The Sound of (New) Musicals
Broadway USA/LA at the Falcon Theatre
Two decades after she appeared in the short-lived Broadway run of Is There Life After High School?, producer/actress Sandy Faison is still haunted by memories of composer Craig Carnelia's musical.
"I was in that production," recalls Faison, who also originated the role of Grace Farrell in Annie. "I think Craig is one of the most talented people ever to write for the American musical stage. I am bitter to this day that High School was not given a proper chance to succeed. It was an injustice, not only to Craig, but to all musical theater lovers."
Faison's passionate search for justice has led her to volunteer her time as producer of Broadway USA/LA, a showcase of three professionally staged, original musicals presented at Garry Marshall's 300-seat Falcon Theater in Burbank. Limited to two performances of each musical, the season premiered with Chang & Eng (April 3 & 4) by the award-winning team of Stephen Hoffman and Mark Campbell. Upcoming is Democracy (April 17 & 18) by composer Louis Flynn and Pulitzer Prize nominee Joseph Sutton, who wrote the book and lyrics. The season concludes with Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief (May 1 & 2), which has music and lyrics by the aforementioned Carnelia.
All three of these musicals were originally given readings last year in New York under the auspices of The National Music Theater Network (MNTN), founded 14 years ago by Broadway stage and screen actor Timothy Jerome. "There is probably no greater task in theater than to obtain the support needed to mount a professional production of a musical," affirms Faison. "Jerome came up with the brilliant idea of showcasing new works for prospective producers and backers on a limited run, work-in-progress basis, utilizing top flight talent and directors. The hope, of course, is to encourage theaters and producers to move the works up and onward."
It was the lack of "up and onward" activity for these musicals after their New York showcase that led Faison to produce them in Los Angeles. "These are fabulously original, production-worthy works," she declares. "They need another chance to be seen. There is a powerfully active theater community in L.A. and I have been delighted with the support I have received in putting on these shows."
The debut production, Chang & Eng, was originally developed as a drama titled The Wedding of the Twins, by Burton Cohen, who also wrote the book for the musical. Based on the true story of the famed Siamese twins and the sisters they married, the Broadway USA/LA production was staged by Caroline McWilliams, with musical direction by Steve Orich and choreography by Kay Cole (an original cast member of A Chorus Line). Chang & Eng was performed with scripts in hand by Lenny Wolpe, Annie McGreevy, Melissa Fah, Ben Gonio, Tedd Szeto, and Kirsten Benton.
For Cole, who is also choreographing Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, staging dance numbers under the limitations imposed by a minuscule rehearsal schedule presents some challenges. "The actors are limited by union regulations to a maximum 25 hours of rehearsal," says Cole. "But these people are real pros, and the work gets done. Fortunately for me, the performers can put their scripts down for the song and dance numbers."
The second offering, Democracy, is a timely saga of an ambitious political climber who makes his way from small-town Texas to the Oval Office. Directed and choreographed by Walter Painter (City of Angels), with musical direction by Scott Harlan, the show has a large cast headed by Harry Groener (Crazy For You, Cats), Adam Baldwin (My Bodyguard), and Marsha Waterbury (Footloose), with support from Stan Chandler, Kirsten Benton, Paul Kreppel, Stuart Pankin, Richard Allen, and many more.
"It takes a huge cast to do this show properly," says Faison. "But it is so wonderfully original and so well constructed that I felt we had to do it. Part of the great joy for the audience will be seeing and hearing brilliant Broadway talent performing small roles and doing them to death."
A noticeable lilt infuses Faison's voice when she refers to Carnelia's Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, which tells the story of Red Rock Brody, the ultimate TV cowboy hero. David Bell's book for the musical flashes forward 30 years as the aging movie cowboy joins an idealistic lawyer in a standoff against corporate bad guys. The production, staged by award-winning actress Joanna Gleason (Into the Woods), is still being cast, but will feature Jason Graae (Ragtime, Forbidden Broadway) and noted actor Dick Williams.
"Craig and I have been friends ever since High School," laughs Faison. "I believe it is impossible for him to write a bad melody, and his lyrics are impeccably brilliant. The plot of this show is so heartwarming, I feel that audiences will simply melt."
Faison is realistic enough to know that, even with the most positive audience response, there is no guarantee that any of these three works has a future beyond the Falcon showcase. "That's a given," she responds flatly. "But ever since I took this on, I have been shamelessly throwing myself at all the major theaters, as well as the independent producers. Representatives from these companies comprise a good deal of the audience for our productions."
Broadway USA/LA has also put together an impressive Advisory Board to help facilitate current and future endeavors. Board members include Stuart Ross, creator and director of Forever Plaid; Rob Iscove, who directed Sandy Duncan on Broadway in Peter Pan; film and Broadway director/choreographer Alan Johnson, who began his career as a dancer in West Side Story; Broadway/TV director Gordon Hunt (Caroline in the City); and award-winning actor John Lithgow (3rd Rock From the Sun).
"Our plan is to present another showcase in the fall," states Faison. "And I cannot help but believe that one or all of our current productions will have found a home by then. This is an American art form. We invented musical theater. It is ours, and we should glory in it."