If you’re a child of the 1990s and a musical-theater fan, you probably grew up singing songs from “Pocahontas,” “Wicked” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — which means you were raised to love songs written by Stephen Schwartz. Which means you might now be studying show tunes in the outstanding musical-theater program at Catholic University. Which also might mean you’re about to star in “Unlimited: The Music and Lyrics of Stephen Schwartz,” a musical revue that opens Friday at Catholic.
“We were very excited to create a revue geared toward young people,” said co-creator Matt Cowart. “[Schwartz] is the composer that those young people grew up with.”
Cowart is resident director of No Rules Theatre Company, a D.C. troupe that, in only six years, has become one of the area’s strongest small companies. As its name suggests, No Rules puts on an eclectic bunch of shows, including recent successful productions of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars”; “In Love and Warcraft,” a new comedy about gamers; and the farce “Black Comedy,” directed by Cowart. But at heart, Cowart and his No Rules collaborators Joshua Morgan and Zak Sandler are show-tune enthusiasts. Professionally, Cowart is best known for his work as assistant director of the New York Philharmonic’s semi-staged musicals, including versions of “Sweeney Todd” starring Emma Thompson and “Company” featuring Stephen Colbert.
But although there are plenty of revues featuring the music of composers such as Stephen Sondheim, there aren’t many that can be performed by college students. That was the trio’s impetus for creating “Unlimited.”
“We asked ourselves, ‘What material is appropriate to come out of the mouths of young people, or what material could be reimagined to come out of the mouths of young people?’ ” Cowart said.
Not that he’s over-the-hill himself. Cowart graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2004. Several years later, he returned to teach a class at the Winston-Salem school, met Morgan and ended up casting him in a show there about the Wright brothers. When Morgan told Cowart he wanted to start a theater company that would split time between Washington and Winston-Salem, Cowart offered to help.
“I’ve been regretting saying that ever since,” he said.
“Unlimited” debuted last fall at the School of the Arts, but the Catholic University production, directed by Sally Boyett, has been tweaked. All three co-creators sat in on the auditions, listening to dozens of students belting out “The Wizard and I” from “Wicked” and “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin.”
“Fortunately, those are great songs,” Cowart said. “And fortunately, student after student nailed them. It was an embarrassment of riches.”
In the end, they chose six students, who will develop characters as they weave their way through Schwartz’s oeuvre.
“At the end of the evening, you should feel like you went on a ride, and it wasn’t just a night of great songs,” Cowart said.
Developing new theatrical works from older material is bread-and-butter business for local playwright Karen Zacarías. Her dossier includes many adapted works, from the children’s classic “Ferdinand the Bull” to the contemporary novel “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” Her current projects include an adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel “Age of Innocence” for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But a few years ago, she was asked to do an adaptation of a very different sort: Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, charged her with transforming Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” a story about unrequited love, bored expatriates and bullfighting, into a ballet.
Zacarías jumped at the chance, and now her second collaboration with Webre, “Sleepy Hollow,” is about to open at the Kennedy Center.
“It was this constant kind of amazing brainstorming session,” Zacarías said. “It was nothing but joyful to work with him.”
Technically, Zacarías and Bill Lilley are the ballet’s “librettists,” but much of her work is akin to dramaturgy. In working on the adaptation, she tried to understand what made Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” a bestseller when it was published in 1820, and she sought ways to add context for a modern audience. For example, Ichabod Crane, the teacher at the center of the story, was obsessed with Puritan theologian Cotton Mather, who isn’t exactly a household name. Out of Zacarías’s research came an entire back story, with an Act I that begins not in slumbering Upstate New York but at the fiery Salem witch trials.
There also was the matter of adding motivation. “Why is this horseman after Ichabod Crane?” Zacarías said. “We came up with a reason.”
Although she didn’t write a script, there is a good-size Word document that details the plot points, setting and general tone of each scene. Zacarías worked hard, attended many rehearsals and grew to love laboring for the sake of ballet.
“When you rewrite for a play, there’s this onerous process of staying up all night and changing the words and then the actors dropping the new lines,” she said. “The ballet is different. It’s so ephemeral. You decide whether it works. There is constant problem-solving that happens every day, and it happens in the choreographer’s head.”
Washington’s theater community woke up Tuesday to the news that Joseph Haj, artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina, had been named artistic director of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater, one of the nation’s oldest and largest regional theaters. He will succeed Joe Dowling, who frequently directed at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company before taking over the Guthrie in 1995. Names bandied about as possible successors included former Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Mark Rylance and Public Theater director Oskar Eustis.
But after a year-long search, the Guthrie went with Haj, who has a much lower profile but also a reputation for caring about every level of the American theater ecosystem. His ties to Washington include directing “Hamlet” at the Folger in 2010, a production that nabbed six Helen Hayes nominations.
“We are all high on Joe Haj around here,” Janet Griffin, the Folger’s producing artistic director, said at the time, a sentiment that is probably just as true this week.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.