Like doctors struggling to cure a sick friend, director Sheldon Patinkin and composer William Russo are struggling to revive the great American musical. Working out of Columbia College’s Theater/Music Center, they have gathered writers, composers, actors, and directors in an effort to create original musicals. This season the Theater/Music Center is producing two: Talking to the Sun, now playing, and State Street, which will open in May.

Behind Patinkin’s resuscitative efforts lies a passion for the genre. Despite years of working in traditional drama and comedy (with Second City and the National Jewish Theater, where he is artistic director), Patinkin says, “I love musicals. They entertain me and enlighten me.” For him, the model is Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 32-year-old My Fair Lady. “It’s nearly perfect,” says Patinkin. “I grew up on that stuff, on shows that were well plotted and well written, with good music and good choreography.” Recalling the American musicals that have dominated recent theater seasons shows like Dreamgirls and A Chorus Line—Patinkin adds, “Now something’s a hit with only great music and great choreography.”

Russo has come to admire musicals more recently. He was originally a trombone player with Stan Kenton’s orchestra in the early 1950s, and his style evolved through playing and composing jazz, classical music, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. He claims to enjoy everything except “international sour,” an expression he explains by humming a few dissonant bars, but admits that his great love as a composer is opera. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “I might be the only one to call myself [an opera composer]. Hardly anyone knows my operas. They’ve never been recorded.” Operas are also extremely expensive to produce, and out of most students’ range of musical experience.

Of course musicals are expensive too, but Russo says their style is much better suited to the training of young performers. They are also better known and more accessible to audiences than most operas. Still, musicals are suffering these days. In this era of budget cutting and limited funds for the arts, new musicals have become a rarity. “Producers want to stick to tried-and-true forms [of the musical],” says Patinkin. “The art form started dying, then producers became afraid to produce new works, then writers became afraid to write them, so it’s lost its momentum.”

The result, says Patinkin, is that Americans are treated to revivals or to British imports that are “dependent more on spectacle than story.” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and his pyrotechnic Starlight Express, performed on roller skates, come to mind. While hardly a flag-waving nationalist, Patinkin is obviously bothered by this trend. “These are not entertaining,” he says of the imports. “They don’t make you feel good, and you don’t go out humming a song.”

This country has also seen a drop in the audience for musicals. Patinkin says that we’re not “developing new audiences. School kids aren’t being introduced to theater”—they’re introduced to television, so they don’t learn how to appreciate theater.

Russo sounds a more ominous warning: “Audiences for all art are declining,” he says.

So why are these two dedicating themselves to a gasping form? For Russo, the musical is still a valuable outlet, one that can reach people. “I write all music in hopes that it will make people understand, make people feel better and do better.” Patinkin adds, “You’re stagnant if you don’t have that chutzpah . . . to believe that people want to see what you love.”

Both believe that a committed audience remains to support musicals, that musicals can make money, and that the musical’s audience could grow with the proper nurturing. Patinkin points to evidence in Chicago, where many of the more established theater companies regularly mount musicals, among them the Goodman, Columbia College, Steppenwolf, and Pegasus Players. Patinkin says, “Musicals do good business when they’re any good except for Stephen Sondheim’s, because people know he’s going to be heavy, with not immediately accessible tunes.”

In hopes of creating robust and spirited musicals, Patinkin began the New Musicals Project in 1987, with funding from the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation, which provided $125,000 for each of five years. The project gives teams of writers and composers the environment and income to develop original works. “The entire focus of the grant is on development, not the product,” says Patinkin, a focus lie says is lacking in the commercial market. “We can pay artists to try stuff.”

In the first year of the grant the project developed two new musicals, then rehearsed and produced them in repertoire with a paid staff that included three writers, three directors, two choreographers, and 19 actors. Patinkin admits that they took on too much that year: “We wanted to see what we could accomplish, then go back from there,” The project now concentrates on producing staged readings and recording demo tapes to distribute to producers. Patinkin has high hopes. “A few of these works,” he says, “are very commercial commodities.”

State Street is one of them. Employing nearly 30 actors in over 50 roles, State Street follows a con artist who talks people into building an opera house in Chicago just before the Great Fire. Patinkin says that “State Street is funny and it’s fun,” and its music is on a par with that of Jerome Kern, the early-20th-century composer of Show Boat. Patinkin expects the show to have a wide appeal, and hopes to attract producers who could take the show to Broadway, off-Broadway, or even into the regional theaters.

Although Talking to the Sun is not strictly part of the New Musicals Project, it embodies the same philosophy: to combine entertainment with substance. The music is melodic and memorable, a very hummable mix of rock ‘n’ roll songs, ariosos, and jazzy waltzes composed by Russo. The story is somewhat less traditional. Russo calls the show a “graduate course in poetry written for teenagers”; it combines his music with poetry from around the world, a narrative by Kate Farrell, and artwork from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art represented by slides, film, the set design, and over 100 wonderfully intricate costumes made out of plastic.

Watching this musical is like having the Metropolitan Museum come to life onstage. The combination of media manages to suggest the magical effects of poetry and art: in one scene, a young bachelor in love writes a letter while reciting a Tennyson love poem. Once finished, the letter is delivered to a young poetess dressed in a long, billowy skirt to match the woman in Jean-Honore Fragonard’s painting Billet doux, which is projected above the action onto a large screen surrounded by a frame.

Talking to the Sun runs through March 19 at Columbia College’s Getz Theater, 72 E. 11th Street, 663-9465. Admission is $6 Thursday and Sunday, $8 Friday and Saturday. Curtain is 8 PM Thursday through Saturday, and 3 PM on Sunday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.