Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Follow-up: ‘Searching for Romeo’ in New York


PHOTO: Brian Sutton is back being an English prof at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay after adventures in New York City with a full production of his musical, “Searching for Romeo.” Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – One of the ways teachers get students into something easy to write when they come back to school is the essay, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” This article/column is a turnabout. It’s about what an English composition teacher did on his summer vacation. The story is a dandy: He instigated a full-fledged musical that was put on in New York City.

I first wrote about Brian Sutton of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and his “Searching for Romeo” around its initial production in 2012 in Green Bay. Next came a production in 2013 as a developmental venture at the New York Musical Theater Festival. Earlier this summer, Brian Sutton talked about his hopes and expectations for the re-shaped “Searching for Romeo” as one of the featured productions in the New York Musical Theater Festival. That column is at http://www.wearegreenbay.com/1fulltext-news/d/story/critic-at-large/28034/5PjjgVYcWUW9UY2PRXn7jQ.

The ride for the five performances was that of a super rollercoaster. The highs included press interest that included a feature story in The Wall Street Journal and reviews, including a somewhat favorable assessment from The New York Times. The lows included the loss of a lead on the day of the opening – and yet the production survived.

Brian Sutton is back at UWGB concentrating on all that it takes a veteran professor to prepare another academic year as part of his overall duties. “Searching for Romeo” still is around but on a back burner. Here’s a follow-up on what Brian Sutton did on his summer vacation.

Q. The experience in New York – elevating, exciting, frustrating?

A. Extremely intense. Overall favorable. It was wonderful, it was awful. A lot of the wonderful would be confirmation that at even at that level – professional production, New York City – the play works. At all five performances we got either a partial or a complete standing ovation. The reviews were almost unanimously favorable. Favorable notices in places like the New York Times and stuff like that. So I saw that the play works. And the people I was working with, besides being very, very talented, just very nice people. It was a joy to work with them. The intense part, and in a way a down side, was just how very stressful it was on two levels. One is that I was both the playwright and the producer. The producer stuff was probably much tougher than the playwright stuff, in the first place because I’m not used to it. Anything that could go wrong or complicating things with the production, of course, eventually comes to you as the producer… There were a couple of personnel issues that became complications. There are a lot of very complicated rules when you’re dealing with Actors Equity and you’re dealing with a play festival and you’re dealing employment rules. So that was tough. And then as a writer – through most of June we rehearsed six days a week, 12 to 5; Actors Equity says 30 hours a week rehearsal for this kind of thing. I’d get in a little before, about 11:30 and talk to the music director and the director about any issues, and then we’d go through five hours of rehearsal. Afterwards, we’d have another half hour of, one, clean up the room for the next people, and also talk to the music director and director about where do we go? where there are issues. And I’d go back to the apartment we (he and his wife) were subletting, about an hour on the subway. I’d get back about 6:30, eat supper and so forth, and then I always had homework. That is to say, we’d see during rehearsal, okay, this scene isn’t working, go home and rewrite this scene. There were times when it was not rewrite a totally new song but do a reprise – which means a new set of lyrics. It means a new arrangement of a song from the show, from one night to the next day. By the way, I was, and still am, teaching an online class for GB in addition to the other stuff. It was not at all uncommon for me to be working at this well past midnight. In a way, that was wonderful because all my life I’ve been one of those English teachers who, you know, really wants to be a writer and so forth. Well, at that point, you’re a writer. There’s this cast of 15 with a music director and a director and all the tech people who are waiting for a product you have to deliver to them the next day. There is a theater reserved on 42nd Street. People have already bought tickets. You’d better get this thing written. So it was very much an experience with being a professional writer in a very real sense. And that was great. But I would never deny that it was stressful. It was a lot of work. That’s how it was. And then, New York City itself, of course, is wonderful and awful. Wonderful because the great theater, the great a lot of different things – museums, etc. Awful because it would be 90 degrees out and humid and you’re on a subway, just jammed in like a pack of sardines. It was a very intense experience – mostly good but very intense in both directions.

Q. A producer problem. You had to a change in the cast.

A. That was not a huge producer problem as such. If you’ve seen the musical “42nd Street,” it’s right out of that. And it’s the classic cliché: “You’re going up there an unknown, kid, you’re coming out a star.” That kind of thing. Except, normally, that’s the understudy. In this case, in this level of theater, you don’t have understudies. On one hand, you could argue this was incredible bad luck for us because this guy who went down was not famous but he had just gotten back from doing a national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” playing Motel Kamzoil with Tevye being Harvey Fierstein, who as played Tevye on Broadway. So this guy is pretty established within the business. He went to the hospital about two hours before we opened, and we had no understudy as such. At the same time, we were also incredibly lucky because this guy that we got as assistant director we hired because, basically, he was free. He was three credits away from graduating from college at Rutgers, and he could do this as an internship. And the credits were all he needed. We didn’t need to pay him. That was great. His official title was assistant director. He was a go-fer. I’d come in with a new scene, he’d go running off to the print shop and do the photocopy, three-hole punch them and distribute them to the cast – stuff like that. BUT, during the weeks of rehearsal, if somebody had to miss rehearsal for an audition for another show, he’d be reading the parts. I’d think, “This guy’s got a knack for different parts,” and I heard him sing a few times and thought, “This guy’s got a beautiful voice.” And so it was about 6:15 and (director) Laura (Josepher) said to the cast after the dress rehearsal (that day), “Look, Zal (Owen) is gone. He’s at the hospital. He won’t go on. Dan (Drew) is going to go on in his place.” She hadn’t even asked Dan. I asked Dan, “Is this okay with you?” Dan said, “Yeah.” For two hours, we just poured stuff into him, go over this song, go over that song. There are fight scenes, and we had to teach him how to fight safely; these are prop weapons, but you can hurt yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing…

Q. Dan was familiar with the show through the rehearsal process.

A. Yeah, he wasn’t going on cold. He did go on script in hand. We announced it before the show, and you know, the audience is going to be really disappointed – “Aw, there goes the show. This is the male lead.” His first solo was the fourth song in the show, and the audience literally stopped the show. We had to wait at least a minute before we could go on. The audience would not stop applauding. Part of that is they know that this guy going on in less than two hours. They’re rooting for him. The bar is set low. Then they’re realizing, “Oh, this guy’s okay. We can enjoy the theater tonight.” It was a wonderful moment. We got a complete standing ovation that night, and they clearly timed it to stand when he and the female lead, Justine (Magnusson), came out for their bows – just ZOOM, they all stood when they came out. So, a really neat moment. (Dan Drew was on for the rest of the run). By Sunday, he was off book, about 96 hours after he was told, “You’re doing the run.” And this is a male lead in a play that’s more than two hours long. He was terrific. He more than held his own with professional cast. (Plus he got his three credits). It’s a great story, a Broadway cliché type of thing. The cast was wonderfully supportive and helped him. The first day, our female lead Justine, really the lead in the show – it’s Rosaline’s show – was crying when she realized that Zal couldn’t do it. It’s a lead. It’s a major opportunity for her. She had family in the audience. She was telling Dan, “Look, if you don’t know where to go, just look at me, I’ll just kind of push you on stage so you’ll be in the right place. I’ll take care of you.” She’s like his mother, and she’s 21-22 years old. All the others were like that, just tremendously supportive of him, which is really a tribute to them. On one hand, he saved the show. On the other, these are all professionals who go years trying to get good parts and there’s tons of talented people in New York, and here this guy is. He has yet to, at this point, ever audition for a professional stage production, and now he can pull quotes – ‘Fabulous,’ ‘Tremendous.’ He can pull quotes from the New York Times and put them on his own website if he wants. He’s an incredibly lucky guy. We were incredibly lucky to have him, too. That’s probably the most interesting thing to happen.

Q. Aside from the reviews, did you get any other responses that were valuable to you – feedback or leads?

A. The first night, a producer came up to me and was very interested in it and liked it a lot, and I was very hopeful about that. He then later in the week saw another show and, as I understand it, it was sort of like Romeo liking Rosaline and then seeing Juliet, kind of forgot about mine. There were certainly a lot of other people that liked it a lot. In terms of producers, there’s no one that said, “Okay, we’re going to do the show,” nor a play publisher. (The most favorable review was from a theater faculty member at a conservatory who is in charge of a new works committee who is “very interested in doing the show.”) There are a couple of people in high schools that seem to be potentially interested in doing it in New York. That’s where I’m marketing it. If somebody said, “Here’s $20 million, do it on Broadway,” sure, I wouldn’t turn it down. But I’m not really shooting for the Broadway or even the Off-Broadway because, with the large cast, it’s quite an expensive show. I don’t think I’d have much chance of getting that kind of a production because of economic realities. What I’m hoping to market it for basically is high schools, colleges and maybe regional theaters that do Shakespeare and are looking to broaden their base. I might submit to Door Shakespeare, for example. There are dozens of Shakespeare places across the country… Where it’s a large cast and a deal breaker in some ways for professional theater – they can’t afford it – it’s an advantage in high schools, where you want to be able to cast as many kids from those who try out as you can. So that’s where I’m shooting.

Q. Your work now with “Searching for Romeo,” do you set aside time?

A. It varies. Realistically, I am and in my whole life have been a college professor who writes when he can, and I’m certainly back in that identity… I was gone a better part of seven weeks – four weeks of rehearsal, a week of performances and then a week of kind of being a tourist, and travel time. That’s a long time to get behind in your job. So I’m pretty busy catching up. At the same time, there are spurts when I have to do things (put the script in the appropriate format, continue contact with the music director and director)… “We need to do another round of demo recordings because I revised so much. There were 20 songs in the version in 2012 here; seven of them are left. There are still 19 songs in the play, but most of them are new songs, and the seven that are left have been substantially re-arranged… Now I’m going to take people from the professional cast from this past year, rent a recording studio. So there’s time organizing the recordings… I will need to take time studying the market. I just joined the Dramatists Guild… I need to be researching the market of schools and colleges, putting together a packet – do they want the whole script or do they just want a little, do they want demos of all the songs or just a few, do they want full reviews or do they want the pulled quotes? So there’s still a lot to do.

Q. So you came back from New York feeling good enough that you want to continue pursuing “Searching for Romeo.”

A. I think it still has a life.

Q. What is it that makes you believe?

A. It kept getting partial or full standing ovations, it kept getting good reviews, people kept saying good things about it. The show works. The show simply works. It’s not great literature. I would never claim that. You go out of the theater feeling good when you see the show, much more so in fact than two years ago. Two years ago, it was kind of a raunchy comedy. Now it’s a much more focused show. Two years ago, if I had a song I wanted to work in or some humor I wanted to work in, I’d work it in. Now it’s much more protagonist-antagonist-conflict linear plot and certain kinds of themes that are very clear that weren’t two years ago. But it remains a feel-good show, much more than two years ago. It’s much more a retro-pop score, music that you might associate with Motown or groups like The Chiffons. Not completely. There’s a vaudeville element as well. But it’s happy music. It’s still a funny show. People like it. And the basic idea – it continues to be a way into Shakespeare. On one hand, it’s “Romeo and Juliet,” but I quote 12 different works by Shakespeare in the play. There’s almost as much “Hamlet” as there is “Romeo and Juliet” in there. So it’s a good way to introduce people to Shakespeare or people who know Shakespeare well who get those knowing, in-in jokes – “Oh, he’s referring to that play there,” or, “This phrase comes from this sonnet.” But at the same time, it is a romantic comedy that’s pretty funny. It is bouncy pop music. So I think it has a future because it can make Shakespeare accessible, and that’s why I think its future is not necessarily, frankly, Broadway or Off-Broadway… I pretty firmly believe it has a future. There’s a lot more work, but it’s a satisfying kind of work. It’s not like writing a paper for a class where you write it once, you proofread it and then turn it in. I’ve never re-written as much for anything. There’s satisfaction in that.”

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

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