Douglas Lyons was attending Career High School in New Haven when he first began to consider theater as a career choice. There was a poster for the University of Hartford’s Hartt School in one of the classrooms, so he applied. At Hartt, he was cast in a reading of the new musical “Band Geeks” at the Goodspeed Festival of New Artists.
That was in 2009. Lyons is now a noted Broadway performer (“Beautiful”) and composer and lyricist (“Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical”). His latest musical “Five Points,” created with Ethan Pakchar and Harrison David Rivers, is getting a reading at the three-day Goodspeed festival on Friday, Jan. 12.
The festival, which runs Jan. 12 to 14, is now in its 13th season. Five years ago the Goodspeed started a separate wintertime new-works development program, the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony, a monthlong creative retreat that takes place from mid-January to mid-February.
Goodspeed’s line producer Donna Lynn Hilton, who oversees the festival, helped found the Mercer colony and is the self-described “boots on the ground for all our productions,” says that most of the shows that get readings at the festival now emanate from the Mercer Colony. A project is usually selected about a year and a half before it gets a reading.
“We are constantly receiving and reviewing shows,” Hilton says in a phone interview last week, adding that the title of the festival was changed a few years ago from Festival of New Artists to Festival of New Musicals to encourage wider participation of musical theater creators. The readings are often the work of what the theater calls “emerging artists,” but other aspects of the festival celebrate musical theater history and traditions. Newcomers and old hands mingle happily.
While readings at some other new-works festivals are put together in a day or two, the Goodspeed readings get between eight to 10 days of rehearsals.
“We have three rehearsal spaces going,” Hilton says. “The copying machines are going all the time due to all the changes.” The writers and performers, 70 to 80 people in all, stay in the theater’s housing complex.
“The craziest part of it is the audition process,” Hilton says. “There are 41 actors this year. We’re committed to using the entire Hartt class” — that is, students in the Hartt musical theater program. Other performers come from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in Massachusetts.
Hilton “first heard about [“Five Points’] three years ago. Douglas and Ethan were both at the Mercer Colony two years ago. Last summer Douglas reached out and said they were ready to bring the show to the next level.” “Five Points”’s first full production is already scheduled for April at Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis.
“The focus for the Goodspeed reading,” Lyons says, “is to tighten the story, make the the relationships more specific.” The show is set in New York City in the 1860s, and concerns two dancers — one Irish, one African-American — who “risk everything in the pursuit of the American Dream.”
While he calls his previous musical “Polkadots” a “unicorn that happened by angels” due to its abbreviated development process, “Five Points” is a “Broadway-scale Sondheim-mammoth piece” that has required lots of workshopping. He’s been balancing his work on the project with his active performance career.
While some shows, like “Five Points,” can use a reading for fine-tuning before an impending full production, others are being heard in their entirety for the first time ever. Patricia Noonan, who with composer Sean Mahoney created the history-based musical “Sweetwater,” says their show’s Saturday, Jan. 13, reading will be “the first presentation of the full, integrated script and score.”
“Sweetwater” is about sisters who fly with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in World War II. Like Lyons, Noonan is a performer as well as a writer. “Sweetwater” experiments with different musical styles, she says.
“There are two vibes. There’s the world around these women, that’s very 1940s, with an Andrews Sisters/Bing Crosby sound, but when the sisters sing themselves, it’s more modern.” The show is also “uncovering an untold story, one that we knew nothing about when Sean and I first started writing together.” Noonan and Mahoney met at the Mercer Colony in 2015 while working on other projects. Noonan, who interned at the Goodspeed when she was a student at Boston College, credits the theater as the place where “my love for creating stuff really grew.”
The third musical receiving a reading at the festival this year is “Passing Through” by Brett Ryback and Eric Ulloa. It’s based on Andrew Forsthoefel’s book “Walking to Listen.”
The Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals begins Friday night with the “Five Points” reading at 7:30 p.m. and a 10 p.m. cabaret performance by singer and songwriter Jenny Giering. Saturday brings three sessions of musical theater seminars at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon.; each one-hour block offers a choice of three different talks that range from “Festival Alumni Success Stories” to “The State of the NEA” to a talk with composer and arranger David Krane. At 1 p.m. on Saturday, there’s a screening of a video of the 1993 Goodspeed production of “On the Town” at the Goodspeed’s Scherer Library, which is also housing an exhibit on Noel Coward. There is a 3 p.m. live preview of the two new musicals that will be produced later this year at the Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre, followed by a 4 p.m. symposium on “A Critic’s Role,” a 5 p.m. dinner, a 7:30 p.m. reading of “Sweetwater” and a 10 p.m. cabaret performance by Zoe Sarnak.
The festival concludes Sunday with a 1 p.m. reading of “Passing Through” and the traditional 3:30 p.m. “Meet the Writers” panel with the creators of the three shows that had readings.
The most celebrated musical to emerge from the Festival of New Musicals” is “Come From Away,” the 9/11-set Broadway hit that had a reading in East Haddam in 2013. “Come From Away” came from outside the Mercer Colony; it was recommended to the festival organizers by its producer Michael Rubinoff when the project had only a 45-page draft to work from. Rubinoff was at the festival last year to explain how important the Goodspeed reading was to “Come From Away”’s development. On Saturday, the show’s writing team will take part in an 11 a.m. seminar titled “You Saw It Here First.”
THE GOODSPEED FESTIVAL OF MUSICALS is Jan. 12 to 14 at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam and several nearby locations. Single tickets to each event are $25, $15 for students. Ticket packages for the whole weekend are $80 (including all the readings and the critics symposium) and $139 (all the readings, three seminars, the symposium and Saturday dinner). 860-873-8668 and goodspeed.org.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the time of the “Five Points” reading on Friday.