By ERIC GRODE
Putting together a three-show summer season is ambitious enough, let alone when it's being done by a musical theatre composer with two new pieces premiering in the next five months.
So why on earth is Jeanine Tesori (Shrek, Caroline, or Change) adding extras to Encores! Off-Center, the monthlong series of Off-Broadway musical revivals at City Center? As the artistic director of the program, she's overseeing not just the musicals themselves, but also bonus material like art exhibits, concerts, talkbacks, and other events.
"We could have just presented the shows," says Tesori, who is unveiling her inaugural series as artistic director on July 10 with a semi-staged version of Marc Blitzstein's legendary 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock. "But I wanted to make sure we discussed not just what they were, but what they continue to be and continue to mean to my fellow artists."
As it happens, these extracurricular projects---which are collectively being called the Lobby Project ---overlap somewhat with Tesori's next musical of her own, an adaptation of Allison Bechdel's acclaimed graphic novel Fun Home. With a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and direction Sam Gold, the show opens at the Public this October, but first, Kron and Gold are joining the Cradle team.
Gold is directing The Cradle Will Rock, a political allegory about a working-class town's attempt to battle a corrupt businessman. The show entered the annals of theatre history when the Works Progress Administration padlocked the doors to the theatre where it was to make its debut. (The cast and creative team, led by a certain can-do director named Orson Welles, marched the entire audience to another theatre 21 blocks away and performed it there.)
Kron's contribution is less traditional. 45 minutes before the curtain rises on the final performance of the musical---which stars Anika Noni Rose, Judy Kuhn, and Danny Burstein---she will join Cherry Jones for a live, 30-minute spoken-word piece called "The Legend of The Cradle will Rock." Assembled by Tesori, the piece will present the show's history through the words of Blitzstein and John Houseman, the producer in 1937.
"It was a chance to gather all these people I admired under one roof," Tesori says of the Lobby Project, which will also feature the likes of Idina Menzel, Ted Chapin, and the songwriting duo of Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford.
Cryer and Ford will appear before a performance of Off-Center's final production, their pioneering 1978 feminist musical I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. The show had a major influence on Tesori, who came to New York a relative naïf at the age of 17.
"I wasn't a theatre kid," she says. "I went to graduate school by seeing shows. I saw March of the Falsettos 13 times. I interned at Playwrights Horizons because Sunday in the Park was there."
Playwrights Horizons was ultimately where Tesori's first musical, Violet, had its premiere in 1997. That piece will receive a one-night concert performance as the second Off-Center show, and she and lyricist/bookwriter Brian Crawley have made some revisions to it.
"That was the only work I've ever done," Tesori says of Violet, "where I feel like I'm in a better place now to go back and look fresh at the storytelling elements." (It is also, she says, the only night in the Off-Center season without any supplementary Lobby Project events: "It seemed a little too egotistical.")
Once Off-Center wraps up on July 27, Tesori will dive back into Fun Home, followed by a new children's opera called The Lion, The Unicorn and Me, which opens at the Kennedy Center in December. There's also a new opera that she's working on with Tony Kushner, her collaborator on Caroline, or Change and the Shakespeare in the Park production of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children.
But while the timeline on the Kushner piece is uncertain, Tesori knows where she'll be in the summers of 2014 and 2015. That's how long she is contracted to lead Off-Center, which gives her a chance to throw the spotlight back onto nine deserving shows.
"We're not doing this for nostalgia, and we're not doing it in the hopes that they have a run" beyond the Encores! performances, Tesori says. "It's more about acknowledging the ephemeral nature of these shows."
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program