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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: UWGB professor’s play reaches New York City

“Searching for Romeo” will premiere this week.
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PHOTO: Brian Sutton poses at the door to his office at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay prior to taking his musical, “Searching for Romeo,” to the New York Music Theatre Festival. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Here’s Brian Sutton in a nutshell, in his words: “There aren’t too many people walking down the street in Green Bay, Wisconsin, about whom we can say, ‘This guy wrote everything – wrote the book, wrote the lyrics, wrote the music – for a play that’s been done professionally on 42nd Street in New York.’”

The show is “Searching for Romeo,” which will be performed this week as part of the noted New York Music Theatre Festival. The first performance is Tuesday, July 8.

Festival info: www.nymf.org

Show info: http://searchingforromeomusical.com/.

In the decade that the New York Music Theatre Festival has been in existence, some of its productions have gone on to Broadway. Brian Sutton aspires to multiple possibilities, and that’s one of them.

Before he headed off to New York City a month ago for final preparations, Brian Sutton spoke about his ambitious project in his office at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he is associate professor of English. Note: Writing and producing musicals are over and above his day job. The interview gives a perspective on what it’s like to create a show that has, step by step, made its way along in three productions.

“The first production was in 2012 in Green Bay. It was successful in Green Bay, but it was essentially like community theater. I was doing it independently. (Using community talent, Brian Sutton put together a production that was performed at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay).

“Last summer was professional, but it was a staged reading. The cast did rehearse. Most of the cast was Actors Equity (union), and the actors had 29 hours of rehearsal, by the Actors Equity Association contract. So it wasn’t like a cold read. They were reading in character and so forth. They had rehearsed the music a good deal, and they sounded very, very good. It was quite impressive. Everybody had a solid voice and just really sounded wonderful. But, of course, it was just a staged reading. They sat on chairs; they had the script in front of them and so forth. There was a stage direction reader; she didn’t read all the stage directions, just enough to help the audience visualize it. It could be a satisfying kind of theater, but it’s not a full production. And it was a very small house. The theater only held 55 people.

“This year, it’s still a relatively small theater – holds 160 – and it’s again professional, but this time it’s a full production. We will have four weeks of rehearsal, about 30 hours a week, so a total of 120 hours of rehearsal. That’s again Actors Equity contract. It’s costumes, set, the whole thing. It will be a relatively simple production technically for several reasons. We’re sharing the venue with other shows that are part of the festival, and they’re performing the same day. We have an hour to get ours set up and ready; we have 30 minutes afterward to strike. So obviously we have to have a very simple set. The same thing for the costumes, among other things. We have to store them there, and we’re sharing with other productions. So it won’t be technically elaborate, but it will be professionally done. Musically, too. When we did the show in 2012, there were two of us, and we both could guitar, we both could play piano, we both could play electric bass and kind of traded off. Last year, it was just a pianist. He’s a wonderful pianist. He’s played Broadway pit and things like that. But it was just him. This year, it’s piano, guitar, bass, drums and a reed player on some of the songs, like on ‘Life After You,’ he’ll be playing sax, and on some of the more gentle songs he’ll be playing flute.

“The woman who is playing Juliet this year has done Broadway. At least four of the cast members have done national tours. The woman playing Rosaline played the lead on the first national tour of an Andrew Lloyd Webber show – ‘Whistle Down the Wind,’ which was not a major show like ‘Phantom’ or ‘Cats,’ but you’re still the lead. So there’s some serious talent here.”

***

Creative: Author and composer – Brian Sutton; director – Laura Josepher; musical director – David Sisco; production stage manager – Jana Llynn; general manager/executive producer – Suellen Vance.

Cast: Rosaline – Justine Magnusson; Paris – Zal Owen; Friar Lawrence – Greg Horton; Romeo – Josh Tolle; Juliet – Sam Tedaldi; Lady Capulet – Leah Jennings; Capulet – Mark Lanham; Lady Avare/Hester – Natalie Newman; Tybalt – Sean McIntyre; Mercutio – Angelo McDonough; Nurse – Angela Travino; Prince – Justin Randolph; Benvolio – Robby Dalton; Friend – Alison Alampi; Friend – Melissa Hirsch.

***

Between last year and the coming production, Brian Sutton has been revising the show “like crazy.”

“I’ve got the same director that I worked with last summer. The festival also assigned me a dramaturge, which is basically a sort-of mentor for a playwright. The programming director at the festival also works with the scripts somewhat. And there’s a music director who also has ideas. And, frankly, even my general manager, who’s really the business person, has ideas about the script. So sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song – da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da – that kind of thing, and they’re all going at me about changes I need to make. What’s worse is when they talk to each in advance and they all agree on something (without him knowing), and you kind of get ganged-up on. There’s a backstage tradition of musicals. In a show like ‘42nd Street,’ somebody comes running in and says, ‘You know, the first act’s got problems, we’ve got to rewrite the whole first act! We open tomorrow!’ It’s really kind of like that. It honestly is, at least from my experience of New York professional theater.

“People who saw the show two years ago, if they were to see this one, would recognize the same show, but it would be a lot like having read a book and seeing the film adaptation. This is going to be radically different.”

Before leaving, Brian Sutton anticipated business as usual for him in New York – revising.

“I’m sure there will be stuff like, ‘Look, by tomorrow’s rehearsal, we need to change this’ and so on and so forth. That’s the way it was last year, just for the staged reading. We dropped one song during rehearsal. We dropped another one in between the first performance and the last. We added some reprises – a medley of reprises at the end. I just went home and did the arrangement, and we came in and did it the next day. We totally re-arranged another song during rehearsals. And that was just in the 29-hour, a little over a week of rehearsal…

“I will be writing a lot. I’ll be at the rehearsals, of course… I have an advisory role there. And I suppose I’ll be, ideally, networking. One of the things I’ve been told that, in terms of tickets – and this is an expense for me because I have to buy them; there’s only a limited number of comps I get – I need to buy five to 10 tickets a night to set aside for producers who will come see it. The cliché they say about this festival is this is to musical theater what Sundance is to indie films. This is considered the place to launch a musical. And so besides rewriting and working on the directing, one hopes to run into some producers that are interested. We shall see. Or some publishers who do play scripts that are interested. We’ll see how that goes.”

How does one get a director? How does one get a musical director? How does one get a dramaturge?

“That’s one of the things that separates the New York Music Theatre Festival from a lot of other festivals. At one point, I thought of going the fringe festival route, but one of the things I was told was if you go – even the New York Fringe Festival, which is in the U.S. the biggest and so forth – you’re totally on your own. You have to find the theater, you have to find the director, you have to find so on and so forth. That’s one of the nice things about the New York Music Theatre Festival, if you get accepted. There were something like 350 plays that applied for the next link project, and they chose 10. So clearly I’m either good or lucky or both. But as one of the 10 out of 350 they chose, they helped me find a director, they rent the venue. A lot of the costs fall to me, but certain costs fall to them, and the venue is their cost. The main thing they provide really is publicity.

“I got the director last summer when the general manager just gave me a list of directors and said, ‘Contact these people, tell them your play’s doing a developmental reading at NYMF and so forth. Laura Josepher, the director, wasn’t one of the original ones I contacted. The guy who was going to do it and then couldn’t said, ‘I have this friend who I think will be good for a project like this.’ I talked to her, and we seemed compatible and we checked with NYMF and they said, ‘Yeah, she’s good,’ and we went from there. This year, I got my general manager through NYMF, Suellen Vance. My music director last year I got through NYMF… So, the core came from NYMF, and then it goes out from them – the director and the music director and the general manager know lighting people, they know costume people, they know sound people and so forth.”

Imagine writing something and now your precious work has all sorts of people toying with it.

“It’s tough. It is tough. Last year – it’s an apples and oranges thing because it wasn’t a full production, yet at the same time it was professionals who, with all due respect to the people of two years ago, many of whom were very, very good… But the play itself last year was better than two years ago because of changes. I think this year – it’s a little hard to tell because I’m so close to it – but I’m pretty sure this year it’s going to be better than it was last year.”

The core has been maintained all along.

“Yeah, it’s still the Romeo and Juliet thing from the point of view of the sort-of losers, Rosaline and Paris. The most radical change is that the parts of Romeo and Juliet are much smaller now. The part of Paris’ mother, which was a very small part two years ago, is now the largest part in the play other than Paris and Rosaline. She’s very clearly the antagonist. Structurally, those are the biggest things. There are smaller things – songs dropped, songs added, things like that.”

What Brian Sutton has done with “Searching for Romeo” is part of a tradition of coming up with new takes on William Shakespeare’s works.

“Of course, he was adapting stuff, too. He didn’t invent the story of Romeo and Juliet or the story of Hamlet and so forth. He was taking things from other people. And, of course, reworking Shakespeare an old thing. ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ strongly influenced me as a play: ‘Let’s look at this classic from the point of view of these subordinate characters, who are always sort of lost. People like doing stuff like that – ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ and so forth. And it’s not limited to Shakespeare. Look at ‘Wicked’ – Let’s re-tell ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but let’s look at it from the point of view of the other, see if the Wicked Witch of the West has a sympathetic side to tell.”

Now, with the input of professionals scouring through his work, Brian Sutton has sometimes found himself thinking, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”

“Oh sure. I’m a college English teacher, and some of the things they say are straight out of ‘Intro to Lit.’ Some time during last summer’s readings, it was kind of tactfully pointed out to me, ‘You have no clear-cut antagonist here. You have a central character who wants something, but it’s not clear exactly who is opposing her.’ That’s a pretty basic problem in a play.”

That was nice to know, but…

“Sometimes it hurts.”

In the long run, it’s been heartening to find attention to basics and detail and interest outside of Green Bay

“Oh yeah, these people are paying very close attention… There’s been draft after draft. These people are reading it and reading it – you’d think they’d get sick of it – but they keep looking and keep suggesting ways to make it better. I hope to make it better.”

Casting came in the midst of what Brian Sutton called his busiest time in 20 years on campus, including being part of the search process for a new chancellor. He couldn’t break away. The cast numbers 15.

“Basically, my director said to me, ‘Here are some people we like, here are links to their web pages, them performing online and so forth.’ And I said to her, ‘Here are my impressions.’ But I don’t think I played a major role. I played a much larger role last year with the staged readings because I had more say.”

Brian Sutton’s impression of what it takes to put on a musical on the New York level has been adapted along the way.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah – even though so much of it is turning out to be what the stereotypes say. You can look at the first season of the TV show ‘M.A.S.H.’ and watch those people trying this and trying that and trying the other thing… Even though I see that stuff, I did not know that. I knew, of course, that theater is collaborative. It’s not like writing a short story. You can have an editor of a journal and so forth, but that’s it – once it’s published, it’s published and so forth. You can change (a play) from one night to the next, and there’s so many people that are involved with putting on the play, and therefore so many people that are libel to have input. The lighting designer might tell me, ‘Look, you wrote this, I can’t light that. You need to rewrite that’ – not necessarily in terms of what makes great art but so that we can light it. And that might even be specific to the lighting limitations of that particular theater. It’s an elaborate process.”

After the performances of “Searching for Romeo” end in the New York Music Theatre Festival, there are assorted possibilities – go on in New York, go on in regional theater, be published as a work for high schools, colleges or community/professional stage. That’s the realm of producers and publishers.

”Beyond the Broadway dreams, there’s also a somewhat more practical goal I’m going for in terms of market after the festival. Two years ago, it was a pretty raunchy play. One of the changes, frankly, is it’s cleaner. It’s not squeaky clean. But if it was ‘R’ two years ago, it’s ‘PG’ or ‘PG-13’ now. Some of those were some of the most painful changes to make because I knew I was losing some laughs, but part of this idea of – assuming, okay, it’s not going to be this big Broadway thing – is the hope that it finds a market in high school or college or professional troupes that tour to high schools and colleges on the idea of, okay, most kids don’t really like Shakespeare straight up, here’s a way to kind of sugar coat it and get it to them. Not only is the play based on ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ at one time or another, it alludes to about a dozen Shakespeare plays in one way or another – ‘Hamlet’ a lot, other plays occasionally.

“A lot of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is in the play. Though it’s a little less than two years ago, it’s still a lot. It certainly could be like an audio-visual aid for any class that’s studying ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ But beyond that, it’s sort of like a Reduced Shakespeare Company – a way to sort of make Shakespeare more palatable to high school and college students who may be somewhat more reluctant. So I’m sort of hoping it might become kind of a staple, and I might even try to market it two ways, as a musical and a straight play, because the play can hold up as a play without songs. You have to change the script some, but I wouldn’t have much trouble doing that, and market it to high schools and possibly colleges. So that’s part of where I’m hoping to go. We’ll see.”

Brian Sutton and his wife have rented an apartment in Brooklyn for their time with the production. They’re living the New York life style, which can lead to circumstances like this:

***

Subway tale

I tend to read books on the subway. I’m sitting there reading “Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy, which I read some years ago and I was re-reading. And there’s this woman kind of looking up at me, and I noticed she’s reading something in Russian. I look at it, and I figure I know what she’s reading because it was set in three-line stanzas, and there are very few works of literature – you know, I’m a Lit teacher – that are in three-line stanzas. And this was very long – a whole book. There are shorter things, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” for example, that are in this. It’s called terza rima. But for something that’s a book long, I said, “You’re reading Dante in Russian,” and I was right – “The Devine Comedy.”  She said, “Yes, and you’re reading Tolstoy in English.” And we started talking. She was, of course, Russian. We actually talked about a poem by Pushkin called “Eugene Onegin,” which I liked and she liked.

***

There’s been some publicity for “Searching for Romeo” through the New York Music Theatre Festival.

“NYMF provides a certain cache by being NYMF. People in the theater industry know that this is the Sundance of musical theater, that this is the place that ‘Next to Normal,’ which won the Tony Award for Best Musical, which won the Pulitzer Prize, launched from. And other plays – ‘Title of Show’ and ‘Chaplin’ – went to Broadway from there. And ‘Altar Boys,’ which ran for six years Off-Broadway, went through there. So people within the industry know that. That in itself is not enough to fill, say, the Weidner Center’s big stage, but 160-seat theater you can get a lot of mileage just off of this being one of the 10 next link projects from NYMF. They have their own website; they have a publicity team themselves that that sends out blurbs. Beyond that, I have a publicist, I have a marketing director; we’ve created our own website. There are a lot of things like that. I’ve tried to think of angles.”

Performances in the New York Music Theatre Festival are reviewable.

“Every year, the New York Times reviews about five or six NYMF shows. I’m not sure they go in the print edition; I think it may be the online. They seem to be very unpredictable about which ones they chose to do. So you hope. So they’re reviewable. They get some kinds of reviews. It isn’t always the Times or New Yorker or anything like that.”

After opening Tuesday, the production has performances at various times Thursday through Sunday, July 10-13, at the PTC Performance Space.

Brian Sutton’s saga has more chapters ahead.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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