This month, we chatted with Brannon Bowers (Producing Director) and David H. Bell (Artistic Director) at the American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) at Northwestern University about their program as a whole, and the next musical they will present, The Woman in Question, written by Peter Eldridge and Festival Alumna Cheryl Coons (Fest ’94, Phantom of the Country Opera; Fest ’05, River’s End). Later, we check in with Cheryl to learn more about the process from her perspective.
The American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) brings together the nation’s leading artists in music theatre to work with Northwestern’s students, faculty and staff in order to invigorate American music theatre by increasing the amount of developmental opportunities for artists while enhancing the education and training of Northwestern’s theatre program. Each year we produce 3-4 readings/workshops of new work by artists from all over the country where our students get the opportunity to work as actors, learning what a new work process is like and expanding their vocabulary and technique. Students also assist our writers and director so they can observe and aid a professional new work process, learning aspects of directing, dramaturgy, writing and composing. In addition to these readings, AMTP also brings artists to campus for master classes and to guest lecture in the music theatre writing program. We also produce the annual Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project, a week-long mentorship program for new and upcoming songwriters.
One of the shows AMTP is currently developing is written by Festival alumna Cheryl Coons. How did The Woman in Question first find its way to AMTP, and more generally, how do you choose what new musicals to program in your season?
Cheryl began working with us at Northwestern as a teacher of our class “Writing the Musical” and we were instantly impressed with her knowledge and ability as a writer, as well as her kindness and humor with the students. So when we learned of her show with Peter Eldridge, The Woman In Question, and read the script, we jumped at the chance to help develop it. When we are deciding what musicals to develop, we look at where the piece currently is, what the artists want to achieve, if our students will help achieve that goal and how the students will benefit from the process. Overall we want the experience to be mutually beneficial for the artists and students, providing writers with a crucial early developmental step and providing students unparalleled experience and training.
What does the development process look like as you work with writers on their projects, and what are some of the success stories coming out of AMTP?
Why should everyone make their way to Chicago to check out the exciting new work happening at AMTP?
AMTP is one of the first programs of its kind that equally focuses on the development of new music theatre and the education of students, where we challenge the artists and our students to use the AMTP process to explore, experiment and exercise their abilities to the fullest. Last year, in addition to our readings, we partnered with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to premiere two new musicals at the Edinburgh Festival written by alumni from both institutions and performed by current students. This year we partnered with the American Theatre Wing’s Jonathan Larson Award, granting one of the recipients a reading at AMTP each year going forward. We are increasing our impact every year and our work continues to exceed all expectations.
Following our interview with Brannon and David, we reached out to Cheryl to hear more about The Woman in Question and her experience working with AMTP.
Tell us a little bit about the development history of The Woman in Question.
We had a staged reading of the show at Chicago Dramatists in June 2014, followed by a reading at Berklee College of Music in April 2015. Exactly two years later, April 2017, Berklee mounted a student production of the musical as the first offering of their new musical development program. We’ve made a number of changes in the show subsequent to each public presentation, including a recent title change. (The show was originally entitled The Kiss.) The Kiss was a finalist for the 2015 NAMT Festival, and a semi-finalist for the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 2014.
What makes AMTP a great partner at this stage in the show’s development?
We are ready for the kind of process that AMTP offers: an intensive dive into the material with the support of top-flight seasoned professionals as well as the young artists who will be bringing the material to life. We’re especially excited that AMTP has made it possible for us to work with Alexander Gemignani in the role of Gustav Klimt. Having a unique star presence in this role echoes the kind of celebrity Klimt enjoyed in the Vienna of his time. I have seen a number of AMTP productions and readings, all of them shone in their public presentations. What I am most eager to experience is the hard work that takes place behind the scenes, where the workshopping process reveals new ways for the material to grow.
Developing your project with AMTP provides the opportunity to work with Northwestern students on the show. What are some of the most exciting aspects of working with students at the earlier stages of new work development?
My impression of Northwestern University students is that they are inquisitive, persistent and willing to dedicate extraordinary effort to shaping their own work both as writers and performers. They are critical in the best possible way—they demand a great deal of themselves and they have high expectations of others. I’m looking forward to engaging with the questions they ask about the material at least as much as I’m looking forward to hearing them bring it to life. Besides the joy of collaborating with the next generation of musical theatre artists and audiences, working with students creates the opportunity to see our work through their lens. This is especially valuable for a historical piece. How does this generation reflect on events that happened a hundred years ago? What do they see in the story that I don’t see?
What do you hope is next for The Woman in Question, and how can NAMT members who are interested in the show’s future development get involved now?
We are looking for a regional theatre to offer the world premiere of the show. I’m a Chicago-based writer, though the last two musicals I have written (including River’s End, a featured selection in the 2005 NAMT Festival), had their world premieres in other parts of the country. Composer Peter Eldridge is based in Boston, though his work as a concert artist takes him all over the country. Less important than geography is to find a first home for the show where the theatre’s audience is eager to engage in a piece that is thoughtful as well as entertaining. We’re happy to provide perusal materials to any NAMT members who are interested in exploring the piece. There is more information available on our website: womaninquestion.com