Broadway beckons Village Theatre musicals

February 15, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Musicals nurtured at Issaquah theater charm audiences and rack up awards in the Big Apple

Tony Award-winning actress Alice Ripley (center, seated) leads the ‘Next to Normal’ cast in a performance at the Arena Stage, the musical’s last stop before debuting on Broadway. By Joan Marcus

The brick-and-glass theater along a fashionable street in Oslo, Norway, seems like a strange place to re-create Yankee suburbia.

Onstage, “Next to Normal” — a rock musical fostered in Issaquah — is about to be performed. The story about a suburban — and quite American — family straining against mental illness has been translated into Norwegian for the international premiere.

The debut last September marked a milestone for the musical. “Next to Normal” had already stormed Broadway — earning Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the process.

Before the accolades and Oslo, “Next to Normal” emerged in a Village Theatre program designed to foster original musicals.

The long-running program has cemented the reputation of the downtown Issaquah playhouse as a cradle for Broadway.

Village Theatre cultivated “Next to Normal” and the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” from unpolished ideas to splashy Broadway musicals in recent years.

“The success of ‘Next to Normal’ validates what we’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years,” longtime Artistic Director Steve Tomkins said. “Followed immediately by ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ — oh my God, things are happening and we’re doing things right.”

Theater insiders attribute the success to a steadfast commitment to original musicals from the creative team and donors, a talent pool deep enough to sustain multiple theaters in Greater Seattle and a savvy audience eager to participate in the arduous process.

•••

The journey from Front Street to Broadway starts on the kind of mild night known as summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Theatergoers descend on downtown Issaquah and, rather than linger at a sidewalk café for another glass of pinot grigio, pack inside a dark room to take in a barebones reading.

The opener for the 2010 festival is “It Shoulda Been You” — a romantic comedy about a race to the altar — and the audience has settled in for a couple of hours to see a show stripped down to the lines and music inside plastic binders in the actors’ hands — no costumes, no choreography and no sets.

The house lights dim and performers, dressed in street clothes and with binders in hand, assemble at music stands onstage.

“It Shoulda Been You” is the initial offering in the half-dozen original pieces in the lineup for the weekend. The sundry schedule includes tuners about a youthful Abe Lincoln, airline stewardesses, online deception, a shooting at a high school — and maybe, just maybe, something catchy enough for a stint on the Village Theatre Mainstage and beyond.

“Being seen as a place to develop a show, a place that understands that process and can really help a show mature — that’s our reputation and we’re happy to have it,” Executive Producer Robb Hunt said. “We’re very happy that we can call most of the agents in New York now and they will talk to us about their writers. Whereas in the early days it was, ‘Hell no. Issa-who?’ We’ve come a long way.”

•••

“The Full Monty” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” — familiar titles both — bookend the ongoing Village Theatre season. In the middle is something rare: a pair of original musicals, “Anne of Green Gables” — adapted from the classic novel — and “Iron Curtain” — a comic riff on Cold War communist propaganda.

Only a handful of regional playhouses offer original musicals in the course of a season. Some roll out a single original musical per year. Village Theatre might be the only regional theater in the nation to offer more than one.

“I’ve been going at this for quite some time as a composer. Over time, you get to know all of the theaters out there,” said “Iron Curtain” composer Stephen Weiner. “Here’s the reality: A lot of theaters say that they support new musicals, and then you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. That’s what Village Theatre does.”

The downtown Issaquah theater and similar playhouses arranged across the United States form a pipeline from small towns to the grand theaters in Midtown Manhattan.

Playbill magazine editor Blake Ross said Broadway relies on the system for fresh ideas and talent. (Playbill is the yellow-bordered magazine distributed at most Broadway and Off Broadway shows.)

“Regional theaters are vital to Broadway. In many cases, these theaters serve as launching grounds for Broadway shows — a place where the show can be worked and reworked without the harsh media glare of debuting on a Broadway stage,” she said. “Regional theaters are also doing a tremendous job nurturing new talent, especially new playwrights.”

•••

Before “Next to Normal” and “Million Dollar Quartet” upended perceptions about Village Theatre, the playhouse received a fleeting taste of notoriety in the late 1980s, after Hunt imported a team from New York to create a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. The successful show completed a run in Issaquah and then, the following year, opened at a Seattle Center theater for another stint.

Tony Award-winning actor Levi Kreis (left) and other ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ cast members perform in the Broadway production. By Joan Marcus

Other regional stages snapped up some of the embryonic productions formed at Village Theatre.

Slowly, under Hunt and Tomkins, the playhouse started to earn a reputation as a place for playwrights to pitch untested shows.

“It was the only place around that would take this new work that either somebody had written or he’d heard about, and put it on,” Tomkins recalled. “Oh my God! We didn’t know what we were doing at the time. We have since refined and developed our way of approaching the works, but it was so gutsy and it felt so right. Nothing is more exciting.”

“Next to Normal” author-lyricist — and Issaquah native — Brian Yorkey returned to Village Theatre a decade ago as Tomkins’ lieutenant.

The playhouse boasted a long commitment to original musicals, but so far, none had reached the Great White Way.

Yorkey, a Columbia University alumnus and Issaquah High School grad, set out to attract the national spotlight to quaint Village Theatre.

“I said, ‘There are lots of different things we can do to increase the national profile. The thing that’s going to make the big change is when Village gets a show to Broadway,’” he recalled. “I always said that’s going to be the big breakthrough.”

•••

The future breakthrough could be found in the building blocks for “Next to Normal” — a dysfunctional-family drama about mental illness set to a surging rock score.

The precursor — then titled “Feeling Electric” — germinated in 1998 as a 10-minute musical at the influential BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a New York City program for up-and-coming artists.

Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt, another Columbia alumnus, outlined a bold idea for a musical: a bipolar disorder-addled housewife undergoing electroshock therapy, and the impact the mental illness has on a suburban family.

Yorkey chanced upon the idea after catching a TV newsmagazine segment about the therapy as a treatment for bipolar disorder.

The initial sketch ballooned as Yorkey and Kitt added irony-rich lyrics needling the medical establishment and a showstopper set inside a Costco.

The proto “Next to Normal” required some feedback — and not just from the authors’ friends and family members.

“At that time, and still it’s really true, the path for a new musical was not an easy one and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for writers of new musicals to put their work in front of an audience,” Yorkey said. “It’s sort of a truism, but it really is kind of the essential fact of creating musicals is that you don’t know what you have until you’re able to put it in front of an audience.”

Enter Village Theatre.

“Feeling Electric” received a reading at the old First Stage Theatre in 2002 and then shuttled back to Manhattan for more tune-ups.

The long gestation continued in June 2005, as the piece returned to Village Theatre for a workshop.

•••

Then, the dark comedy received a reading in September 2005 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, a showcase for emergent shows.

The festival reading earned attention from “Wicked” producer David Stone and “Rent” director Michael Greif. The team urged Yorkey and Kitt to pare the hourslong musical for a debut Off Broadway.

The title “Feeling Electric” and other prized pieces did not survive the surgery.

“We miss them and yet we don’t want them back,” Yorkey said. “It was sort of a growing-up process and a letting-go process that, although we had to sacrifice things we loved, we certainly understood why and are very pleased with where it ended up.”

The retitled “Next to Normal” opened in early 2008. Critics pounced on the Off Broadway staging. The camp and comedy clashed against the exposed emotions.

“Next to Normal” appeared to be dead on arrival. The team decamped to the Arena Stage just outside Washington, D.C., to resuscitate the musical.

Only, instead of a scalpel, Yorkey and Kitt used a jackhammer.

The title song — the ostentatious rock anthem “Feeling Electric” — and the Costco number did not survive the overhaul.

“It’s important to try to be as free of ego in the process as you can be. Of course, that’s impossible,” Yorkey said. “Creators of musical theater tend to have very huge and also very delicate egos. The most successful cases of rewriting that I’ve been involved with usually involve people being able, to some degree, to set aside their ego and do what’s best for the piece.”

•••

Elizabeth Wollman, the author of “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From Hair to Hedwig” and a Baruch College assistant professor of music, credited the creative team for tackling the piece again and again.

Amy Spanger (left) and Jason Collins perform in the ‘Next to Normal’ precursor ‘Feeling Electric’ at a 2005 Village Theatre workshop. By Dan Achatz

“‘Next to Normal’ has been reworked 80 million times,” she said. “It’s been workshopped. It’s been fixed. It ran and it was criticized and they fixed it, and it was criticized again and they fixed it again.”

Bolstered by the enthusiastic response the updated musical had received at the Arena Stage, the team set out for Broadway.

“Next to Normal” opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre on a mild night in April 2009 — a year after the earlier version received a cool reception.

Ben Brantley, the feared theater critic for The New York Times, hailed the rock musical as “brave” and “breathtaking.”

Big Apple audiences responded to the serious subject matter and the searing performance from the lead actress, Alice Ripley.

“The de-stigmatization of mental disorders in this country has thankfully progressed, and more and more people know someone who suffers from a mental disorder or they suffer themselves,” Playbill editor Ross said. “This show provides an outlet for people. Bottom line is, it’s a beautiful musical with catchy tunes — whether or not you are personally affected by its subject matter or not, it’s hard not to tap into the emotions being portrayed on the stage.”

The creative team credited stops at Village Theatre for helping to fortify “Next to Normal” for difficult-to-impress New York City audiences.

“You couldn’t take a chance on ‘Next to Normal’ in New York, because if somebody didn’t like it off the bat, it’s dead,” Tomkins said.

•••

“Next to Normal” stood out on Broadway, like a man in a hospital gown at a cocktail party, in the season of the uplifting “Billy Elliot” and other screen-to-stage romps.

Yet the warts-and-all look at bipolar disorder, marital strife and teen angst enraptured audiences.

“When you get past some of the gobbledygook, you get to the meat of the matter, which is a very nicely constructed musical that has some flaws,” Wollman said. “But if you can see past the flaws — it’s a real, lasting work in some respects and something that really goes where other musicals have never gone before.”

The surprises continued. “Next to Normal” garnered 11 nominations for Tony Awards, including a Best Original Score nod for Yorkey and Kitt.

The category seemed like a long shot, considering the competition: Sir Elton John for “Billy Elliot” and Dolly Parton for a chirpy “9 to 5” stage adaptation.

“Next to Normal” claimed statuettes for Best Orchestrations, Best Actress in a Musical for Ripley and Best Original Score.

Yorkey paid tribute to the Village Theatre team — mentioning Hunt and Tomkins — in a hurried acceptance speech.

“It’s very personal, because Brian is one of us,” Tomkins said later.

“Brian is from Issaquah. Brian was this obnoxious kid who drove me crazy.” Tomkins paused. “He was actually a good kid.”

Hunt had traveled to Radio City Music Hall for the June 2009 ceremony. The performers from “Million Dollar Quartet” — another up-and-coming production nurtured at Village Theatre — flagged him down as he headed to his seat.

The moment turned out to be prescient. Hunt returned for the Tonys the following June.

•••

“Million Dollar Quartet” landed in the Village Theatre festival lineup a year after “Feeling Electric” stopped at the playhouse for a workshop.

‘Million Dollar Quartet’ cast members re-create a famous jam session during a performance at the 2006 Festival of New Musicals. Contributed

The based-on-a-true-story musical recounts a famous jam session: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis collaborating at the Sun Records studio in 1956 — a “million dollar quartet” as Memphis journalists dubbed the moment.

“Million Dollar Quartet” the musical rollicked onto the Mainstage in September 2007.

Tennessean Levi Kreis portrayed Lewis — the original rock ‘n’ roll bad boy — in the show.

“You get to see pop culture through very personal eyes when you begin to see these women who have memories of this music and being 16 years old, put their purse down at the end of the aisle and dance in the middle of the aisle in the middle of your show,” he said.

The jukebox musical brought in more than $1 million in ticket sales — a record unbroken for original musicals until “Anne of Green Gables” crested the mark in January 2011. Producers extended the “Million Dollar Quartet” run to 10 weeks to meet demand.

Some audience members continued to dance in the aisles as the show opened in Chicago and then on Broadway in April 2010.

The storyline remains unchanged for the most part, but the Broadway production boosted the glitz factor.

“Is it different? Yeah, because I think that any time you go to Broadway, things become a little more polished. They have to adhere to a certain type of presentation,” Kreis said. “Frankly, I’m more fond of the versions we’ve done prior — in Chicago and Seattle — because there was a grit, there was a rawness and, frankly, I think it had more balls.”

•••

Cojones or not, “Million Dollar Quartet” still possessed enough octane to charm audiences and earn solid reviews from critics.

“In the case of ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ it follows the formula of successful jukebox musicals that preceded it — i.e. ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’ — and crafted a show out of familiar songs that do a brilliant job of entertaining the masses,” Playbill editor Ross said.

The opening marked a major milestone for Village Theatre.

Not only had the suburban theater nurtured a Tony Award-winning musical, the playhouse now boasted a pair of shows on Broadway at the same time.

“I think it’s always been a goal that we could develop new musicals that get to Broadway,” Hunt said. “Having two musicals there simultaneously surpassed any expectations that we ever had.”

“Million Dollar Quartet” earned Tony nominations last year for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical — for the spoken storyline — and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for Kreis.

The musical triumphed in the acting category.

The statuette represented validation. Kreis, a gifted actor-singer-songwriter, had battled stage fright in the days before the show opened on Broadway.

“I enjoyed the process of helping to do my part to help create my role, and to work with an incredible team to do the best that we could at every stage of development,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s any way to know what people are going to grab on to and respond to. That’s always the quandary about being a creative individual.”

•••

The process to perfect a musical for the Mainstage, let alone Broadway, can turn into a slog as authors tune and retune shows line by line.

“Unlike other things, musicals never seem to be totally finished — at least my musicals,” “Chasing Nicolette” and “Stunt Girl” author-lyricist Peter Kellogg said. The shows debuted at Village Theatre in recent seasons.

Even a runaway Mainstage success — such as “Million Dollar Quartet” — needs additional refinements after the curtain drops.

“Somebody said to me once, ‘If you lose somebody for a paragraph in a novel, you get them back on the next paragraph. But if you lose somebody for a minute in theater, it’s hard to get them back,’” “Iron Curtain” scribe Susan DiLallo said.

The audience, as a result, performs a crucial role in the long incubation process.

David Armstrong, executive producer and artistic director at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, said the affluent, educated audience in the Seattle area appeals to playwrights.

“You could rehearse a show for three years in an empty theater and you wouldn’t solve the problems that you could solve in two days with an audience sitting there,” he said. “You won’t understand what the show needs until you’ve experienced it with the audience.”

The musical “Plane Crazy” received a tip-to-tail rewrite based on audience input after the 2010 Village Theatre festival.

“Jokes that I had kept in there for 10 years, it was like, ‘You know what? No one laughed. They’re still not laughing. It’s time to cut this,’” author-composer Suzy Conn said. “But you’re so excited, because you get this real feedback, and it’s not jaded industry people being cynical. It’s real people — laughing or not.”

•••

“I always say there are three great theater towns in the United States. There’s New York, there’s Chicago and there’s Seattle,” Armstrong said. “I say that to people from Seattle, and they look at me like I’m out of my mind. But I can assure you that the people in New York and the people in Chicago know that we’re one of the three great theater towns.”

Observers said Village Theatre reinforces a regional reputation for Broadway-quality theater.

“Next to Normal” closed on Broadway in January after 21 previews and 733 performances — and recouped the $4 million initial investment, a phenomenal feat for a brooding musical in a bad economy.

The show is in the midst of a run in Helsinki, Finland. Theaters in the Philippines and Australia plan to launch the musical soon.

“Million Dollar Quartet” is scheduled to open in London in late February as the incendiary Broadway run continues.

Other musicals from Village Theatre seasons past — “Chasing Nicolette” and “Stunt Girl” come to mind — and present — “Iron Curtain” — continue to generate interest from producers.

“For a long time, we had a better reputation in New York than we did in the Northwest, because the perspective was not there,” artistic director Tomkins said.

Credit brisk Broadway ticket sales, Tonys by the armful and a Pulitzer Prize for the transformation.

Village Theatre timeline

Village Theatre has evolved from a small-town playhouse in 1979 to a nursery for Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals in 2011.

1979

• Village Theatre opens and debuts ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ at First Stage Theatre. Founding Artistic Director Carl Darchuk is at the helm.

1980

• The theater debuts the original musical ‘Beanstalk’ — a milestone for the fledgling playhouse.

1985

• Carl Darchuk departs for a film career. Robb Hunt is a named executive producer, a position he has held since.

1987

• Village Theatre commissions and produces a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. ‘Eleanor’ is a success in Issaquah, Seattle and, later, Washington, D.C.

1989

• Village Theatre joins the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, a group set up to nurture original musicals.

1993

• Steve Tomkins is named artistic director after choreographing and directing shows in earlier seasons.

1994

• The modern Francis J. Gaudette Theatre — called the Mainstage — opens in downtown Issaquah.

1996

• ‘City Kid’ is the inaugural show from the Village Theatre original musical series to debut on the Mainstage.

1998

• Village Theatre establishes a beachhead in Snohomish County at the Everett Performing Arts Center.

2002

• Village Theatre hosts a reading for the ‘Next to Normal’ precursor ‘Feeling Electric.’

2003

• ‘The Ark’ — a onetime Mainstage production — is the first Village Theatre show to premiere Off Broadway.

2005

• Brian Yorkey and ‘Feeling Electric’ return to the First Stage Theatre for a workshop.

2006

• The jukebox musical ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ receives a slot at the Village Theatre Festival of New Musicals.

2007

• ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ debuts on the Mainstage and shatters the Village Theatre sales record for original musicals.

2009

• ‘Next to Normal’ opens on Broadway at the Booth Theatre and earns three Tony Awards, including Best Score.

2010

• ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ opens on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre and earns a Tony for actor Levi Kreis.

• ‘Next to Normal’ receives the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. No musical had earned the honor since ‘Rent’ in 1996.

• The frontier-era First Stage Theatre is razed and construction starts on a near-identical playhouse on the site.

2011

• ‘Next to Normal’ closes on Broadway after 21 previews and 733 performances. The national tour starts in Los Angeles.

• ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ is readied for a London opening. The national ‘Next to Normal’ tour reaches Seattle.

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