrea Chamberlain as stage star Janet Van De Graaff (her showstopper “Show Off” lives up to its name), Georgia Engel (Georgette from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) as loopy Mrs. Tottendale and Mark Ledbetter as the tap-dancing, roller-skating groom.

I was a little disappointed in Nancy Opel’s take on Janet’s chaperone, a boozy Brit with the requisite inspirational anthem about alcoholism (“As We Stumble Along”). Opel has a sharp, shrill voice and comic chops that stop just short of being hilarious. She’s funny, but just not quite enough.

The same is true for Dale Hensley as Italian lover Aldolpho. It’s tricky to play a bad actor and be funny doing it, and Hensley is far from a bad actor; he’s just not quite big enough –metaphorically speaking – for this goof of a character.

It’s hard to complain about anything when a show is this much fun. The Drowsy Chaperone, which runs under two hours without an intermission, is lovely and lively with real-world shadows lurking at the edges and threatening to spoil all the fun.

Here’s a little taste of Drowsy Chaperone:


`Chaperone,’ `Purple’ in new season

We’re not getting sleepy, but we are getting Drowsy.

The hit Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone (above), winner of five 2006 Tony Awards, is part of SHN’s new Best of Broadway season, which was announced Wednesday.

“This season is for families and the young at heart,” says SHN president and owner Carole Shorenstein Hays, who produces shows at San Francisco’s Curran, Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters.

The season opens in the fall (no exact dates were announced) with the Oprah Winfrey-produced musical version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The gospel-, jazz- and pop-tinged score is by Grammy-winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.

A culturally diverse version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens next spring in a production full of actors, dancers, martial arts experts, musicians and street acrobats from India and Sri Lanka. The show has been a hit in South Asia and at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. The San Francisco engagement marks the show’s North American premiere.

Chaperone, a throwback to zany musicals of the 1920s, is slated for summer 2008, as is director Des McAnuff’s reinvention of The Wiz, which already made a splash at the La Jolla Playhouse last year.

“I’m having a love affair with San Francisco,” says McAnuff, who also directed the oft-extended hit Jersey Boys at the Curran Theatre. “We are reinventing `The Wiz’ with a multiracial cast and a wired Web sensibility. This will be theater you enter rather than watch.”

A fifth Best of Broadway show is still to be announced.

Season subscriptions range from $140 to $516. Call (415) 551-2050 or visit for information.