The Musical: Alive and well at A.R.T.

by Alicia Anstead

The musical is America's unique contribution to theater -- and it combines two of Diana Paulus' favorite theatrical elements: music and storytelling. "It was born here, and it's something we as a culture can claim," she said. With shows such as "Best of Both Worlds," "Johnny Baseball" (both part of last year's season at American Repertory Theater) and the Tony Award-winning revival of "Hair," Paulus '88 has staked her ground as a director and creator of musicals.

On Tuesday at Club Oberon, she was joined by a legend in the musical theater world, composer Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Pippin," "Wicked") to discuss the future of the American musical with each other and with members of the standing-room-only audience.

By the end of the hour-long discussion, the speakers had charmed their listeners and made one point very clear: The musical has a secure future at A.R.T.

Case in point: The Paulus-Schwartz conversation coincided with preview week of "The Blue Flower," an original music theater work running through January 8, 2011, at the Loeb Drama Center. Additionally, Suzanne Vega, Duncan Sheik and Kay Matschullat ‘77 are in residence through Dec. 8 at Harvard developing a music theater piece about Carson McCullers (debuting at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City in April of 2011).

Both Paulus and Schwartz praised musical theater as something more than "just entertainment." The form has frequently addressed serious issues of racial divide ("West Side Story") as well as vengeance ("Sweeney Todd") and personal unhappiness ("Next to Normal").

For years, Schwartz has been championing "The Blue Flower" -- set in Weimar Germany -- and felt that Paulus would understand its distinctive approach to combining video, music, text, movement and an art installation. He sent her a CD of the music.

"It was by far the most exciting music I've heard in years," said Paulus. "It sounds unique. It has a passion. It has intelligence. So it started there ... it is

exactly right for the A.R.T. -- our mission is to expand the boundaries of theater. This is a new work that does exactly that. It takes music and theater and storytelling, and is pushing the boundaries."

Host Ryan McKittrick asked Schwartz to say a few words about the evolution of the musical in the years since his first hit musical "Godspell" in 1971.

"The big change that has happened in the course of the time I've been working in musical theater has been the style of music," said Schwartz, whose son Scott graduated from Harvard in 1995. "When I first started out, I was one of the very few people who used what you would call pop or rock music in the theater. Basically, the rap was: You can't really tell a story with pop music. You can maybe do something like 'Hair' which was the

groundbreaker a few years before I got started. It has an overall feel to it, but it's not about storytelling and development of character -- although it was in Diane's production ... Now all shows written now basically use pop music."

During a far-ranging discussion that included questions from the audience, Paulus also took the opportunity to talk briefly about "Prometheus Bound," a new musical work that will be staged at Club Oberon next season, and a re-imagined version of "Porgy and Bess," the American opera classic by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. Paulus is working with the Gershwin estate, as well as with writer Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre Murray, to update the opera to "musical theater for the masses."

[Caption: Diane Paulus and Stephen Schwartz]

[Caption: Paulus]

[Caption: Schwartz]