development: Workshops in Chicago
The Chicago Tribune
by Chris Jones, Tribune arts reporter
September 5, 2003
Among New York theater cognoscenti, to utter the words, "Oh, I saw that at the workshop," is to indicate a self-designated insider status. A tone of dripping condescension toward the mere opening-nighter adds to the effect.
Most potential Broadway
projects--from "Rent" to "Bounce"--first display their
wares at a high-profile staged reading aimed at investors, potential producers,
likely presenters and other interested industry types. Don't be fooled
by the Grotowski-like term; these shows often are quite elaborate showcases
performed with manic intensity. The actors, after all, want to make sure
they get a part when (and if) any actual money starts rolling.
But there's been a noteworthy uptick of late in high-profile musical workshops in Chicago. Frank Galati directed a workshop of a Stephen Flaherty piece called "A Long Gay Book" at Northwestern University this spring. More importantly, Gary Griffin is preparing a Chicago workshop of "The Color Purple," the upcoming Broadway musical currently in development.
And Tuesday night, I sat with some 400 Ravinia supporters (and several Chicago artistic directors) watching a 2 1/2-hour workshop of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's musical "Doll." It's part of what Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman describes as "an exciting new component" of his plans to increase the amount of theater at the North Shore venue (a place that has the donor support to do this kind of thing).
In an interview, "Doll" director Lonny Price (whose last Broadway show was the ill-fated "Urban Cowboy") said he hopes to build a summer repertory company at Ravinia with local and national musical-theater actors. So I suspect we'll see another of these workshops in this slot next fall.
Based on real characters, the serious and substantial "Doll" is set in 1914 Vienna and follows a maverick artist named Oskar Kokoschka who has an affair with Alma Schindler, the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. Schindler is a frustrated artist herself who lives vicariously through her lovers. But once she dumps Kokoschka, he retaliates by carrying around a life-size, fully functioning mannequin of his former lover. It's unclear whether this is a piece of art--or if the artist has lost his sanity.
Frankel's score is rooted in a post-modern Broadway style--although with firm touches of operetta. Tuesday, audiences saw what Price described as the "director's cut," which meant he was well aware that much needed to be cut.
Still the workshop was no thrown-together affair--the lead roles were sung by David Hyde Pierce (of "Frasier" fame), the notable Broadway siren Judith Blazer and Michael Cerveris, who has a huge set of pipes and originated the role of "Tommy" on Broadway, among other accomplishments. Composer Frankel, an immensely talented fellow, has been known primarily as a musical director and performer. But with "Doll" and another musical project called "Meet Mister Furie," he's trying to develop a reputation as a Broadway composer.
And while the staging was simple, this was still quite an elegant show--in the fashion of the popular concert-style stagings of musicals known as "Encores." In these cost-conscious days, that kind of style can also be found on Broadway. Exhibit one is "Chicago," in town again for the next couple of weeks, which developed directly from a concert staging.
People doing workshops usually evince much paranoia. The key is to quietly generate good buzz while keeping out all negative words about the material. Artists understandably argue they're entitled to a safe space in which to develop material. On the other hand, there were some paradoxes in play Tuesday.
Serious new musicals that are not based on pop-culture icons need a lot of attention to get fully launched. Workshops need audiences. And since they can be expensive to do, that often means charging for tickets. Ironically, there was a bigger audience for "Doll" than some full-blown shows in Chicago. And once they've seen the material, people like to talk.
Still, it was clear that the generally older Ravinia crowd was embracing the development concept--nodding their heads and applauding the show's strongest numbers: rousing melodic efforts called "Women in Their Prime" and "Forever."
Heads also perked up in the lively, shorter second act, when a potentially fascinating, challenging musical that claims and needs to be about a complex man with a doll finally, and necessarily, gets around to the doll.
Journey - Official Web Archive for Michael Cerveris
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