Festival at Goodspeed celebrates new musicals

Ben Clark performs songs from the musical 'The Circus in Winter' Saturday during the New Musical Preview at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam on Saturday.  DANA JENSEN
Ben Clark performs songs from the musical 'The Circus in Winter' Saturday during the New Musical Preview at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam on Saturday. DANA JENSEN

Writer Mark Acito acknowledged that "A Room with a View," the stage musical adaptation he and Jeffrey Stock created, didn't get the audience reaction or the Broadway producer interest he had hoped for when it played The Old Globe in San Diego.

He began contemplating what makes for a successful musical - and he took a decidedly analytical approach. He examined the common threads among the 100 longest-running Broadway musicals of all time.

Acito revealed what he had learned during one of several theater-related seminars held Saturday as part of the ninth annual Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals in East Haddam. The event comprises a weekend of staged readings of new musicals, receptions to meet the artists, cabaret nights and more.

It is produced by Goodspeed Musicals' Max Showalter Center for Education in Musical Theatre.

In his survey, Acito - who has always been interested in taking apart stories - looked solely at book musicals. He left out of consideration revues like "Smokey Joe's Cafe." (He said he had to decide which category a few in-between shows fell into; he figured "Cats" did have a story, which he described as "competition to see who gets into kitty heaven.") The top 100 ran for two or more years on Broadway.

Of that group, 84 percent were based on source material. Acito included in this category not just musicals based on, say, novels, but also "Evita" because it was based on known history. Of the top 20, "Grease" and "Avenue Q" were the only two with original stories.

The best-selling shows tend to be set in a time other than when it played, perhaps because the theatricality of going from speech to song seems less implausible in a different period.

The top 100 musicals tend to be dramas or dramas with comedy - not straight musical comedies.

"This surprised me incredibly, although I think it makes sense," Acito said.

A member of the seminar audience mentioned a comment he once heard from a producer: make audience members laugh, and the sow will run a year; make them cry, and the show will run two years; make them do both, and the show will run forever.

Acito theorizes that the issue is, comedy is about surprise.

"Once you've been surprised, I don't think it sustains," he said.

On the other hand, the deep emotions that dramas or dramedies evoke can remain just as strong on repeated viewings.

Another commonality among these popular musicals? Characters find love. And, Acito noted, "Just because there's not a love story doesn't mean they don't find love." For instance, he noted, Annie and Daddy Warbucks find familial love in "Annie," and Bialystock and Bloom find friendship love in "The Producers."

The final two links:

• The protagonists have a major soul awakening. They become a better people by expressing an unexpressed part of themselves. In "Mamma Mia," it's when the lead character, as Acito put it, "decides she's going to embrace her inner ABBA and live life to the fullest."

• Acito said, "Musicals are vehicles of a persuasive life-force philosophy that the audience can agree with." Then he sang bits of "It's the circle of life" and "Unlimited, my future is unlimited" as examples. It's a series of messages that the audience can say "yes" to.

With musicals, Acito said, "We want that transcendent experience that touches us beyond words."

Acito's latest musical, by the way, is "Allegiance." The production broke box-office records at The Old Globe. It starred Lea Salonga, the original star of "Miss Saigon," and George Takei, of "Star Trek" fame. The piece, by Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, was based on Takei's experience in an American internment camp during World War II.

And more good news: "Room with a View" now has a Broadway producer.

Other seminars at Saturday's Goodspeed Festival included one about Broadway cast albums, led by Brian Drutman, vice president at Decca Label Group. He has supervised cast recordings for "Motown," "Wicked" and "Spring Awakening," among others.

He spoke about various aspects of cast recordings. Years ago, for instance, the record company often would get a recording star to do a cover of a showtune that might get on the radio. He played an example of that: Bing Crosby's version of "Evelina" from the musical "Bloomer Girl."

Drutman touched on the vagaries of the old album format, too, mentioning that Stephen Schwartz told him that the tempo for some "Pippin" songs had to be sped up when they were recorded so that all the necessary numbers could fit on one side of the record.

Drutman talked, too, about remastering old recordings and played a bit of the 1944 album of "Song of Norway" and the pristine remastered version.

Also as part of Saturday's festivities, Goodspeed announced the show it will be staging at its Norma Terris Theatre this fall: "The Circus in Winter," with songs by Ben Clark and book by Hunter Foster and Beth Turcotte. It's based on Cathy Day's novel about "the rise and fall of an American circus."

Clark and Turcotte worked on the piece at last year's Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed. Foster is a Tony-nominated actor who is a star of the current Broadway musical "The Bridges of Madison County."

And, of course, the festival put other new musicals in the spotlight. On Friday, "Adam Lives" by Rob Baumgartner, Jr., was staged, and on Saturday, it was "A Proper Place" by Leslie Becker and Curtis Rhodes.

The festival wraps up today with "The Theory of Relativity," with music and lyrics by Neil Bartram and book by Brian Hill.


If you go

WHAT: "The Theory of Relativity," music and lyrics by Neil Bartram and book by Brian Hill

WHEN: "1 p.m. today, the final day of the ninth annual Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals

WHERE: "Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

TICKETS: $15, $10 for students; call (860) 873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org


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