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Do You Want to See New Musicals Before They're Famous?

Date: Feb 29, 2016

The curator of "New Musicals at 54" shares a behind-the-scenes peek at the series


Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things

"Isn't it so cool that so many people are gathered in a basement to hear a new musical on a Tuesday night?"

Composer/lyricist Joe Iconis was speaking from the piano in said basement: the cabaret hotspot Feinstein's/54 Below. He was presenting a condensed concert version of his musical Be More Chill (written with Joe Tracz) as part of the recently launched series "New Musicals at 54," curated and produced by the venue's programming director, Jennifer Ashley Tepper.

Tepper is an unabashed musical theatre fanatic of both old and new shows. While Feinstein's/54 Below has enjoyed success with reunion concerts of cult favorites such as The Wedding Singer, Tepper wanted to create a program of 10 brand-new musicals that audiences could see before anyone else, giving fans a taste of what it's like to be an industry insider. Attendees even receive song demos after most performances and can hang out with the writers at the bar.

The series continues on select Tuesdays through May 31, with each tuner getting two presentations per night at 7 and 9:30pm. Tepper shared her inspiration for "New Musicals at 54," how she picked the 10 shows for this inaugural season, and what she hopes happens with it next year.


Suzy Evans: How did "New Musicals at 54" come about?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper: There's so much great new musical theatre being written now. A lot of shows will have out-of-town tryouts or be in workshops for a really long time, and the only time anyone ever sees them is in a folding chair at a rehearsal studio. I wanted to give [in-development] shows an opportunity to do a presentation in a really fun way, where people can drink and industry professionals and fans can come to check it out together. The [venue] owners are so excited about this series because they imagine this room as a place for people from all corners of Broadway. At a recent new musical, String, I was watching Richard Frankel, one of the owners, watch Bonnie Milligan sing an Adam Gwon song, going, "Oh my god, she's like too terrific!" He was so excited about it. Also, a lot of what's been cool about the series so far is some of the new collaborations [coming out of it]. A lot of people are bringing actors they've worked with before, but also, I've been able to forge some new connections.

Suzy: Can you give an example?

Jennifer: [Writer] Nick Blaemire said to me, "Hey, it would be so cool if Patrick Page played the voice of Walter Cronkite in our show [Fallout]," and I was like, "Oh, I love Patrick. I'll ask him," and then he was so excited to pal around with those people.


Suzy: What was your criteria for selecting shows?

Jennifer: I wanted all of the shows to have already had a production or workshop. The exception is American Boy. I approached [writer] Amanda Green about another show that fit into that, and she said, "Oh we can't do that for this reason, but I have a brand-new show that I just started on." With a different kind of program, a submission process would make sense, but because that was our criteria, I picked specific musicals that I knew existed.

Suzy: Why 10 shows?

Jennifer: I thought it was good from a marketing perspective. We're doing a bunch of promotions where it's like: pick three out of the 10 and you get a discount. I don't think the things we've tried subscriber models for in the past have been as closely associated as these are. It's made people realize that [developing new musical theatre] is a goal of ours.

Suzy: How much freedom do the writers have in terms of the way they present their shows?

Jennifer: I said to each of them, "We should do something that sells your show the best." Some of the shows have presented highlights of the score and talked through some of the plot points. For shows that had already been done a lot of times, maybe we had three of the leading ladies who played a character at different points all sing a song, or do a cut song, or have the writers sing a song.

Suzy: Did the writers have a set rehearsal time with their casts, like the Equity max of 29 hours to prep and perform a staged reading?

Jennifer: We're governed by the musicians union rules, but we're not a theatrical venue so we're not governed by Equity at all. I would say it's less time for everyone than 29 hours.

Suzy: "New Musicals at 54" almost feels like a festival. Are you organizing events for the writers or ways for all of them to connect?

Jennifer: I've made sure to invite all of the writers and directors to all of the other shows, so a lot of them have been interacting and sitting together. There's definitely a collective feeling.

Suzy: When programming the series, did you keep issues of gender inequality and lack of diversity in musical theatre in mind?

Jennifer: That was tricky—but not for the reasons that you'd think. Obviously, these were all shows I wanted to do, but I definitely had a priority to have gender diversity and people of different races and ages. But when you're asking shows and getting maybes, or people aren't answering right away, you kind of have to be like, oh, I can't ask a show by another white male in his 40s until this white male in his 40s gets back to me. It gets that specific. If I could do between 10 and 15 shows, diversity would have been weirdly easier because I could have just cast a wider net. It was very much like puzzle pieces.

Suzy: Do you hope to do this series again next year?

Jennifer: This is one of maybe three series that I'd really like to do. Another is really under-appreciated musicals in concert, things that you might not even see at Encores! but that we can do in a 147-seat room. I actually want to do a classic musicals series this summer—some of our internal producers are working on that.

Suzy: Has this series introduced you to any new writers?

Jennifer: It's all writers that I at least knew of. It ranges from Joe [Iconis], who I have been collaborating with for years, to Kirsten Childs, whose work I'd seen but we'd never met or worked together. I reached out to her about Funked Up Fairy Tales and she said yes. It's definitely forged new collaborations for me.


Follow Suzy Evans at @suzyeevans. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Be More Chill with Eric William Morris, Will Connolly, and Katlyn Carlson; photo by Nessie Nankivell.

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