A Writers Workshop and Development Program
John Sparks founded the musical theater writers workshop at the Theatre building in 1987. The program ran for thirteen years until it was suspended in 2009. It has now been resurrected by Sparks as Midwest New Musicals and run in association with Light Opera Works. Having both a Fall and Winter/Spring term, the program teaches both the writing and production of musical theatre. The Mini-Musicals are the capstone for the Winter/Spring semester where aspiring composers, lyricists and writers showcase their work performed by professional actors in front of a live audience.
This year’s theme, Spring Rains and Labor Pains, was subject to several constraints (as are all of Sparks’ exercises.)
· No scenery or props are to be used.
· Each mini-musical must utilize each of the following elements at least once:
o The image of a pound of rancid bacon
o The line “I want a blue sweater and I want it now!”
o A four-note musical motif (which we weren’t given but sounded like Do-Mi-Sol-Fa to my relatively untrained ears.
Once the assignment is presented, each team has twenty-four hours to produce an outline for their proposed musical. Next they have about ten days to write the first draft which is then subject to a reading and critique. Following revisions another reading takes place and after a final revision, the rehearsals and performance are produced.
This is a very hectic schedule and high-pressure creativity. Sparks deliberately plans it this way to simulate the real-life situations his mentees will experience in the real world of theatre.
Life Has Its Ups and Downs
This first mini by Laura Toffenetti (Book), Gail Sonkin & Laura Toffenetti (Lyrics) and Gail Sonkin (Music) dealt with a Blagojevich-styled politician who was busy cheating on all of his mistresses as well as his wife. The gimmick was the elevator operator, an illegal Polish immigrant who hoped to gain legal status through the politician’s underhanded manipulations.
The creative team came up with some good music and lyrics that was appropriately styled to both the situation and the character. The politician’s introduction of himself was particularly effective, filled with bravado and self-congratulatory music and words. The other high point musically was a song the ensemble sang together. The sense of drama experienced by the group while trapped in an elevator during a power outage was strongly conveyed.
This was a good, solid effort by the creative team although it isn’t stellar. The major weakness seems to be the core idea and basic plot, that doesn’t seem to have a sufficiently interesting series of events to hold the audience’s attention.
The team of J. Linn Allen (Book & Lyrics) and Leo Schwartz (Music) also dealt with a man cheating on his wife. This was a bit darker than the previous mini. The piece has a fast, upbeat opening that lets us know in uncertain terms how happy this philanderer is with his girlfriend (who is two years older than half his age). Enter wife and children and a long scene featuring nothing but dialogue. I kept hoping for some music to break up the monotony but none was forthcoming. There really needs to be something added to this portion of the mini.
Enter wife and grown children, each with his or her own complaints to pile on our hapless wanderer. The song What Am I to You? while using appropriate lyrics for the situation seemed to have missed the mark musically. It is the composer, after all, that must assume the role of dramatist in any musical production.
Overall, this was a good effort. Like the first mini, the fundamental premise and plot needs to be strengthened to hold an audience’s imagination. Musically it was okay, but the composer/lyricist combination needs to polish the synergistic application of words and music to achieve maximum emotional impact.
David Nelson (Book) and Scott Free (Lyrics and Music) created an hypothetical reality TV news program featuring a reporter who claimed absolute objectivity. (Right there, I was suspicious!) The creative team clearly hates Republicans, conservatives and especially Tea Partiers; they make no bones about and take no prisoners in their relentless pursuit of the “bad guys” of today’s political scene. This strong political statement unfortunately makes the mini degenerate into a series of musical numbers that all sound like agitprop and suspiciously similar in melodic, rhythmic and lyrical content. Certainly at one point, anyway, some sort of anthem might have been an appropriate way for the “workers” of the mini to express unity and determination.
The closing musical number was something of a tribute to Barack Obama, an ethereal almost angelic piece of writing that emphasized Obama’s attempts at unification of an inclusive power base. Overall, the entire piece was so extreme in its characterizations that little doubt was left in the audience’s mind that the archetypes portrayed were completely artificial and contrived regardless of political persuasion.
This is one case where art really has suffered at the hands of politics. The entire concept needs to be discarded and a more sophisticated approach to parody adopted. There’s nothing wrong (and indeed much right) with parody but when it becomes ham-handed the effect is not only lost but may actually have the reverse of the intended impact.
The team of David Charles Goyette (Book), Jean Vanier (Lyrics) and Mike O’Mara (Music) scored the real winner of the evening with this well-conceived premise of two gay men in a committed relationship who are seeking a surrogate mother to bear the child they hope to raise. First they approach one man’s sister, who declines. This is followed by the two men interviewing a series of prospective surrogates. All the women decline for one reason or another.
The mini includes some remarkable music from a composer who clearly is on his way to understanding the power of the music and how to make music and word combine to give a power that would be impossible with either words or music separately. An early ballad between the two men effectively conveys their love and devotion for one another. A trio with the two men and one man’s sister approaches a parlante style of opera with each singer expressing differing but relevant viewpoints. The mini concludes with another fine trio between the same characters where the sister finally agrees to become the surrogate for her brother and his partner.
I spoke briefly with Vanier and O’Mara following the performance and asked whether the mini would be developed into something larger. The answer, it seems, depends on whether Book writer Goyette feels he can develop the plot sufficiently for a longer production. Stay tuned; this one could turn into a real winner.
Regardless of this particular mini’s fate, the careers of Goyette, Vanier and O’Mara bear watching, especially O’Mara. He has a firm grasp on what it takes to pack real strength into a musical production; this is rare in one as young as he appears and we can only hope he continues to nurture his great gift.