Musicals are famously expensive to produce. (Wicked reportedly cost $14 million to mount on Broadway; touring and local productions are less expensive but remain considerable.) And audiences for musicals are famously conservative, generally preferring shows written 50, 60, or 70 years ago by composers and lyricists who are mostly dead (or Stephen Sondheim) to something new by living artists.
Which is a problem for composers and lyricists unlucky enough to be alive and creating new work in the 21st century. You can write all you want, but will you ever get a chance to see your musical masterpiece produced?
One solution is to do what Underscore Theatre Company, the people behind the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, have done: keep the price down by using minimal sets and costumes and a low-cost off-Loop theater space, and pack in a lot of different shows for a relatively brief run. And packed in they are. Now in its second year, this three-week festival features 65 performances of 13 new musicals, ten of them full-length shows, three of them one-acts.
According to the press materials, the organizers received 45 submissions this year, and judging from the three shows showcased at the fest’s June 30 opening—How to Run for Mayor, Fanatical, and American Smoothie—there must be some really awful new musicals out there.
One of the three openers, Fanatical, is quite strong, however. And a 33 percent success rate is pretty good. The other two shows still need lots of work.
The first on the bill, the one-act How to Run for Mayor (book by Gilbert Tanner, music and lyrics by Aaron Aptaker), is about an unemployed recent college grad who decides to run for mayor as a way to pay her bills. It’s not a bad premise for a comedy sketch, but it’s not strong enough all by itself to sustain an hour-long show.
Tanner and Aptaker try to up the stakes by poking fun at Rahm Emanuel and his administration, but their digs at Tiny Dancer are so inexpert it would seem they did almost no research into Emmanuel’s real foibles. Their Mayor Emanuel, for example, seems surprisingly even tempered considering that in their Chicago he’s getting his butt kicked by a callow twentysomething.
As with the others I saw at the festival, How to Run for Mayor is performed on an almost bare stage with very few props and only a lone keyboardist to accompany the singers. In such a simple production, all of the flaws in the show—poorly conceived characters, a weak plot, artless storytelling, forgettable songs—become painfully apparent. On the positive side, Trent Eisfeller is very likable as Mayor Emanuel.
It might have helped if someone other than the songwriter, Aptaker, had directed the show. But what would really have helped is more time spent rewriting and refining it.
The last show on the bill, American Smoothie (book and lyrics by Nick Jester, music by David von Kampen), is another show that needed more time in the incubator. Jester and von Kampen’s songs are halfway decent and their characters are interesting. The show focuses on a hapless, socially awkward IT guy working for a dysfunctional American company. His boss is an idiot. His coworkers are fools. And he has a crush on the office hottie, who doesn’t have a clue he’s interested in her.
Yes, the setup is well worn, but it also comes with a myriad of possibilities. Yet amid this myriad, Jester and von Kampen never manage to find a single compelling story to tell. Instead the show fragments into a lot of little stories and digressions until the authors throw in a couple of out-of-left-field revelations to give the illusion of a coherent ending. The performers flail heroically, trying to keep it all together—Katie Sherman is particularly winning as a goofy roommate—but finally the weak book does them in.
On the other hand, Fanatical, presented by American Demigods, is just the kind of show that shines in a bare-bones staging. The setting—a sci-fi convention—is novel, and the characters are an enjoyable collection of freaks and geeks. Reina Hardy’s book spins out several plotlines, all wound around the central story of a convention host going slowly crazy because the expo’s big draw, the author of a cult comic book turned TV series, hasn’t shown. Matt Board’s witty songs, which alternately parody and pay homage to old show tunes, perfectly complement Hardy’s book. The casting is pitch-perfect—Kat Evans and Charlotte Ostrow kill as, respectively, the convention planner and a cosplaying fan—and director Kate Staiger finds just the right pace to let Hardy’s fascinating story unfold. In fact, the only flaw in Fanatical is that it leaves us wanting more. Two hours is really not enough time with these characters. v