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Northwestern Unveils American Music Theatre Project

May 19, 2005 | by Judy Moore

Artistic Director Stuart Oken (right) works with composer Joseph Thalken (at piano), lyricist Barry Kleinbort (from left), director Tina Landau and executive committee head Dominic Missimi.

Northwestern unveiled the American Music Theatre Project  (AMTP) -- an ambitious program to develop and produce new musicals by the field’s leading artists in collaboration with Northwestern faculty and students.

The $2 million project also will increase opportunities for education and training within Northwestern’s theatre, dance and opera programs and initiate a series of interdisciplinary research projects. AMTP’s ultimate goal is the establishment of a permanent center for the American Music Theatre on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

“We’re very excited to start the AMTP, which will enhance Northwestern’s ability to create top-level musical theatre,” said Northwestern University President Henry S. Bienen. ”With this distinctive new program, Northwestern will provide the opportunity for artists to create unique, groundbreaking work.”

Providing seed funding for this initiative is prominent Northwestern alumnus and respected Hollywood writer, producer and television, film and theatre director Garry K. Marshall and his wife Barbara. Additional funding is being provided by the Chicago law firm of Gardner, Carton and Douglas; William Donnell; the Gilman & Gonzales-Falla Foundation; The Shen Family Foundation; and Barbara Whitman and David Carlyon.

Dominic Missimi, director of the music theatre program at Northwestern, and Stuart Oken, former executive vice president of Disney Theatrical Productions, will spearhead the project. Missimi chairs the executive committee responsible for the initiative, and Stuart Oken is its artistic director. Oken was instrumental in bringing Disney’s “The Lion King” and “Aida” to the Broadway stage.

The AMTP advisory committee includes award-winning lyricist/composer and Northwestern alumnus Sheldon Harnick, Tony Award-winning directors and Northwestern Professors Frank Galati and Mary Zimmerman, Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls, author and former Chicago Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen, and award-winning writer/director and Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Tina Landau.

“This project comes at a crucial time for music theatre,” said Oken. “The time, cost and leadership required to develop and produce new musicals has grown so substantially in the past 20 years that producers have a difficult time supporting projects other than event musicals, adaptations of films or compilations of pre-existing music catalogues. While a wide range of material is healthy, many shows that raised the bar of music theatre in years past would have a difficult time emerging today.”

AMTP will address this need by acting as an incubator for a new generation of music theatre writers. With its impressive infrastructure of facilities, faculty and students, and its progressive methods for teaching and learning, Northwestern will welcome artists and projects that will benefit from a nurturing creative process and a means of introducing new work to the broader creative community.

The initiative has found enthusiastic support among America’s theatrical leaders.

“The American Music Theatre Project is one of the most exciting and innovative programs I have seen in many years in the theatre,” said Oskar Eustis, the new artistic director of New York’s Public Theatre. “It seeks to fill a gap in our American theatrical ecology that desperately needs to be filled.”

Nationally renowned director Tina Landau is excited about the project. She said, “We need this arena for the development and exploration of music theatre. The notion that there will be time and space to create, with a relative amount of freedom, true exploration, constancy and support from a network of collaborators, is thrilling to me.”

Writers, directors and choreographers will be selected from the ranks of the top professionals working in the field. The majority of actors will be students, unless a particular role requires a quality that cannot be filled by a student.

“We have an outstanding student body capable of tackling diverse material,” said Missimi. “That will make this the exception rather than the rule. The key is allowing the writers to learn what they need to make their musical successful while allowing our students to experience the creative process in all its dimensions.”

Another important component of AMTP will be its outreach to regional theatres and independent producers.

“We welcome non-profit and commercial producers interested in a specific project to join us during the development phase,” said Oken. “It’s critical for the creative teams that we not only introduce their material, but encourage additional productions in other venues.”

“Northwestern’s talented students, distinguished faculty, state-of-the-art equipment and performance space make it an ideal environment where new, exciting works can be nurtured through an extended process of readings, workshops and rehearsals before debuting to paying audiences,” said Barbara J. O’Keefe, dean of Northwestern’s School of Communication and professor of communication studies.

The new AMTP initiative is primarily a School of Communication project in collaboration with the School of Music, Kellogg School of Management, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School.

After completing the three-year project, Northwestern expects it to evolve into a permanent institute for music theatre. This would be called the Center for American Music Theatre (CAMT). The center would not only continue and expand upon the work of AMTP, but would also include, among other programs, an annual Summer Festival of New Musicals.

The first AMTP sponsored symposium, at noon Friday, May 20, entitled “Writing for the Musical Theatre,” will be held at the Ethel M. Barber Theatre, 30 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston campus. Richard Christiansen, author of “A Theater of Our Own, A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago” and former Chicago Tribune chief critic, will moderate. Panelists include writer/director Tina Landau, composers Joseph Thalken and Ricky Ian Gordon, composer/lyricist Leslie Arden and librettists/lyricists Barry Kleinbort and Arthur Perlman. Panelists will discuss the myriad of issues facing writers creating new music theatre for venues ranging from regional theatres to Broadway. Admission is free and open to the public.

The first of four AMTP stage productions, an adaptation of Geoff Ryman’s novel “Was,” will premiere Oct. 28 at the University’s Ethel M. Barber Theatre. The new work is composed by Joseph Thalken, with book and lyrics by Barry Kleinbort, and directed by Tina Landau.

“Northwestern University is the perfect place to mount such an ambitious and far-reaching initiative,” said Missimi. “Music theatre has always been one of Northwestern’s strongest assets -- from ‘Waa-Mu,’ its nationally renowned musical revue, written and performed by students, to its Music Theatre Certificate Program, offered jointly by the School of Communication and the School of Music.”

Northwestern’s graduates have built a reputation for creating new musical theatre across the globe. Distinguished writers such as Sheldon Harnick, George Furth, Larry Grossman and Garry Marshall attended Northwestern during the 1940s and 1950s. Theatre visionaries Mary Zimmerman and Frank Galati carry on the tradition today.

The Music Theatre Program has already been an environment where artists can develop new works. During the past two years, Tony Award winners Frank Galati and Stephen Flaherty collaborated on “A Long Gay Book,” based on material written by Gertrude Stein.

Multi-Joseph Jefferson Award winner David Bell adapted and directed a revue of Irving Berlin material called “American Vaudeville.” This past summer (2004) Missimi directed another new revue, “Even Stephen,” which he created from the work of composers Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Flaherty.

For more information about AMTP visit <www.amtp.northwestern.edu>.

The American Music Theatre Project Executive Committee members are:

• Stuart Oken, artistic director

• Dominic Missimi, chair of the executive committee, School of Communication, professor of theatre, and director of the Music Theatre Certificate Program

• Rives Collins, School of Communication, associate professor and chair, department of theatre

• Tracy Davis, Ethel M. Barber Professor of Performing Arts and Director, Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama, School of Communication, and professor of English, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

• Virgil Johnson, School of Communication, professor of theatre

• Noel Koran, School of Music, associate professor of music performance studies, and director of opera

• Claudia Kunin, managing director, Theatre and Interpretation Center

• Joseph Mills, School of Communication, associate professor of dance and director of the dance program.

• Anna Shapiro, School of Communication, associate professor of theatre, and director of M.F.A. directing program

• Brian Uzzi, Kellogg School of Management, associate professor of management and organizations

• Andrew Wachtel, dean of the Graduate School and professor of Slavic languages and literatures, Weinberg College of Arts and Science

Topics: University News