Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the 15 Minute Musical

In the madness of my little musical-thon last week, I didn’t get a chance to talk about my experience on Sunday night, watching 4@15, a night of four 15-minute musicals by different composers and writers, starring students from NYU Steinhardt. It was presented at the York Theatre and proved to be a very fun event. The concept alone is very intriguing: similar to the 24 Hour Musicals, song and book writing duos are paired with a group of actors for whom they write a 15 minute musical, which they create with their cast in mind. The time span the creative team had to rehearse and work on their scripts/songs was longer--over the course of a few weeks--but the rush of mounting a completely new work in a short period of time provides a unique, unpolished look at a musical theater work in progress.

The subject matter of each show was varied and all the synopses for the shows can be found here. There was a piece about a fear-of-flying school taking their first venture into the friendly skies, a folktale about an Irish couple in America, a tribute to the San Francisco Earthquake, and an office parody of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

While every show featured an interesting premise and at least one hummable song, the standout of the night for me was Time to Kill, a hilarious take on Macbeth complete with three water cooler gossip witches, cut throat office politics, and an IT guy who can get an entire row of cubicles hot and bothered and solve a rubiks cube while simultaneously singing. The whole thing was fun with a tight book that allowed the hilarity of the situation to unravel organically (imagine a quickly paced conflict coming to a head in the form of an epic battle of office supplies between the IT guy and the murderous VP). The show featured the wonderful music of Julianne Wick Davis who gives the three gossip girls perfect material to become a seductive chorus, as well as a book by Dan Collins.

Because of the temporal nature of the performance, I don't have any audio or videos to add to this post, which actually made me think a lot about the idea of 15 minute musical and what kind of environment is best to foster these works--or whether such a short work of musical theater has an audience for a professional production at all.

Observing the show last Sunday made me think a lot about the craft of constructing a work of musical theater, because there are so many components to a solid musical work. And when you condense that into a fifteen minute format, being economical with time and the way you present the characters, situation, and emotion becomes a tricky thing to do. With plays, 10 minute or short plays are already difficult to pull off, because the subject matter has to be pointed and the vision has to be strong. A short format musical presents all the same problems, but also presents additional challenges in being able to also blend music seamlessly with a brief book in the amount of time it would take a character to just sing a couple of songs in a full length work.

As an exercise, I see how creating these types of musicals are good for everyone involved. It gives actors parts that were written with them in mind. Writers have an exercise that is compact and helps them get the creative juices flowing. Audiences have a variety of works to enjoy and don't have to sit through a whole evening of the same thing if one work doesn't appeal to them. It's how the plays have a life after the initial run that makes me wonder.

With ideas floating around like Kerrigan and Lowdermilk's Party Worth Crashing, I can't help wondering if there is a demand for a new kind of musical--one that is far more democratic for both the audience and the company when putting a show together. Are 15 minute musicals satisfying for an audience, and does the option of viewing various writers, actors, and stories in a couple hours appeal to a mass theater going audience? People have proved that it is possible to create a quality show in such a span of time, from Joe Iconis' ReWrite to a personal favorite of mine, Sam Willmott's Scarlet Takes a Tumble:

But with a majority of theaters sticking with what they know, with unending revivals of Broadway classics, what is the ideal home for the 15 minute musical? Or is the demand always going to be for the traditional full-length format outside of the classroom or cabaret theater? Personally, I can't say. But it makes me incredibly curious to see what comes up in the future.

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