Premiere priority – With New Works Initiative, Oklahoma City’s Lyric Theatre puts focus to staging new musicals

News OKby Brandy McDonnell
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Pacing in front of a stylish black-and-white depiction of New York City, Mateja Govich tries to get his mouth and mind around a new lyric.

“Someone who can hang out like a dude,” co-star Zachary Prince croons to set up the new line in the song “What’s the Matter with Henry?”

“And who never comes unglued,” Govich sings back, repeating the lyric a few times with different inflections. “Ah. There it is.”

The new lyric was one of several small changes director Michael Baron relayed from writers Douglas J. Cohen and Dan Elish to the actors during a recent rehearsal for “Mann … And Wife,” Lyric Theatre’s current world premiere production.

“As you’re rehearsing, a lot of these songs that on the page … seem (like they’re) perfect and are gonna work great, when you’re on the stage, the circumstances of that particular moment in the script or the story may actually call for something else,” Prince said in an interview between rehearsals.

“They’ve had a constant dialogue back and forth … where it’s like ‘Today, we discovered that this moment kind of needs this’ or ‘This joke isn’t necessarily landing.’ And sometimes within minutes or the next day, they have rewrites. And then it’s really exciting to get on your feet and do those rewrites.

“Then, you get to experience the moment coming together in the way you know it’s supposed to. … It’s about those moments where everything kind of comes together and it just makes sense. You get like a shot of adrenaline when things work really well. That’s why I love doing new stuff.”

Michael Baron

Director Michael Baron gives instructions during a rehearsal for Lyric Theatre’s new musical “Mann … and Wife.” Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

Staging world premieres

Before the first Saturday night performance of “Mann … And Wife,” Baron stood in front of a mostly full house at Lyric at the Plaza and smiled broadly.

“When I got this job almost six years ago now, it was my dream to do world premieres here,” Lyric’s producing artistic director told the crowd. “Judging from the attendance tonight, it just makes me so happy that it’s something you are embracing.”

The modern dating comedy “Mann … And Wife” marks the third world premiere production in three seasons for Lyric, after the 2014 musical mystery/romance “Triangle” and last year’s period piece “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Continuing through Feb. 21 at Lyric’s cozy Plaza District theater, the romantic comedy is part of the New Works Initiative Baron has championed at the more than 50-year-old company.

“I feel as a not-for-profit and a vibrant arts institution we should be adding to the canon of musical theater and that other places should be doing musicals that premiere here in Oklahoma. And that’s already beginning to happen,” Baron said in an interview.

“Some theaters have large reading series, some of them do lots of workshops, and I feel like the best use of our space and time is to actually do either the first kind of development production or the actual world premiere on its feet. Because there’s lots of new musicals and rarely do they get to get on their feet with costumes and all that. … And for us, it’s almost just as expensive to bring out the entire group for a workshop, so we might as well put it on the stage and do a full production.”

Baron said he worked on another world premiere by Cohen more than a decade ago in San Francisco, and they stayed in touch. When they crossed paths at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Fall Festival in 2014, the writer asked Baron to take a look at his new project, which since has become known as “Mann … And Wife.”

“Instantly, I fell in love again with his music, and I thought the story was great and really fun, particularly for the winter doldrums here in Oklahoma City,” Baron said. “When you do theater like this – really all theater, but particularly new works – it is a huge collaboration. I have opinions, they have opinions, and those all three may be different at some point. The producers have opinions. The actors have opinions. I feel like my role whenever we’re doing a new work is to figure out what is the show that these gentlemen (the writers) really want to do.”

Adapted from Elish’s novel “Nine Wives,” “Mann … And Wife” centers on loveably romantic New Yorker Henry Mann (Prince) and his search for the perfect date to his ex-fiancée’s wedding. Govich co-stars as his best friend Glenn, while Liz Shivener plays all the women in Henry’s life, including his opinionated mother and his love interests Tamar and Christine.

Prince did his first reading of the script in 2012 and crossed paths with the project a few more times over the years, so he was thrilled to be invited to play the lead role in the world premiere. After starring last year in the second production of “Triangle” in Palo Alto, Calif., the New York-based actor also was eager to work at Lyric.

“‘Triangle’ was in such beautiful shape, I think in large part because of the process they got here, which is really a gift to writers: To have a world premiere done … with all the resources and enthusiasm a regional theater can bring to it, without that sort of pressure of New York on it,” Prince said. “I’ve done readings of probably hundreds of new shows at this point. It’s like my favorite thing to do; I love new stuff. Unfortunately, some of the best ones don’t even have a future life; they kind of disappear. So it’s always really exciting when something comes back to you and you’re like, ‘Oh, I get to see it through to an actual stage production.’ That’s rare and exciting.”

James Dobinson & Neil Douglas Reilly

Music director James Dobinson, at the keyboard, and orchestrator Neil Douglas Reilly work during a rehearsal for Lyric Theatre’s new musical “Mann … and Wife,” at the Plaza Theatre, 1727 NW 16th St., in Oklahoma City, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

Making new art

Tucked into the corner of Adam Koch’s sleekly homey set, orchestrator Neil Douglas Reilly advises drummer David Hardman on just the right touch of shaker to punctuate a quick quip in the song “What’s the Matter with Henry?” during a rehearsal for the four-piece pop-rock combo that shares the stage with the actors. The songs for musicals are typically written for piano, and it’s up to the orchestrator to translate the music to whatever size orchestra the production needs.

“That transition is a huge step musicals take – and an expensive one. Orchestrations cost a lot of money because there’s one person that writes all the parts based what’s just on a piano. There’s a fee for copying because that’s a skill all its own so that everyone is turning the same page when they should be. You have to know when a musician can turn a page, that’s an art form all its own that’s also expensive,” Baron said.

Staging a new musical is an expensive endeavor. Between orchestrations and rewrites, Lyric typically adds an extra week to its usual rehearsal process. A mix of New York and local talent creates each production, and rehearsals continue before and after the first few public performances, until the show is finally “locked” and revisions cease on the first Saturday.

“It’s almost always more profitable to revisit older work because you have name recognition to sell the show on, but as a not-for-profit … our job here isn’t to make money; it’s to enrich the lives of Oklahomans – and there’s many ways to do that,” Baron said. “But I am business savvy. We’re doing the ‘Wizard of Oz’ so that we’re able to do a new musical called ‘Mann … And Wife.’ ‘Rocky Horror (Show)’ is in this season, also to subsidize ‘Mann … And Wife,’ because all new musicals will always cost more than they’ll bring in ticket wise. It’s up to the producers later to figure out how to make money off them; it’s just up to us to create it, which is expensive. Musicals are not cheap to make, but it’s really fun.”

Zachary Prince and Liz Shivener

Zachary Prince and Liz Shivener rehearse a scene for Lyric Theatre’s new musical “Mann … and Wife.” Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

Making big plans

Baron said the New Works Initiative is boosting Lyric’s reputation nationally. Not only did the writers attend the first Saturday night performance of “Mann … And Wife,” so did two producers attached to the project: Larry Hirschhorn, whose credits include the recent Broadway revival of “The Elephant Man” starring Bradley Cooper and the Gloria Estefan musical “On Your Feet,” and Jayson Raitt, who shepherded the national tour of “Murder for Two,” which Lyric staged last season.

Lyric is planning for even bigger prospects with its 2017 New Works Initiative selection.

“We are premiering a new show in the summer, so for our fourth new work, we’re leaving the Plaza and actually doing it downtown at the big Civic Center Music Hall. I can’t mention what it is yet, but I will say that it involves the Mouse House,” he said, using a common nickname for Disney.

Plus, he said audiences seem to be embracing the world premiere efforts. Not only has attendance grown each year, but more patrons are staying for the talkbacks after each world premiere show. And their comments often are making a difference in what makes it on the stage.

“What you saw tonight (for the ending) is actually much more fully realized than it was three nights ago,” Cohen said during the first Saturday night talkback. “During that talkback, one of the audience members said, ‘It was good but it just felt very rushed. We should have a little bit more time with that moment.’ … So, after that comment, Dan and I went to work and we wrote a new reprise.”

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Music and Lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen
Book and Lyrics by Dan Elish
Based on the novel “Nine Wives” by Dan Elish

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