Signature Receives $300,000 Grant for 'Next Generation' of Musicals

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Productivity in some manufacturing industries might be on the downswing, but the arrows are pointing up at that increasingly busy factory for new musicals, Signature Theatre.

The Arlington-based company has several original musicals in the works -- including a massive show based on the Edna Ferber novel "Giant" that is to be unveiled next spring -- thanks to a $1 million grant two years ago from Theodore P. Shen, Signature's Stephen Sondheim-loving New York benefactor. Now, Shen's philanthropy, the Shen Family Foundation, is providing an additional $300,000 to underwrite the work of three younger composers for works that would also originate at Signature, the company has announced.

That will bring to six the number of musical-theater composers whose work at Signature is being supported by the foundation.

"It's hard for people to find a place to work on their musicals," says Eric Schaeffer, Signature's longtime artistic director. "The whole idea here was to give more opportunity to younger composers."

Under the terms of the latest grant, Signature is establishing a "Next Generation" program that gives each composer a $25,000 commission and a summer-workshop production of the musical-in-progress. Those workshops will begin next July. Schaeffer says promising works then will probably be further developed by the company.

The recipients of the "Next Generation" grants are composers in their 20s and 30s whom Signature identified as songwriters of considerable potential and who already have had their work produced or recorded. The three are: Adam Gwon, a composer-lyricist whose musical "Ordinary Days" receives a premiere this summer in Pennsylvania; Matt Conner, who set the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe to music in Signature's 2006 premiere of "Nevermore"; and Gabriel Kahane, a composer whose "Craigslistlieder" is a song cycle he fashioned from classified ads on the Web site Craiglist.

Although some of the composers are still developing ideas for "Next Generation," Schaeffer says Conner is teaming with Hunter Foster -- star of Signature's recent "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and the librettist of the musical version of "Summer of '42" -- to create a new musical based on "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

As part of the program, two other composers, Peter Foley and Marisa Michelson, were given $5,000 each. Those grants essentially make Foley and Michelson front-runners for two of next year's three $25,000 new-musical commissions.

Shen's initial $1 million grant to Signature -- the largest up to that point in the company's history -- provided $100,000 commissions, spread over four years, to each of the three composers. It also offered them health coverage over that period.

Although the first of the musicals, Michael John LaChiusa's "Giant," was originally planned to be part of Signature's 2007-08 season, that timetable proved to be too optimistic.

"Giant," with book by Sybille Pearson, is scheduled to begin performances in April. The following seasons are to include premieres of musicals by the other recipients, Ricky Ian Gordon and Joseph Thalken.

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