Hey San Francisco, are you ready for some new musical theatre? Musical theatre that is going to be relevant to you and your life here the SF Bay? Have I got just what you've been looking for.
MONKEY BUSINESS by Tony Asaro (Composer/Librettist, and now Producing Artistic Director of the FOGG Theatre Company)
So here it is, monkeys: the big reveal. Through my blog posts, you followed me across the country—watching me depart from the world of New York musical theatre. I’ve written about my reasons for leaving. Posts like SEEK AND YE SHALL FIND and THE NEW YORK LIE and even CALIFORNIA SCHEMIN' hinted at my dissatisfaction with my life there, a life ostensibly replete with the thing I love most: musical theatre.
It was strange: for 7 years, I had surrounded myself with the thing I am most passionate about. I lived, breathed, worked, and talked about nothing but musicals. And yet, about six years into that life, I looked around and saw that I was unhappy. I was paying my bills. I had the best community of friends and colleagues, and I was even making a little headway in the industry. But even with all of that, I didn’t belong. Looking around at the world of New York musical theatre, I saw that it didn’t match up with the things I wanted for my life.
New York musical theatre is an industry rooted in Broadway. Broadway musicals are by far the most known and celebrated brand of musical storytelling in this country. But looking around at the Broadway seasons, I didn’t see me reflected. Most musicals on Broadway now are adaptations of movies. Most are escapist, play on well-trodden tropes, and rely on spectacle. Some are successful in this aim, others are not.
I was not alone. A lot of writers of new musical theatre are not writing the abovementioned Broadway-type shows, but still, most of the channels for the development of new pieces have Broadway ties: NYMF, NAMT, Goodspeed, La Jolla Playhouse, even the Bay Area’s own TheatreWorks. And through these avenues, even if they aren’t aiming for a Broadway production, they’re hiring Broadway casts/directors/MDs, or they’re being given awards decided by prominent Broadway names.
I don’t bring this up to show a disdain for Broadway. I love Broadway. My love of musical theatre started with Broadway shows. And while I’m not a fan of the current trend of movie adaptation musicals, I know some very exciting writers breaking through right now that I believe are going to change all that. But even with a love for Broadway, I knew instinctively that New York City is not where I want to tell my stories. Manhattan is not my community.
I struggled with this epiphany. I knew that I loved San Francisco more than I love anywhere else, but there’s virtually no new musical theatre scene there. My options seemed pretty limited to me. Either I stay in New York, running the new musical theatre rat race that was making me miserable, or I move back to San Francisco and give up writing musicals…which would make me miserable.
I was in the throes of this inner-turmoil when I learned that my friend Carey McCray had come to a similar conclusion. Carey is from San Jose. She had been in New York for a number of years, and held the prestigious position of Director of New Works at Cap 21 Theatre. Her work at Cap 21 was well respected—under her leadership, Cap 21 became a prominent development house for new musical theatre. She was extremely satisfied with her job, but even with that, she knew that she belonged back in the Bay Area.
Carey and I had lunch one day, and I confided in her that I too had been thinking about returning home. It was a pivotal conversation. She said, “I know I belong there. I just wish I could do what I do here, there…” And that’s when it started. I responded, “What if you could? What if you and I start a theatre company?”
The suggestion induced some giddy reverie. We both left lunch intoxicated with the idea. After a while, the reality of the significant obstacles started to present themselves. I had a lot of questions:
Is there an audience for new musical theatre in the Bay Area?
There really hasn't ever been much. Some Broadway shows have had their pre-Broadway tryouts here, most notably, Wicked and Lestat.
I was encouraged by ACT’s recent production of Tales of the City. Granted, it was a New York creative team, but nothing is more San Francisco than Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City serial. The show extended its run twice. Tickets sold very well. And when Berkeley Rep developed American Idiot—based on the songs of Greenday, a Bay Area band—ticket sales were good for that as well. And companies like Ray of Light Theatre and SF Playhouse are doing multiple musicals in a season and they seem to be finding a new audience for musicals—a younger audience that wants an edgier show. This emerging audience could get totally excited about a production of Bat Boy or Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, or a My Fair Lady with a really dark concept, but would they get behind NEW musical theatre?
Are there resources to support new musical theatre in the Bay Area?
Carey and I are not the only artists who have moved back to the bay. And there are many other really talented people who never left. That said, many of these people have day jobs, or families, or both. The idea of making your living off of the theatre in the Bay Area is nearly inconceivable right now. Would there be people wanting to invest the time required to fuel a new theatre company?
And “resources” doesn’t just mean people—what about performance space, rehearsal space, lighting and sound equipment, etc. And of course, money! Where would we get the money?
It was this question that got me thinking about the company’s mission. It would have to be a mission that would get people in the Bay Area excited about new musical theatre. That’s a tall order. It would have to be something that San Franciscans really care about.
In addition, it was time to figure out what I really care about. In NYC, I had worked on a number of projects with gay themes. While I definitely think gay issues are important to explore, I began to wonder if that’s all I had to say. What are the other stories that I have to tell? It’s true that well-told gay stories would probably find an audience in SF, I want to appeal to all of my community, not just the gays.
In my trying to answer these questions, I stumbled on an answer that is going to be the foundation for an exciting new theatre venture in SF! Stay tuned! You’ll find out what specifically next month on October 30th!
TONY ASARO is a composer/librettist currently working on various musical theatre and opera projects including the award winning Our Country. To learn more about Tony's writing, please visit unrelentingmonkey.com. NEVER STOP SWINGING!