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Musicals Go Global

An exciting musical theater festival is about to begin in an unlikely place: Cardiff, Wales. logo

Joan of Arc
Wales and musical theater? Do the two go together? Well, there's the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, which currently hosts The Lion King, and the Prince of Wales Theater in London, where The Full Monty resides -- not to mention that jaunty song "Prince of Wales" from Liza of Lambeth. But Wales the country hasn't had much of a musical theater profile.

That's about to change, though. From October 13 through November 3, Wales's capital city of Cardiff will see an International Festival of Musical Theatre. What's planned to be an annual event will honor one composer and/or lyricist each year, starting with Richard Rodgers this year. There'll be a concert version of Carousel, a youth production of Oklahoma!, a new production of Babes in Arms, and a new musical revue called Ten Cents a Dance.

It's not just a Rodgers-fest, however, as is proved by the scheduling of the show that his Do I Hear a Waltz? collaborator Stephen Sondheim did just before the two began working together: Anyone Can Whistle. And while there's no particular Rodgers connection to Ragtime or Joan of Arc -- a big hit in Prague -- or a new musical called Sadly Solo Joe, no one should mind the chance to see them, either.

The talent that's being seduced to Cardiff is pretty impressive, too. Kim Criswell, Janie Dee, Barbara Dickson, Maria Friedman, and Frances Rufelle will perform a number of the women's roles, while Jim Dale, Henry Goodman, Ian Richardson, and Colm Wilkinson will tackle some of the male characters. But the main event to many eyes and ears will be the Sony Showcases from the Global Search for New Musicals. Erik Haagensen, the copy chief for Back Stage, read in his own publication that the festival was looking for new works and he certainly had one to contribute.

Haagensen became interested in musical theater when he was eight years old in Fairview Park, Ohio, on the night that his parents were to see a touring production of Camelot. "I was almost left home," he says, "but they couldn't get a sitter or something, so they took me, even though I was considered too young." Well, he wasn't; the young Erik's favorite records already included the King and I film soundtrack and the original cast album of My Fair Lady. "But Camelot," he says, "changed my life." By high school, he was writing books and lyrics to musicals. One, Whatever Happened to the Stork? told about the introduction of sex education classes in his high school. Teachers found it controversial and it went unproduced.

Haagensen went to Northwestern, where he contributed to the Waa-Mu shows, though his parents urged him to mine his native proficiency in mathematics. And while many who are gifted in math are thought to also have an ability to compose music, Haagensen says he isn't one of them, so he's always been on the lookout for composers. He wrote A Fine and Private Place, produced at Goodspeed in 1989, with Richard Isen, and How It Was Done in Odessa, done at the Walnut Street Theatre in 1991, with Alexander Zhurbin. He also collaborated twice with Leonard Bernstein, though the maestro never knew about it, for he died before Haagensen reworked 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for both Indiana and Kennedy Center presentations in 1992 and Taking a Chance on Love -- a revue of the works of John LaTouche but one in which Bernstein played a significant part, thanks to Candide. Musical theater aficionados will be forever grateful to Haagensen for unearthing some LaTouche lyrics for that cult musical that were worthy but ultimately scrapped.

In 1989, one of Haagensen's old high school girlfriends introduced him to Paul Schwartz, who has become a noted musical director as well as a composer of ballets and new age music for Windham Hill. (His album Aria 2 features Rebecca Luker.) What Schwartz hadn't done, though, was write music for Broadway, as his father Arthur did --from The Grand Street Follies in 1926 to Jennie, the Mary Martin-starrer in 1963. "Paul is the only child from Arthur's second marriage to Mary Gray, who'd been a chorus girl in Annie Get Your Gun," reports Haagensen. Turns out she was also very friendly with Comden and Green, who liked her so much that they used her married name, Mary Schwartz, in "Drop That Name" in Bells Are Ringing.

Erik Haagensen
Over the years, Haagensen and Schwartz had a hard time finding a project. They considered Time and Again, only to find the rights had already gone to Skip Kennon. They considered Moon Over Parador, too. But Edith Wharton's Summer was the one that truly caught their fancy. The story takes place in Massachusetts in 1910 and tells of a young mountain girl who has been adopted by a man who wants to eventually sleep with her.

So, when Haagensen read about the Global Search for New Musicals, he applied -- as did writers of 185 other shows. Envelopes of the submitted works sported postmarks from 16 different countries. Artistic director Julian Woolford and a panel of judges selected nine shows that will be given 45-minute airings. Summer starts the series, followed by Children of the Night with book, music and lyrics by Scott Martin, who tells the true story of Bram Stoker's passionate devotion to Henry Irving and his quest to persuade the great actor to star in the first theatrical version of Dracula. Next up is Me and Al, with lyrics by Donald Abramson, book by Judy Freed, and music by Leo Schwartz, described as "the (trueish) story of Dr. Schwimmer, the optometrist who was killed in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre." (Perhaps he was doin' it for Sugar.)

The second bill starts with City of Dreams, with book and lyrics by David Zellnik and music by Joseph Zellnik, which takes place in Vienna, 1889 and involves a dashing if melancholic prince, a 16-year old social climber, and a love affair that threatens to topple an empire. (If it sounds familiar, we had a highly regarded Off-Broadway presentation of it some months ago.) Jason and the Argonauts, by Britishers Peter Anthony and Denise Wright, deals with "the classic myth of Jason's quest to find the Golden Fleece" but is also described as "a riot of song and dance!" The Awakening brings us back to the USA, courtesy of Americans Barbara Campbell (book and lyrics) and Gary Schocker (music). Based on the novella by Kate Chopin, it's a turn of the century story, set in New Orleans, in which a young society wife rejects her class, husband, and children to become an artist and free herself.

City of Dreams as seen at the
Midtown International Theater Festival this past summer
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The third bill begins with Orlandus by Dean Strober, featuring arrangements and compositions by the Golden Gate Quartet -- because it's the true story of Orlandus Wilson, the driving force behind the Golden Gate Quartet, which offered spirituals that transcended race, religion, and nationality. From Wales, there's Dance of the Dragon by Matthew Brind, Philip Michell, and the Unknown Theatre Company, in which Five Welsh youngsters journey into the Land of Lost Souls to rescue their friend and to discover why the dragon has lost its fire. The series will conclude with Gay Poets in Mud, a British musical with book, music, and lyrics by Richard Free and Peter Shrubshall in which a young man dreams of becoming a pantomime star but joins the armed forces just before the breakout of a world war in which he'll cause a good deal of chaos.

Who knows which, if any, of these will be the next household title? "But," Haagensen says, "what an opportunity for all of us. How nice for so many different musical voices to be heard in a variety of works. It's not a competition but a true festival." Word has gotten out to other writers, so while it's too late to apply for the 2003 festival, they're already taking applications for 2004. Contact


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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