What Would Woody Do?
When illness befell an actor in “Woody Sez,” the Woody Guthrie tribute at Westport Country Playhouse (which plays through Jan. 20), the show’s star David M. Lutken sprang into action. He and the remaining cast members took advantage of the empty stage and organized an impromptu free-of-charge hootenanny.
The 90-minute musical jam session seemed to want to happen. Lutken always tries to have hootenannies during the runs of shows he’s in. Because of the tight schedule of “Woody Sez,” he couldn’t fit one in at Westport this month. Instead, he visited the theater last month and held one then. Now Westport got its timely hootenanny anyhow — albeit at the expense of a performance.
Lutken is planning another hootenanny when he returns to Connecticut this spring to play the title role in “The Will Rogers Follies” at the Goodspeed Opera House. You, and your musical instruments, should stay tuned.
The Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals is over for the year, which means the Goodspeed’s Johnny Mercer Writers Colony has just gotten started. The colony offers a monthlong work retreat for dozens of musical theater librettists, lyricists and composers. Both established and up-and-coming artists are invited. No public performances happen at the colony, but the participants form a strong community among themselves. Several fresh collaborations have come from writers and composers who first met at the colony.
Besides the participants, the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony has a producer/writer in residence, Jonathan Brielle; and a resident dramaturg, Clifford Lee Johnson III. Amanda Kate Joshi is the 2018 “colony coordinator” and Goodspeed Line Producer Donna Lynn Hilton oversees the whole shebang, just as she does the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals.
“Chasing Rainbows,” “Deathless” and “Darling Grenadine” are among the shows that have been developed at the colony and later were given full productions by Goodspeed Musicals.
Here’s who’s at the Johnny Mercer Colony this month: Zakiyyah Alexander, Kevin Armento Jr., Gilbert Bailey II, Rob Baumgartner, Glen Berger, Jeff Calhoun, Hunter Bird, Molly Bogin, Ben Bonnema, John Cariani, Nathan Dame, Colleen Dauncey, Ty Defoe, Hunter Foster, Scott Gilmour, Robin Holloway, Oliver Houser, Tor Hyams, Barry Kleinbort, Mike Lew, Mark Mancina, Claire McKenzie, Sammy Miller, Rehana Lew Mirza, Tekla Monson, Jevares Myrick, Ronve O’Daniel, Lindsey Hope Pearlman, Akiva Romer-Segal, Lisa Rothauser, Sam Salmond, Ben Scheuer, Tidtaya Sinutoke, Kent Staines, Chris Staskel, Ian Fields Stewart, Georgia Stitt, Imani Uzuri, and Sam Willmott.
There are some big names on that list: Jeff Calhoun is the director/choreographer whose Broadway hits include “Newsies,” “Grease” and the Deaf West revival of “Big River.” John Cariani is the actor/playwright who wrote the small theater staple “Almost, Maine.” Glen Berger wrote the long-running play “Underneath the Lintel” and wrote a fascinating memoir about his experience as librettist on “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” But at places like this, the names to watch out for are often the ones you haven’t heard of yet.
Theater CD Round-Up
Here’s a new album for those who’ve enjoyed the youthful “Oklahoma!” at Goodspeed and the gospel-tinged “Sound of Music” and the multicultural “The King and I” on tour. Kyle Riabko, whose album and stage show “Close to You” reconfigured pop classics by Burt Bacharach, has now delved into the Rodgers and Hammerstein and Rodgers and Hart catalogues. Riabko turns “Where or When” into a Harry Nilsson-style pop tune, “I Have Dreamed” into Stevie Wonder-type soul ballad, and “Bewitched” into a dreamy soliloquoy. He removes the stuffiness from “Some Enchanted Evening” by playing it on ukulele and adds ironic dance beats to “If I Loved You.” “Richard Rodgers Reimagined” will get you through a bleak winter. Let’s hope that, like the Bacharach project, it gets a stage version.
Festive Memories At Goodspeed
I caught several of the Saturday talks and seminars at the 13th annual Goodspeed Festival Of New Musicals last weekend in East Haddam. It’s such a delight to sit among fellow musical theater fanatics and bask in the glow of all the artists, historians and champions of this wondrous artform.
Ken Bloom began a presentation based on his highly entertaining book “Show & Tell — The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes” (now out in paperback from Oxford University Press) by stating “All the stories in this book are true … or apocryphal … or somebody made them up.” Then he launched into a virtual stand-up comedy act based on Broadway lore: “Kurt Weill was walking down the street with Nanette Fabray…”
Greg Reiner, the National Endowment for the Arts’ director of theater and musical theater, opened his remarks thus: “Every important lesson I’ve learned in my life, I’ve learned from musical theater. From ‘South Pacific,’ I’ve learned that you can’t just wash a man out of your hair. … and from ‘Into the Woods,” I learned that witches can be right and giants can be good.” Reiner discussed how the government agency supports institutions such as the Goodspeed. (A recent example is the funding for “Holiday Inn,” which the Goodspeed adapted from a beloved film into a stage musical.) “Of all the Broadway shows this year,” Reiner declared, “all but one started at an NEA-funded theater.” He touted the agency’s new programs, including a songwriting competition for high school students, and encouraged laypeople to become part of the NEA’s ongoing peer review process.
Music arranger David Krane, who’d worked at Goodspeed early in his career and now regularly works on stage and film projects with director Rob Marshall, screened video of arrangements he’d done for “Victor/Victoria” and told the extraordinary story of how he and book-writer Stephen Cole were commissioned by the government of Qatar to write a musical called “Aspire” that was performed with a 70-piece orchestra at the opening of new soccer stadium. Krane and Cole have turned those experiences into their own new musical “The Road to Qatar.”
Another talk gathered Laura Collins-Hughes of The New York Times, Elysa Gardner (formerly of USA Today) and former Hartford Courant staffer Frank Rizzo for a discussion of “A Critic’s Role.” In his introduction, Colin McEnroe branded the threesome “powerful, anxiety-provoking people.”
One of the featured guests at the fest, “Darling Grenadine” puppeteer Phillip Huber, wasn’t there because his flight to Connecticut was turned back due to Friday’s bad weather. Another event that didn’t happen: the expected announcement of the musicals that will be performed next season at the Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater in Chester. That announcement will now come at a later date.