Putting together one musical is hard. Wrangling multiple original productions from different creators and producers sounds like a nightmare, but it’s how Underscore Theatre Company advances its mission to support new musicals. Since 2014, the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival (CMTF) has enabled local and national artists by helping them develop full productions that will be performed before a paying audience.
After three years of summer festivals, Underscore is making a big change for the fourth CMTF, moving to February to take advantage of Chicago Theatre Week and avoid pesky street-fair conflicts. “The holidays are over, people are looking for things to do, [in] a nice warm theater where you can stay in the same complex but get a lot of entertainment,” says Underscore executive director Laura Stratford. “Like an in-person Netflix binge.”
The benefits of this shift are already clear: the festival has sold two-thirds of its tickets, and David Gosz and Leo Fotos’s “Tru”—described as a mix of the first ten minutes of Up and the last ten minutes of La La Land—has sold out its entire run.
Participants are responsible for the specific elements of production, but Underscore provides the venue, technical equipment, and lessons learned from years of experience. “We’re sharing institutional knowledge with differents groups so that no one breaks the bank, but also so no one feels like they’re getting less of a show than they deserve,” says Underscore artistic director Alex Higgin-Houser. That education is the festival’s most valuable gift: it creates well-rounded theater professionals ready to navigate a challenging industry.
Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. 2/5-2/25: various day and times, Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336, cmtf.org, $23 per show, $120 festival pass.