By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009
The role of Washington as a hotbed for musical theater advanced solidly Thursday when the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced it had received a $5 million gift for that express purpose.
The center received the gift, which will be doled out over the next 10 years, from the Adrienne Arsht Musical Theater Fund. Arsht, a Miami philanthropist and businesswoman, is treasurer of the center's board of trustees.
The gift is inextricably bound up in her own personal history, said Arsht, the former chairman of a Florida bank; in 2008, she gave $30 million to Miami's largest performing arts center, a complex that now bears her name. "I was raised on musical theater," said Arsht, 67, who grew up in Delaware. "As a child I knew all the songs from 'Oklahoma!,' especially 'Pore Jud Is Daid,' and my dad would lay on the floor and pretend to be dead. For years we had to skip that song. But musicals were my era, our standard."
Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's president, is also a product of the golden age of American musical theater and often discusses how his first Broadway experience, "The Music Man," with its signature tune, "Seventy-Six Trombones," sealed his interest in the arts. "The gift allows us to plan, gives us a base to build and fundraise," said Kaiser.
It's no secret that musicals are extremely expensive to mount, thanks to large casts, live orchestras, complicated costumes -- think "My Fair Lady," "Cats" and "Les Misérables." And then there are the elaborate stage pieces (think rowboat and giant chandelier in "Phantom of the Opera").
Even with notoriously budget-busting ticket prices, musical theater audiences are loyal. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that 17 percent of all adults went to at least one musical play during 2008. (And those were professional productions, by the way, not nights of "Grease" at the local high school.)
Of late, Washington's theater companies have plunged into the genre with gusto. Arena Stage is mounting three well-known musicals this season: "The Fantasticks," "The Light in the Piazza" and "Sophisticated Ladies." Signature Theatre, long a musical theater powerhouse, has reinventions of "Show Boat" and "Sweeney Todd" planned, as well as the world premiere of "Sycamore Trees," a new musical by Ricky Ian Gordon. Studio Theatre is offering two Washington premieres this season, "Adding Machine: A Musical," and "Passing Strange." Alexandria's MetroStage regularly devotes much of its season to musicals.
"There is a significant shift," said Joy Zinoman, Studio's founding artistic director. "Nine percent of our productions are musicals. I'm a little shocked at that because doing a musical for us is more of an undertaking. But musicals are more popular fare than contemporary or new work." The company's productions of "Grey Gardens," "Caroline, or Change" and "Jerry Springer: The Opera," did very well, according to Zinoman.
"I think the interest in musicals is totally growing," said Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director of Signature Theatre. "More people are doing them, and people in Washington are doing them better. A musical is a different animal, and the theater people are becoming more knowledgeable and the productions are better."
The most ambitious embrace of musical theater in the region has been at Signature, where musicals have been the artistic bread and butter. To further their commitment, the theater launched the American Musical Voices Project, in 2006, supported by a $1 million grant from the Shen Family Foundation. The grants are given to composers for new work and individual awards for artists who advance new musical theater. "We have nine musicals in development and have given $535,000 to writers so far," said Schaeffer. "Sycamore Trees" is one of the Shen projects.
This interest in musical theater has been rewarded.
"Ragtime," a new staging of the Tony Award-winning play, sold out its run earlier this year at the Kennedy Center. It opens next month on Broadway.
"Musicals are expensive propositions. The average cost is about $5 million, but we get several million back from ticket sales. The typical loss is $1 million to $1.5 million," Kaiser noted. Six of last season's theatrical offerings at the Kennedy Center were musicals. Its most successful musical productions were eight musicals of Stephen Sondheim in 2001-02. The center also rents theaters to road shows, such as "Wicked" and "Phantom of the Opera," which also do extremely well.
This summer the center staged two musicals, "Spring Awakening" and "The Color Purple," almost simultaneously, and the risk paid off. "Purple" did $1 million better than its budget, said Kaiser, and the trend of younger people buying tickets at the last minute worked for "Spring" (as did critical plaudits and strong word of mouth).
Now the center is bankrolling a musical based on the life of crooner Nat King Cole, which is being developed in Minneapolis. It's set for a 2011 premiere.
Arena sent "Next to Normal" to Broadway earlier this year, and it won three Tonys, including a best actress in a musical award for Alice Ripley. Arena has had local success, too, bringing back four times its rollicking look at African American women and their hats in "Crowns."
Washington has always had the National Theatre to bring in traveling shows and has booked the Tony winner "Jersey Boys" into December. At the Warner Theatre, with its mix of attractions, "The 101 Dalmatians Musical" starts next month.
At the National Endowment for the Arts, administrators are seeing an upswing in applications from aspiring theater composers for the funds they distribute from Congress. For fiscal 2010 the NEA has $1.4 million in grant money earmarked exclusively for musical theater. "We have seen a 20 percent increase in applications," said Carol Lanoux Lee, acting director of the theater program. "As far as the creation of new work, there is a palpable excitement in the field. I have been here about nine years. . . . Then we were getting very few applications for musical theater." "Spring Awakening," which won a Tony for best musical in 2007, received some NEA seed money.
Arsht's involvement with the center goes back to the founding years with the late chairman Roger L. Stevens.
A group of supporters formed Kennedy Center Productions Inc., an independent committee that guaranteed money for staging plays. One gamble was 1977's "Annie," said Arsht, who at one point chaired the group. "We guaranteed a bank loan or a line of credit. No one put a penny in. We lent $250,000 into 'Annie,' and that money came back, and came back and came back." The show went on to run in New York for more than five years, becoming one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history.
Arsht is also a financial supporter of the Arts in Crisis initiative that Kaiser organized to help groups struggling to cope with the recession and rebuild their organizations in its aftermath.
"I want to bring more audiences to an art form that I admire. Musicals are timeless," Arsht said. "The first time I saw the new production of 'South Pacific' at Lincoln Center was the day after the  election. The relevance of 'South Pacific,' the Second World War, the racial differences and our election, were all there. The song 'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught,' all that had a resonance 40 years later. We have got to make sure musical theater is healthy, and pass it along."