What comes first: the music or the lyric?
This question has been asked by people of all levels of engagement with the craft of musical theatre. One thing that has been true about musical theatre from the beginning is that its definition is fluid. The winding and widening timeline of musical theatre—from late 19th century operettas to early 20th vaudeville to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to Stephen Sondheim to Lin-Manuel Miranda and every writer, director, star, and innovation in between—has made that question virtually impossible to answer.
That’s where Pittsburgh CLO comes in with their inaugural SPARK festival.
SPARK is the centerpiece of Pittsburgh CLO’s Next Generation Capital Campaign. With its goal of igniting the future of new small cast musicals, SPARK seeks to continue CLO’s long legacy of excellence in the production of musical theatre. This is a legacy that includes over seven decades of bringing blockbuster Broadway razzle dazzle to the Steel City and nearly two decades of bringing sky high entertainment value to dinner theatre in their intimate cabaret venue. SPARK is also a window into the sometimes mystifying, sometimes dramatic, always rewarding creative process of writing a musical.
It’s neither the music nor the lyric that comes first when one is writing a musical. It’s inspiration. It’s the spark of an idea, a character, a situation that jumps off the page onto center stage and sings its heart out.
This is where a diverse group of 40 writers comes in. Literally.
The composers, lyricists, and book writers took residence with Pittsburgh CLO for up to three weeks to begin fine tuning their musicals for presentation in the festival. Each piece was in a different stage of development, but all were equally at the mercy of the artists in the SPARK rehearsal rooms—writers, directors, music directors, stage managers, dramaturgs, and a total of 85 performers.
Once a musical is written, rewritten, rehearsed, and rewritten more, the only way for the creative team to know if the show is on the right track to connecting with audiences is to get the show up on its feet. Three of the common methods for presenting a musical work in progress were on display at SPARK. Music stands, binders, and frantic page turning take the place of completely full-fledged props and design elements in the worlds of sit-down readings, semi-staged readings, and fully-staged workshop productions. In these settings, the audience shows their support for a show by engaging in talk back sessions after the curtain call rather than giving a standing ovation.
This is where the various musical theatre fanatics, industry professionals, friends/family of the festival participants, and I come in!
For me, there were eight shows over the course of two 7-9 hour days. There were brisk walks (in speed and temperature) up and down Liberty Avenue between the three homes of SPARK, CLO itself, Bricolage, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. And, most memorable of all, there was the huge grin on my face as I fed off the tremendous creative energy radiating from everything and everyone I encountered on my journey through SPARK.
The pieces I saw had astounding range in content, form, and presentation.
Three musical comedies like Adam Overett’s The Double-Threat Trio; Kellen Blair, Sarah Ziegler Blair, and David Christensen’s Just Between the All of Us; and An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake by Matt Schatz might seem to have a lot in common on paper based on their genre, but their approaches for getting laughs are varied.
The Double-Threat Trio, featuring a performance by Tony Award winner Beth Leavel, features three characters (each with a talent-based fatal flaw) and a woman of many hats (and personalities) determined to hit it big with a production of the musical adaptation of Oedipus called Oed! Metatheatricality melds with personal drama in An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake. In the show, one of the theatre’s most unsung heroes, the literary manager, is hopelessly torn between the abstract concept of artistic credibility and the chance to rub elbows with Mr. Jessica Biel. Just Between the All of Us swipes left on traditional theatricality as it employs a choose-your-own-adventure storytelling model and audience participation to relate the dating and mating tribulations of the indecisive Dr. Madeline.
The inclusion of other shows in the festival allude to a much more inclusive future for CLO’s musical landscape.
These Girls Have Demons is notable for being the only production in SPARK with an all-female creative team including its book writer/lyricist Meghan Brown and composer Sarah Taylor Ellis. It tells the story of what happens when all hell literally breaks loose on four tween girls who meddle with the dark arts to ease their adolescent woes. Writer and performer Jillian Walker processes her plight as a black woman in America live in living color in SKiNFoLK: An American Show. It’s a lyrical montage of movements in which music sprouts organically from the lost and found stories of a conflicted history.
In addition to the nine headlining productions of SPARK, CLO proved its staunch dedication to writers/creators by also presenting an eclectic handful of unique musical theatre experiences including late night performances from local improv troupes and other musical works-in-progress courtesy of CLO writers-in-residence.
The fourth wall between performer and spectator is broken down by the earth-shattering courage and vulnerability it takes for creators to share a still-gestating piece of work. It’s an electrifying experience to witness both groups discovering, reacting to, and internalizing the music and lyrics almost at the same rate.
This first-ever SPARK festival will be a tough act to follow, but I have no doubt that Pittsburgh CLO will be able to make lightning strike twice.
For more information about Pittsburgh CLO and the 2018 SPARK festival, click here.