There are few things more exciting in the arts than being in on the creation of a new work of musical theater, the art form that, probably more than any other, inherently belongs to America. With productions costs in commercial theater so staggering these days, and fewer and fewer creative producers launching virgin projects there, it falls to the non-profits to pick up the slack.
And no place on the map is positioned to do so as serendipitously as New Jersey. Moreover, if a musical moves on from its original incarnation to a profitable commercial life, there is a bonanza of “earned income” that the initiating non-profit theater can reap in future royalties, not to mention often being able to pass on part of its regional production costs to commercial producing “partners.” It can be a win/win proposition.
Of course, commercial success can be elusive, as George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick has discovered through the years, with 2010’s “Calvin Berger” and 2008’s “The Toxic Avenger” looking like they might have a bright future, only to fall short.
Fortunately, with a supportive Board of Directors, David Saint – hands down the most interesting artistic director in the state – remains committed to the mission and may even finally now have a new musical that becomes an annuity for George Street following its current run through October 27. With a driving rock score, “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” pulsates with energy of a non-traditional kind and, with less regionalization in the text, could entertain audiences anywhere.
As goofy as this show sometimes is, it sneakily makes a larger point about defining oneself in today’s uncertain and often hostile society. And that point grows organically out of the characters and situation its authors have created. Indeed, there are rough spots – some perhaps intentional – but this is easily the most fully realized original musical George Street has given us, and hopefully it will find a long life off-Broadway.
On the other hand, Paper Mill Playhouse has jumped back into the new musical arena this season with two on its schedule, and the first of those, “Honeymoon In Vegas” (also running through October 27) is nothing if not a traditional large-scale musical, slickly staged and almost certainly on its way to Broadway following a very positive review from The New York Times’ senior drama critic, Ben Brantley.
The important thing that must be noted here is that, essentially, Paper Mill’s Board of Directors moved away from doing originals following a few duds that were presented during Michael Gennaro’s tenure as artistic director in the early-to-mid 2000s. They insisted on a return to the tried-and-true old warhorses that were “safe.” Problem is, that approach to theater can be yawn-inducing.
Personally, my bet is that it was their collaboration with the Disney monolith on “Newsies,” which must now be an ongoing income source for Paper Mill, that seduced them back into this more exciting and potentially profitable type of producing. If nothing else, “Newsies” and now “Honeymoon In Vegas” give Paper Mill a new legitimacy as a place for both commercial producers and writers to go with new material. We can only hope that aesthetics drive this ship going forward rather than money.
Ideally, work will continue on both of the current promising new musicals in our state, particularly the second act of “Honeymoon” in which the thin plot finally runs out of steam, and two production numbers don’t deliver. To the credit of Tony Danza, Brynn O’Malley, and especially Rob McClure, it remains an enjoyable evening of theater, though, and as professional and polished a staging (by Gary Griffin) as you’ll ever see.
But Paper Mill’s Board needs to remember that not all new ventures in the future will have this sort of positive rollout; in fact, most probably won’t. And if they care about being the type of state theater New Jersey deserves, they shouldn’t again turn away from doing them.