Filichia Features: Thousands of Thespians

by Peter Filichia on July 3, 2015

in Filichia Features

The late, great acerbic comic Phyllis Diller had plenty of memorable one-liners, but there’s one I remember most.

With half-closed eyes that said she’d seen more fire than rain, Diller droned “I flew an airline so cheap that instead of showing a movie, it put on a high school play.”

Hilarious, no? Well, yes and no, for if you’d attended The Thespian Festival last week on the campus of The University of Nebraska in Lincoln, you’d have come away with more respect for “the high school play” even if you’d justifiably had plenty before.

The week-long event now plays host to thousands of students, teachers, chaperones, well-wishers and of course parents. Plenty of women wear ribbons that proclaim that each is a “Drama Mama”.

There are schools from 42 states as well as Saipan and Dubai. Strangely enough, one of the eight missing states is the one in which Broadway is located.

Don’t you want to be a part of it, New York? You should. If you’re a high school teacher, yes, bringing a production here can cost as much as $50,000. That’s a lot of car washes and bake sales. But you can simply bring yourself and your kids to observe the shows or attend the many, many workshops dispensed during the week.

MTI wants even more involvement. Earlier in the year, we made a challenge grant to the Educational Theatre Association to match every dollar raised up to $10,000 for the JumpStart Theatre program that would bring musicals into three Cincinnati middle schools. The challenge was met, and John Prignano, MTI’s senior operations officer, was on hand to deliver the check.

 

 

 

He had to make the presentation twice. You see, so many people are here that admission badges are dispensed in either yellow or blue. Each mainstage performance plays host to only one color; yellows must amuse themselves somewhere else when a performance is given for the blues, and vice versa. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that the Lied Center, where the big musicals will be performed, has no fewer than 2,200 seats.

When yellows are welcome in the Lied, the blues need not be blue. From Tuesday through Saturday, across the street at the 318-seat Howell Theatre there’ll be many cuttings of plays (Worland, Wyoming High’s God of Carnage), musicals (Bozeman, Montana High’s Joseph) and one-acters (Round Rock Texas High’s Jack, or the Submission). Behind the Lied is the 250-seat Carson Theatre, named for The Tonight Show’s most famous host, a Nebraska alumnus who donated plenty to the theater department: Johnny Carson.

And if all this isn’t enough, there’s the Kimball, technically a Recital Hall, but good enough for Bishop Gorman High of Nevada’s Lost in Yonkers and Spring Wood High of Houston’s The Addams Family to play there. For these shows, you must get tickets a day in advance, starting at 8:30 a.m. each morning. Woe to those who tarry over breakfast; although the hall seats 850, tickets are usually gone within an hour, snapped up quicker than The Witch’s Act One transformation in INTO THE WOODS.

The Kimball’s first attraction is Dear America: Letters from Vietnam which has a commanding officer fully admit to his recruits that “The training is designed to break you.” That may indeed be necessary in the armed forces, but in theater, we can afford a lighter touch. When there’s talk of magazines for rifles, I’m thinking that many in attendance would be better off picking up the magazines from the 80 colleges, conservatories and universities that are recruiting graduates-to-be for their theater and musical theater programs. AMDA – The American Musical and Dramatic Academy – has a brochure that shows pictures of graduates Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Gretchen Mol and Nina Arianda. It asks “New York or Los Angeles? Why not both?” Why not, indeed?

 

 

To entice kids to stop by their booths, many schools offer free ballpoint pens. Some have bowls of hard candy – although many junior and seniors are more interested in asking hard questions: “Do you have a New York showcase for graduates?”

See how much these kids know already? Yes, a good education and great teachers are a must, but a day in a New York theater where agents come to see what you can do may well put you on the road to being a working actor.

Many kids will spend the week auditioning for recruiters. They want to make good on the festival’s 2015 theme: “Hit Your Mark.” In the corridors of the nearby Embassy Suites, many an argument is heard raging. No, it’s not your standard fight between spouses, but kids rehearsing their plays’ most dramatic scenes. On a more peaceful note, outside near the Lied Center, kids are literally singing and dancing in the streets.

Most of the chatter overheard is Broadway-centric. Before Rock Canyon (Colorado) High School’s superb all-female performance of Art, one boy tells a girl that he’d see Fun Home if he could only get to New York; she responds by saying that Something Rotten! looked awfully good at the Tonys. “Yes,” agrees the lad, “but before I‘d see that, I’d see Hedwig – ”

The Angry Inch is cut off (which doesn’t happen in the musical) because the house lights are suddenly dimming. He, she and everyone else immediately stop talking. These high-schoolers are curious and hungry for good theater, yes, but they’ve also already learned how to behave at a play.

While many of these kids’ peers reserve their guffaws for teen gross-out movies, the students here instead give the same level of belly laughs when they hear that a character has spent $200,000 on a painting that is simply all white and nothing else. Lines at the top of the show that seem to be offhand mentions turn out to have later importance, and the laughs that greet them show what rapt attention the kids have given art and Art. Broadway advocates and worry-warts are always talking of developing new audiences. They’re certainly being developed here.

 

 

The centerpiece of Monday night is the revue The Music of Menken, as in Alan – the man whose melodies indeed introduced the majority of these kids to the sound of traditional musical theater a decade or so ago. Six dozen students take to the stage and warble some new lyrics to the tune of “Be Our Guest.” True, “success” doesn’t quite rhyme with “guest” in the line “We are here to inspire your success,” but the sentiment is solid.

A video of Menken has him apologizing for not being able to attend. “It’s hard to get to Lincoln, Nebraska,” he says, getting a laugh from a crowd who’s learned that all too well. More to the point, Menken’s TV series Galavant has been renewed, his musical version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is in Montreal and DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is becoming a live-action film.

But the eight-time Oscar-winner did take the time to videotape some advice: “Invest in the process, not the results,” he says. “You must dig long and hard through a lot of dirt before you strike gold.” Menken offers himself as Exhibit A, noting that musical theater took a while to notice him, for he’d endured a few financially unsuccessful off-Broadway musicals before he finally hit “with,” as he says, “a musical with eight characters and a puppet.”

The kids in the audience laugh affectionately; they know he means LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. But they’re immediately quiet when he begins to offer what is perhaps his most valuable observation: “When something I write doesn’t work, I don’t say ‘Audiences are stupid.’ Audiences are smart.” This statement will be proven time and time again this week.

So as The Music of Menken comes to a conclusion with 72 kids singing the title song from LEAP OF FAITH, the audience stands and claps in unison. And that brings up the best aspect of attending The Thespian Festival. You’re with people who care about theater as much as you. And, as you’ll see in this column for a few Fridays to come, there was so much sharing of theatrical joy during this marvelous week in Nebraska that even Phyllis Diller would have been delighted.

 


 

 

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com, Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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    Marty Johnson (iTheatrics), MTI President Drew Cohen and Cindy Ripley (iTheatrics) lead workshops at the Turnaround Arts Summer Leadership Retreat.

    Music Theatre International has been a proud partner of The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) Turnaround Arts initiative since 2013.

    The program has been enormously successful, reaching over 22,000 of the country’s highest-needs students in 49 schools in 14 states and the District of Columbia.

    For the past three years, MTI president Drew Cohen, along with our colleagues from iTheatrics have been attending the annual Summer Leadership Retreat which is designed to help principals and teachers gain strategies such as managing classroom behavior through drama and integrating visual art into reading.  Nationally recognized teaching artists Marty Johnson and Cindy Ripley of iTheatrics are experts in their field, and through the foundation created by MTI’s Broadway Junior musicals, Marty and Cindy have lead thousands of educators in their “Putting on a Musical” workshops.

    Marty Johnson and Cindy Ripley.

    Cindy Ripley with the teachers from across the country at the Turnaround Arts Summer Leadership Retreat.

     

     

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      Music Theatre International’s John Prignano presented a check for $10,000 to EdTA Executive Director Julie Cohen Theobald, fulfilling MTI’s pledge to match grassroots fundraising for EdTA’s new JumpStart Theatre initiative. Photo by Don Corathers.

      Earlier this year, Music Theatre International, the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) and  iTheatrics launched JumpStart Theatre, a three-year scalable pilot program designed to bring musical theatre into schools that currently do not have a performing arts program.

      MTI matched gifts to JumpStart Theatre on a dollar-to-dollar basis up to $10,000 to assist the three Cincinnati-area schools that were selected for the program in May.

      MTI’s Senior Operations Officer, John Prignano was on hand at the 2015 International Thespian Festival to present a check for MTI’s matching pledge of $10,000.

      We couldn’t be more proud of our partners and the incredible work being done to promote arts education!

       

       

       

       

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        How does a manual become a musical?

        I posed that question last Friday when I discussed a recent production of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. The 1961 smash hit remains the only show to win a Best Musical Tony and Pulitzer Prize — and be based on a mock-self-help book.

        That came in 1952, when Shepherd Mead wrote his parody of a how-to book to which he affixed the now-famous title. Mead was qualified; in 1936 as a 22-year-old, he’d started as a mail room clerk for Benton & Bowles, the legendary advertising agency that invented the soap opera (specifically to promote its soap-selling client Procter & Gamble). Twenty years later in 1956, Mead left the firm as a vice-president.

        He resigned because he’d done well with writing in his spare time. Another how-to-succeed book involving TV had hit the market and another concerning women was just about to. What’s more, Mead’s 1954 novel The Big Ball of Wax had been optioned for Broadway. In the Pink would boast a score by Harold (Pins and Needles) Rome and be directed by Moss Hart, who’d just staged My Fair Lady.

        That musical never materialized, and was one of two reasons why Mead was down on Broadway during the late ‘50s. The other? Jack Weinstock, a neurosurgeon, and Willie Gilbert, a writer who had been one of his patients, had bought the rights to make a stage comedy out of HOW TO SUCCEED. But as the ‘60s began, Weinstock and Gilbert had had five years of frustration, for one producer after another had rejected their script.

        Their agent then approached the team of Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, who’d produced six shows, five of which were hits: WHERE’S CHARLEY?, GUYS AND DOLLS, Can-Can, THE BOY FRIEND and Silk Stockings. As it turned out, the team wasn’t interested in producing the play, but they did see possibilities for a musical – not surprising, given that that was the only type of show they’d produced.

        They wouldn’t entrust the property to unproven musical talent. Instead they called Abe Burrows, who’d done an exemplary rescue job on GUYS AND DOLLS a decade earlier, once Feuer and Martin had found the original Jo Swerling book wanting. Could Burrows do it again?

        He’d have one of the best songwriters to help him: Frank Loesser, his old GUYS AND DOLLS composer-lyricist. Loesser didn’t take long to find his initial inspiration. His first lyric – “How to apply for job” – is right there as the name of Mead’s first chapter. Later Loesser noticed Mead’s line “A Secretary is NOT a Toy” and turned it into a waltz.

        Original Album Cover, 1961

        Both writers came through with a show that would finish as Broadway’s fifth-longest-running musical. And while the credits for HOW TO SUCCEED have always read “Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert,” the Pulitzer Prize citation didn’t even mentioned the original pair but gave all book credit to Burrows.

        And yet … and yet … can we really say that Burrows was responsible for each and every good idea and the other two weren’t? Oh, for a look at that original Weinstock and Gilbert play! Without it, we’ll never know who did what. So, in order not to deprive any man of his rightful due, I’ll use the term “the adapters” when detailing new takes on Mead’s words. For my looking at Mead’s original work and seeing what was (and wasn’t) chosen for musicalization made for fascinating reading.

        The smallest change? Mead used as his prototype Pierrepont Finch; the adapters added a “J” in order to reference mogul J. Pierrepont Morgan. They also have him repeatedly stating “Finch, Pierrepont Finch” to people he meets, inspired by Mead’s “Always be careful to establish the name.”

        Besides, “J. Pierrepont” has three syllables that are accented with the same emphasis as “Rosemary.” And Rosemary — a character not found in Mead – provides one of musical theater’s most famous conflicts: career (shown by Finch’s single-minded ambition) vs. love (Rosemary’s attempts to get him to propose).

        Mead does mention, albeit almost incidentally, “Choose the right wife. Otherwise, you may be forced to replace her.” Actually, Rosemary’s the one who’s intent on choosing the right mate. She’s also more likely of the two to “pick the right suburb,” as Mead counsels. (“New Rochelle,” as she sings, “is the place where the mansion will be.”)

        Mead coined the name of the big boss J.B. Biggley, which the adapters retained. But Mead’s “Biggley and Company” (which made wickets, whatever they may be) was renamed “World Wide Wickets.” (That does sound more contemporary in our current age of the World Wide Web.)

        Original Broadway Cast Members, 1961.
        Rudy Vallee, Virginia Martin and Robert Morse.

        Mead also named executives Bratt and Gatch as well as secretaries Miss Jones and Hedy. But aside from Biggley, who does have some interaction with Finch, the others were merely names mentioned in passing. The adapters had to find their characters — and did. For example, Mead’s line “The Old Man has for a secretary an aging maiden who has been with him for 30 years” spurred the adapters to make her Miss Jones.

        A few plot points – but not all that many – come from Mead, such as Finch’s stating to a personnel office that he “just happened to bump into” Biggley, making it seem that they were already buddies. All that really happened is that he stumbled and got in Biggley’s way. This comes early in both books, and is important, for it establishes Finch as someone who doesn’t quite lie but one who chooses his words carefully; if someone takes a different meaning from his words, well, that’s not his problem.

        “The callow chaps around you may not look like much.” Hence, the adapters invented of Bud Frump, Biggley’s nephew-but-only-by marriage who will use nepotism to thwart Finch’s rise.

        Did the adapters or Loesser give Frump his name? There’s a possibility that the lyricist created it because he needed a rhyme in the song “The Company Way”: “Frump will play it the comp-any way.”

        Mead advised Finch not to take just any promotion, for it could lead to a dead-end job. So the adapters have Finch, selected as the new mail room supervisor, refusing it and recommending Frump –because he anticipates (and gets) a better job as a junior executive. Here’s another example of how the adapters made Finch likeable. He was paying attention and knew that a new job was opening up; Frump wasn’t, putting him in you-snooze-you-lose territory.

        “The elevator and the men’s room are the only places you will meet the executives on a man-to-man basis,” writes Mead. The adapters put both a scene and song in each locale: “Been a Long Day” takes place in front of the elevator bank where Frump and Biggley lock horns. “I Believe in You” occurs in the men’s room where Finch prepares for the big advertising meeting while his adversaries wish him ill.

        1995 Revival Cast
        Megan Mullally, Victoria Clark and Matthew Broderick (© Joan Marcus)

        Mead also urged Finch to send his sexy secretary into a superior’s office and “you will be moved in quickly to fill his shoes.” The adapters did Mead one better by having the secretary be Hedy, now surnamed La Rue to make her all the sexier – and Biggley’s innamorata. True, Finch purposely sends in the minx to his superior Mr. Gatch in hopes that the man will succumb to her body before he can learn who she is. No question that Finch led the horse’s ass to water at the mouth, but he isn’t technically responsible for Gatch’s breach of conduct. It’s the man’s own damn fault that he got himself in trouble – and thus dispatched to a remote outpost.

        North Dakota was Mead’s choice, but the adapters worsened matters by choosing Venezuela. How interesting that Mead knew (instinctively or otherwise) that old comedy rule that “Words with a ‘k’ are funny.” What’s odd is that the adapters – especially Burrows, who’d been writing professional show-biz comedy since 1940 — didn’t capitalize on that.

        They did, however, create a memorable Hedy, whom they have believe that she’s coming across as bright when she says “It is I whom (sic) am late.” She introduces herself to Finch by saying “A secretary was ordered to be assigned to you. I’m your assignation.” She tries to get him to succumb, but it’s Rosemary he wants – spurring Hedy to show us she’s not just a dumb blonde: “I guess I’ll have to wait for that pigeon until after he’s married.”

        Mead created the scenario in which Finch gets to the office on a sleepy Saturday morning just moments before Biggley arrives to pick up his golf clubs and spreads coffee cups and cigarettes around to suggest that he’s been working all night. But the adapters took three other scenes from Mead’s book and merged them here.

        2011 Revival Cast ,Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette
        (©Broadway.com)

        1) Mead’s advised Finch on “The Old School Tie” syndrome. As he wrote, “If the boss happens to come from some vile backwater college – and has an inferiority complex about it – you have struck a rich vein.” The adapters agreed and even retained some of Mead’s name for a second-rate school – “Old Ivy State Teachers Normal” – leading to Loesser’s stirring march “Grand Old Ivy.”

        2) The sports imagery in that song has its roots in Mead, too. “Memorize the scores of all football games back to 1903,” he suggests. Mead even mentions that an Old Ivy rival team be named “Chipmunks.” Loesser, however, provided the nickname for Old Ivy’s eleven: Groundhogs.

        3) “Discover the boss’ hobbies,” Mead urges, whether he “raises hamsters, collects cigar bands or plays the zither.” The adapters instead had Finch knitting (which is funnier) because he’s learned that Biggley knits, too.

        They’re all nice details, but they’re no substitute for plot. They found the germ of one in Mead’s advice that “You will take the worthless notions of others and add to each of them that important fillip that makes it work.” So Bud brings Finch an idea that his uncle has already nixed: World Wide Wickets would sponsor a quiz show. Ah, but timing is (almost) everything; because Hedy has been hectoring Biggley for a new job, he can appease her by making her the show’s Vanna White.

        Because The Great TV Game Show Scandal had rocked the entertainment world only a few years earlier, the adapters used it. Hedy screws up and Finch looks like the fall guy until Burrows (oh, who’s kidding who? Yes, Burrows!) gets him out of it in delightful fashion. Mead had to admire all the additions to his book, not to mention his substantial cut of the royalties.

        When Mead heard that his book would become a musical, he must have immediately thought that one scene he’d written would definitely be included. He had Finch, when applying for a job, bring a barbershop quartet into Mr. Rivers’ office and had the foursome sing “Big Man Rivers” to the tune of “Ol’ Man River.”

        But Loesser didn’t take Mead’s bait. If he had, the result would have been, to use a favorite musical theater expression, “on the nose” – meaning “too obvious.” Loesser looked in other places and got memorable song ideas from them. That’s how you succeed in musicals – by really trying.

        You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com, Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.

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          Kenosha theater director has students reaching for the stars

          June 24, 2015

          Matt Kulling of The Journal Sentinel of Milwaukee, Wisconsin profiled teacher Holly Stanfield and her students as they prepare for the International Thespian Festival. Read the outstanding article below. Watching Holly Stanfield guide actors and singers rehearsing “The Little Mermaid,” it’s easy to forget she’s working with high schoolers. When Stanfield calls out a number [...]

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            Enhance your Orchestra for Godspell 2012 with OrchExtra – New From MTI!

            June 23, 2015

            OrchExtra is now Available for Godspell 2012! OrchEXTRA®  – The Industry Leader in Musical Theatre Orchestra Enhancement Just Took a Quantum Leap Forward: Powerful new interface Hundreds of new features Downloadable Expanded access Lower cost Try it for free WHAT IS OrchEXTRA® Revolutionizing the production of musicals throughout the United States, MTI’s OrchEXTRA® is a [...]

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              Filichia Features: HOW TO SUCCEED Still Does

              June 19, 2015

              “The Mad Men Musical.” That’s a good way to advertise your upcoming production of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. No, the 1961-62 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical isn’t a true adaptation of the acclaimed AMC series that entertained us for eight seasons. But there are similarities; both properties are set in the [...]

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                MusicalTheaterSongs.com: Find Your Perfect Audition Piece – Special Discount Subscription for MTI Friends and Family

                June 18, 2015

                We couldn’t be more excited about this great new subscription-based service, MusicalTheaterSongs.com.  MusicalTheaterSongs.com provides current and aspiring theatre professionals with a comprehensive database of musical theater songs searchable by voice type, character age, genre and more! – Search more than 7,000 titles spanning 150 years of shows – Custom-tailor your search using up to 20 [...]

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                  Two Wisconsin Schools to Perform Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Hello, My Baby at Thespian Festival

                  June 17, 2015

                  The following is an article from Wisconsin’s WITI Fox 6, about two brand new high school productions of Hello, My Baby and Disney’s The Little Mermaid making their way to the International Thespian Festival. Read the original article here. KENOSHA — Singing, dancing, and acting — these students can do it all, and they’re about [...]

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                    Freddie Gershon: There is No Theatre Without the Writers — Part Two

                    June 17, 2015

                    The following is an excerpt from MTI Chairman and CEO Freddie Gershon in response to an article published June 12th, 2015 on The Huffington Post: On Friday, June 12th, I posted a piece in the Huffington Post titled, “There Is No Theatre Without Writers”. I received a lot of positive letters, comments, phone calls and emails [...]

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