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For one lucky college senior, graduating will mean seeing their musical at Signature

Signature Theatre is embarking on a partnership with Yale University to foster musical-theater talent. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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Signature Theatre is going to Yale. And vice versa.

The company announced Monday a pioneering partnership to bolster musical-theater writing talent at the college level — a fairly underdeveloped avenue for professional American theaters. With financial backing from longtime Signature supporters Ted and Mary Jo Shen, who also financed the organization’s American Musical Voices Project in 2006 to 2010, Signature will produce one graduating Yale senior’s musical-in-progress annually in a three-week workshop, beginning next summer.

It also will oversee a two-week developmental workshop of a musical by a writer chosen from among Yale alumni who participated in the university’s musical-theater studies course work. This alumnus has to have to graduated within the previous five years.

The idea, says Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, is to give opportunities to theater composers and lyricists at the outset of their careers rather than have them toil fruitlessly in what is an exceptionally punishing field for budding artists.

“I was talking to Ted and Mary Jo,” Schaeffer recalled, “and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could find the new voices that are exciting, and give them an opportunity that doesn’t exist anywhere else?’ ”

The New York-based Shens were well-situated for such a proposal. Their long-standing relationship with Signature also resulted in the company’s producing “A Second Chance,” a musical by Ted Shen, a former business executive, in 2011. For more than a decade, the Shens have also underwritten the Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater at Yale, an interdisciplinary offering consisting of eight courses administered by Yale’s music department, according to Daniel Egan, the curriculum coordinator. Between 100 to 150 Yale students enroll each semester in the courses, which encompass musical-theater composing, history, and lyric and libretto writing.

“I’m increasingly trying to help them find their first step out the door,” Egan said of his students with dramatic aspirations. “I had a conversation with Ted about a year ago. He said, ‘What is your wish list?’ I said, ‘Making it easier for our talented students to take that first step.’ ”

The new Yale-Signature collaboration will be run by Schaeffer’s team, which will choose a project from among those submitted each year by the Yale seniors. That writer will be in residence for the three-week workshop and then will work as an intern with the Signature staff during the ensuing season on another original musical in development.

“I don’t know of another program,” Schaeffer said, “where a graduating senior leaves college and a month later they’ll have a musical of theirs at a theater they’re working on. Because usually at that point, they’re just trying to break down doors.”