Off the Press

February 15, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

How to succeed in show business

Warren Kagarise Press Reporter

In hindsight, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” seems like a prescient choice for a fledgling theater in a then-distant Seattle suburb.

The musical debuted at the just-christened Village Theatre in April 1979 — decades before the downtown Issaquah playhouse received a shout out during a Tony Awards telecast and credit for sending acclaimed musicals to face the toughest audiences in theater.

Only, unlike the title of the inaugural musical, Village Theatre tried again and again.

The playhouse has churned out hits — including “Next to Normal” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” the Village Theatre-nurtured duo responsible for hauling in the Tonys — and some duds, too, in almost 32 years.

For a piece in the wintertime Issaquah Living magazine, I set out to chronicle the long — and often arduous — journey from the Festival of New Musicals or the Mainstage to Broadway. (Readers can find the magazine tucked amid the sales circulars in the B section.)

So, as I reported the piece, I ducked inside Village Theatre on August nights to understand the early steps in the journey.

The theater imports scribes from the Big Apple and elsewhere for the summertime Festival of New Musicals, a yearly celebration dedicated to discovering the next hit. The celebration has morphed into a bona fide stop for industry types — a turnaround from the early days.

“Everyone was sort of like, ‘Oh, this cute, little theater in Issaquah. Well, good luck to you kids,’” longtime Artistic Director Steve Tomkins recalled.

Nowadays, the festival is a hot ticket for playwrights eager to put untried musicals to the test. Tomkins, Executive Producer Robb Hunt and Resident Music Director Tim Symons receive more than 100 scripts for a half-dozen slots each year.

The prize: musicals stripped down to lines and songs, and then put before survey-clutching audiences.

Village Theatre puts on the festival to scout possibilities for the Mainstage, yes, but also to breathe life into a medium as ancient as the Parthenon.

“One of the reasons why we do it is that musical theater, like any medium, if it doesn’t keep growing and changing, it dies,” Tomkins said.

The progress from little-known playhouse to powerhouse resulted in something else, something less tangible, for the Issaquah institution: R-E-S-P-E-C-T and a reputation for quality.

“The great thing about Village is, they have an audience that loves musicals — and new musicals in particular — and loves the process and will kind of be with you every step of the way,” said “Iron Curtain” author Susan DiLallo.

“Iron Curtain” is the original musical scheduled to debut on the Mainstage in early March. The piece, in another iteration, played at the Festival of New Musicals in 2007.

The stop marked another step in the Byzantine process to ready a musical for a staging. Using audience surveys collected after the festival reading, scribes draft and redraft line after line to create something to appeal to the masses.

The process is not unlike the decadeslong effort to shape Village Theatre into a national center for original musicals.

“I think it’s been a slow evolution,” Hunt said. “We’re sort of like the tortoise. We’re slow and steady.”

Consider the tortoise approach as a lesson in how to succeed in business.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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