An interview with Michael A. Kerker, Director of Musical Theatre at ASCAP, about their Musical Theatre Workshop, which recently included the musicals Costs of Living by Timothy Huang, Dora: Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria by Larry Bortnik, Hardcore West Virginia by Mike Pettry & Claire Karpen and Single Girls Guide by NAMT Fest alumni Tommy Newman & Gordon Greenberg.
The ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop is a development program for new musicals. The workshop is led by its artistic director, Stephen Schwartz (NAMT Fest ’96–Children of Eden) and is coordinated by Kerker. Their goal is to nurture new composers and lyricists and to help them shape and focus their projects in the early stages of development. The annual workshop is held in New York, usually in the early spring, and the Los Angeles workshop (presented in partnership with DreamWorks Animation) is held in February.
How do you select the musicals to be presented in the workshops?
Writers are asked to submit 4 songs from their musical, a copy of the lyrics with plot placement information and a brief synopsis of the libretto. We receive approximately 125 submissions for each workshop. I listen to all submissions and usually send a dozen or so of the more promising ones to Stephen Schwartz. He then listens to these finalists and ultimately we select 4 projects for presentation in the workshop.
What roles do Schwartz and other panelists play in the workshop process?
Each of the 4 participants will make 2 presentations before a panel of theatre professionals (such as Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lippa [NAMT Fest ’06–Jerry Christmas, ’08–A Little Princess], Craig Carnelia [NAMT Fest ’01–Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief], Bruce Coughlin, Stephen Flaherty, Tom Schumacher, etc.) led by Schwartz. The initial presentation is the first consecutive 25 minutes of the musical. After the presentation, the panelists offer feedback, comments and a critique of the project. We then give the writers a week or so before their second presentation which will be 50 consecutive minutes…from any part of the musical. If they’ve done any rewriting after their first presentation, the writers often choose to present the first 50 minutes…but this is not mandatory. After this second presentation, Schwartz again leads a panel discussion of the musical.
Most young writers tell us that after the insightful panel discussions, they can see the path they need to follow to improve the project. The impartial third eye view of creative talents helps bring any book issues into focus as well as any problems with the score.
The “audience” for the workshop is comprised of the writers who submitted to the program but were not selected as well as other young aspiring songwriters. The comments made by Schwartz and the panelists are both specific to the presentation and are universal. Therefore the audience can make use of the panelists’ feedback for their own projects.
How does ASCAP measure a successful workshop each year?
Success could be measured by the many talents who have gone on to have successful careers in the theatre: Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, Jonathan Larson, Glenn Slater [NAMT Fest ’08–Beatsville], Andrew Lippa and more recent graduates such as Michael Kooman & Chris Dimond [NAMT Fest ’11–Dani Girl], Brian Lowdermilk, Kait Kerrigan and Ryan Scott Oliver. But perhaps a better means of measurement is the ever-increasing number of submissions we receive each year, including ones from other countries, the ever-expanding number of writers who audit the program and the requests I receive to bring the workshop to other states countries. We have brought the workshops to Miami, Chicago and Australia already.
There is no question that the major reason for the program’s success is the leadership of Stephen Schwartz. There is no one who has done more to nurture, encourage, guide and influence the new generation of theatre composers and lyricists.