Stuart Oken (right) in 2005 with (from left) Was lyricist Barry Kleinbort, composer Joseph Thalken, director Tina Landau, and AMTP executive director Dominic Missimi
Stuart Oken (right) in 2005 with (from left) Was lyricist Barry Kleinbort, composer Joseph Thalken, director Tina Landau, and AMTP executive director Dominic Missimi Credit: Jim Ziv

Four years ago, off-Loop theater pioneer Stuart Oken pitched his dream idea to Northwestern University. He envisioned an incubator for new musicals: professional writers and composers, working with students, would develop shows that would be produced on campus but could eventually make their way to real-world venues, both nonprofit and commercial. The incubator would fill a gap in an industry where producers were finding it increasingly expensive to workshop new shows, and the students would get invaluable practical experience. Northwestern embraced the idea, and Oken moved back to Chicago from Los Angeles to spearhead it.

In May 2005, with appropriate dramatic flourish, university president Henry S. Bienen raised the curtain on the American Music Theatre Project. Promoted as the “most ambitious and creative musical theater project in the history of Northwestern University,” it was to be a three-year, $2 million start-up that was expected to evolve into a permanent on-campus institute, possibly including an undergraduate composition program, a new-musical festival, and alliances with professional theaters.

In those first three years AMTP was slated to produce five high-profile shows, starting with Joseph Thalken and Barry Kleinbort’s adaptation of Geoff Ryman’s Oz novel Was. Dominic Missimi, head of Northwestern’s existing music theater program, would serve as executive director; Oken as artistic director.

Now, after what he calls a very successful beginning, Oken says his role at AMTP has been sharply reduced, against his wishes.

Though at press time he was still listed on the project’s Web site as artistic director, he no longer functions in that capacity and hasn’t since his contract lapsed in August. He’s still working on a show called Dangerous Beauty that AMTP will open in June, but his only connection to the overall project now is as an outside consultant. “Whether I continue at all after this summer is up for grabs,” he says.

According to Oken, the university’s explanation for the change was that AMTP had to be “driven by faculty. And since I wasn’t a faculty member I couldn’t play a key role going forward.” He says he was told he can’t join the faculty because he doesn’t have an advanced degree.

What he does have is a resumé no amount of tuition can buy. A Chicago native and University of Illinois graduate, Oken was managing director of the Organic Theater Company in the mid-1970s, and in ’78 cofounded the Apollo Theater, where he presented works like David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Sam Shepard’s True West. In 1985 he moved to Los Angeles, where he produced four feature films (About Last Night, Queens Logic, Impromptu, and Freejack) and spent a couple years as president of Witt-Thomas Films at Warner Brothers before going back to the stage as cohead of Disney Theatrical Productions. In nine years at Disney, his projects included Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and the Elton John-Tim Rice version of Aida.

Since his return to Chicago, Oken, producer Michael Leavitt, and Five Cent Productions (a group of nonprofit performing arts centers) have launched a musical theater development company, Elephant Eye, to bring along commercial material. “There’s almost no original musical produced at a regional theater that doesn’t have what’s called an enhancement from some commercial producer,” says Oken. By “enhancement” he means money.

In fact Elephant Eye optioned AMTP’s most successful production so far: The Boys Are Coming Home, a romantic comedy set in the 1940s and inspired by Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. AMTP staged the show in 2006; though local critics loved it, the consensus was that it needed another spin at a regional theater to get it into shape for Broadway. The Goodman agreed to produce it, but has since reversed itself (see the second item in this column).

Oken had promised himself that he wouldn’t get Elephant Eye mixed up with AMTP projects “because eventually it’ll be muddy and it’ll get you in trouble.” But when no one else stepped up, he proposed that Elephant Eye back the show. According to him, Northwestern’s response was very positive, and he doesn’t believe the arrangement was a factor in their decision to oust him as artistic director.

Oken says he’s mystified by the university’s action, and that he would have been willing to share the role of artistic director with a faculty member if that would have solved the problem. “I really wanted to be part of Northwestern,” he acknowledges. “I did want to be on the faculty, I did want to teach, I did want to become part of an institute that would be bigger than all of us. So it’s very disappointing to me that it’s led to this.”

He agreed to the initial three-year deal assuming that “if we’re successful we’ll move forward together,” he says. Instead, “they asked me if I would do a couple more shows [to] help them during their transition.” Oken says he’s waited months for the university to issue a dignified statement that would announce the change, perhaps with a nod to what he’s accomplished. Theater department chair Rives Collins, speaking for the university, says, “AMTP is alive and well” and is “looking forward to a long affiliation” with Oken, “who is visionary and talented and still on the payroll.”

According to Collins, the change has indeed to do “with the fact that initiatives at the university tend to be faculty driven” (though no comparable initiatives came immediately to mind). Since Oken assumed the artistic directorship, “there were additional hires in the area of music theater,” Collins says, “and the way universities work is that their initiatives are fueled by faculty passion and talent. Stuart is valued as an artistic leader and as a high-level consultant, but ultimately it’s the faculty that will need to assume responsibility for the leadership.”

Oken says he agreed to the consulting role because he didn’t want to walk away from the artists involved in Dangerous Beauty or another show that has since been dropped. “I’ve moved on,” he says, “but I don’t really still understand why I wouldn’t be an asset to them and why [one day] they wouldn’t see some reason to come back to me.”

In May Elephant Eye, in collaboration with the New York nonprofit Playwrights Horizons, will begin previews for Saved, a musical based on the 2004 film comedy, to be directed by Gary Griffin. It also has two new musicals on track for Broadway production: The Addams Family, by composer Andrew Lippa and Jersey Boys authors Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and Bruce Lee: Journey to the West, by David Henry Hwang and David Yazbeck.

The Boys Aren’t Coming Home

Meanwhile, the Goodman announced last week that its June production of The Boys Are Coming Home has been canceled; the official announcement cited “irreconcilable artistic points of view.” Artistic director Robert Falls (who stepped in to direct after David Petrarca dropped out in December to do a movie) says there wasn’t enough time to get the “wildly overrated” show into shape, especially since the collaborators—composer-lyricist Leslie Arden, replacement librettist Rebecca Gilman, and himself—weren’t on the same page. Falls says “Leslie saw the musical going one way, I saw it going [another, and] I think Rebecca was trying to satisfy both of us. It was painful. In 20 years, I’ve never announced a show, had it on the calendar, and then pulled it because it wasn’t going to be ready.”

Elephant Eye (see lead item) will also let this one go. After working on it off and on for three years, Oken says, “the collaboration has always been very difficult.”   v