Sweet Smells Success

For seven years now New Tuners Theatre has hosted an annual workshop for new musicals in various stages of development. So far none of the shows has gone on to greatness, but I Sent a Letter to My Love, which will be given readings July 29 and 30 at this year’s “Stages 2000,” may be the workshop’s best bet ever. Based on a novel by Bernice Rubens, the show examines the relationship between a woman and her handicapped brother when he unexpectedly falls in love with a pen pal. The musical’s book is by Evanston native Jeffrey Sweet (Flyovers), whose work has been staged in New York and on the main stage at Victory Gardens, and the score is by Grammy winner Melissa Manchester (“You Should Hear How She Talks About You”). “This may not be the musical that would break all records on Broadway,” says New Tuners executive director Joan Mazzonelli, careful not to oversell the show. “But it is the kind of musical theater that could and should be seen in regional theaters all over the country.”

Sweet has wanted to stage I Sent a Letter to My Love ever since he came across the story in the late 70s. A journalist at the time, he’d been dispatched to the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, to interview its artistic director, Arvin Brown. The theater was presenting Rubens’s own dramatic adaptation of her novel, and Sweet stayed for a performance. “About 15 minutes in, I began hearing where the songs should go,” he remembers. He spent the next decade pursuing the rights to the novel and another two years convincing Manchester to write the score.

He and Manchester go way back: in the early 70s, Sweet was enrolled in the film program at New York University while Manchester was there studying acting. Sweet and a friend had written some songs they wanted to sell, but neither of them could sing, so they enlisted Manchester to make the rounds of music publishers with them. “Then one day she said, ‘Hey guys, I’ve written my first song.’ She played it for us. It was really good. Not long after, we went to a music publisher to show our wares, and she instantly got signed to her first songwriting contract.” Before long Manchester was backing up Bette Midler as one of the original Harlettes, and by June 1975 she had a top ten single of her own, “Midnight Blue.”

Sweet and Manchester began developing I Sent a Letter to My Love in 1992. A 1995 production by Primary Stages in New York drew mixed reviews, but Sweet thinks the show turned a corner after being workshopped at the New Harmony Project in downstate Indiana. “Since then it’s been editing and shaping and cutting the pretty stuff that doesn’t serve the story.” The show also turned up for a reading at Prop Theatre’s new play festival last year. The New Tuners reading features television actress Mariette Hartley and Second City alum Meagan Fay; the director is noted Broadway choreographer Patricia Birch, who first worked with Sweet on What About Luv?, his musical adaptation of the Murray Schisgal play Luv.

Cops and Kids

Summer can be a tense time for cops and teenagers. But Sharon Evans, artistic director for Live Bait Theater, is launching an innovative theater program that she hopes will foster better relations between them. Over the next two months, improv groups composed equally of teenagers and police officers will meet every Monday night at Gill Park in Lakeview and at Eckhart Park in West Town. During the first four meetings they’ll learn improv techniques, and during the last four they’ll create improvised scenes, aided by local playwrights. Evans hopes the finished scenes can be joined in a full-length script that will tour city schools.

Last year Evans placed an ad in the police department’s internal newsletter offering an eight-week creative writing and improv class. “I wanted to get to know what the police were like and find out if I enjoyed working with them.” To her surprise, about fifty officers responded, and though ultimately only four were able to participate, the classes “really helped me understand what the police’s concerns are.” Most of the 16 police in the summer program were chosen from those who responded to last year’s ad; Park District staff recruited the 16 kids. The program is funded by two private foundations, and Evans has applied to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for a grant. If this summer’s program is encouraging, she’d like to expand it into as many city parks as possible.

All’s Well That Sells Well

Chicago Shakespeare Theater is enjoying one of the most impressive subscriber growth curves in the history of Chicago theater. The company’s 1998-’99 season drew about 5,000 subscribers, a number that skyrocketed to 17,000 last year, after CST moved into its swank new home at Navy Pier. This year’s drive has barely begun, and already CST has sold 19,000 subscriptions. A whopping 85 percent of last year’s subscribers have renewed this year, and by summer’s end CST could exceed its optimistic projection of 20,000, approaching such heavy hitters as Steppenwolf and the Goodman (both about 23,000). Much of the credit goes to artistic director Barbara Gaines, who’s scheduled a plum lineup for 2000-’01: in addition to King Lear and Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (the first non-Shakespearean classic to grace the main stage), the season includes Peter Brook’s staging of Hamlet as a special added attraction this spring.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randee St. Nicholas.