By Greg Horton
view article on OKGazette.com
There’s an old saying in show business: “You saw it here first.”
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma took that saying to heart, as the company, which is more than 50 years old, welcomes two world-premiere productions into its lineup.
Mann … and Wife debuts on the Lyric stage in the Plaza District, 1727 NW 16th St., in February 2016.
Mann … and Wife is a funny and poignant adaptation of Dan Elish’s novel Nine Wives and tells the story of a young Jewish man who is looking for a wife after attending eight weddings — thus, the name.
Also new is Bernice Bobs Her Hair, which has its premiere in October. The musical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same name was written by Adam Gwon, a winner of the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award given to newcomers in musical theater. He also was named a member of the Tony Awards nominating committee for Broadway’s 2015-2016 season.
They are part of a “new works initiative” started by Michael Baron, Lyric’s producing artistic director. It launched last spring with Triangle, a musical set around the infamous 1911 fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Baron started as artistic director in 2010 and was promoted to his new role in March.
“One of my main missions now is to add to the canon of musical theater,” Baron said. “Lyric is 53 years old now, and we have been doing shows that started other places. It’s time other places started doing shows that started in Oklahoma City.”
Mann … and Wife is the work of Dan Elish and Douglas J. Cohen. Elish is well-known as a young-adult fiction writer (The School for the Insanely Gifted). He also co-wrote the book for Broadway musical 13.
Cohen has won multiple awards, including the Richard Rodgers Award and the Fred Ebb Award for Musical Theatre Songwriting.
The men have been friends for years, but this is their first collaboration.
Baron met Cohen about 10 years ago while working on an adaptation of the independent film The Opposite of Sex in San Francisco. The two have remained in contact, and when they met again at a workshop for new performances, they discussed premiering Mann… and Wife in Oklahoma City.
“The National Alliance of Musical Theatre has a new music festival every spring,” Baron said. “The shows are presented in concert format, a 45-minute format. Doug was shopping it around, and I’ve known Doug as a wonderful, witty composer. We talked, and he offered it to us.”
The process of staging a world premiere is much more involved than producing a tried-and-true classic.
For starters, local audiences become part of the creative process. When patrons attend Lyric Theatre’s debuts such as Mann … and Wife, they receive a feedback form and their responses are used to tweak the ongoing production.
“We ask questions about what they understood or didn’t understand, what they liked, what moved them or worked,” Baron said. “For Triangle, we actually changed the end of Act I based on audience input.”
Additionally, audiences get to participate in a “talk-back” at the end of performances with actors, directors and design and production staff that helps the crew find and resolve any issues related to clarity or perspective. This phase is crucial to non-narrative storytelling in musical theater.
Once Mann… and Wife leaves Lyric Theatre, it will be in its final form.
Baron said producing a world premiere is often a seven- to 10-year journey that includes writing, composing, workshopping and staging.
“Doing a premiere in Oklahoma City is great for a writing team, too,” Baron said. “It helps them prep for the final version outside the critical eyes of New York theater writers.”
Also, Baron said, it is about twice as expensive to stage a world premiere than it is other shows. The personnel issues alone make it more expensive.
“I have to fly in a music director to do orchestrations,” Baron said. “The composer only writes for piano, so the music director is responsible for writing for all other instruments.”
The process also requires the work of a copyist, one of the most rare and complicated jobs in musical theater. Baron said that mix nearly always translates to expensive.
Once a musical director writes the orchestrations for all the instruments, the copyist functions much like a synchronization coach.
All those pieces of sheet music have to be turned at the same time, so the copyist writes the sheet music for each instrument so that the turn happens simultaneously.
Set conception and construction is also part of the process, as is designing peripheral materials.
Baron, who is directing both productions, said he is hopeful that the producers will accept artwork, including logos, that were created here as part of those peripheral materials.
Auditions for Mann… and Wife will happen in two phases. Local auditions are sometime this fall, and New York auditions are mid-October.
Mann… and Wife is a small production — three actors and four band members — so the presence of local talent is limited.
Casting is complete for Bernice Bobs Her Hair, and cast and crew began rehearsals in June. That musical runs Oct. 7-25.