BWW Interview: Lippa Awarded Harrison Commision at Texas State


SAN MARCOS, TX – A gift from Patti Strickel Harrison to the Texas State University-San Marcos musical theatre program will establish an innovative new initiative for the creation of original musicals from established Broadway composers, lyricists and book writers.

The Harrison New Musical Works Commission, funded by a generous gift through Harrison's PSH Foundation of Wimberley, will be administered through the musical theatre program in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Two new musicals will be commissioned every three years to be developed and premiered at Texas State.

Award-winning Broadway composer Andrew Lippa, the 2010-2011 Composer In Residence at Texas State, is the inaugural recipient of the Harrison commission. The second commission recipient will be announced in early 2011.

"New works are the lifeblood of the theatre," said Department Chair John Fleming. "The partnership between Broadway professionals and Texas State benefits both sides. Mr. Lippa receives a nurturing, supportive environment where he can freely explore his artistic vision, while our students get the incredible opportunity to participate in developing an exciting new work in collaboration with a Tony-nominated composer."

Texas State will supply facilities, actors, a musical director, a choreographer and musicians to support the development of the musical. Recipients of the commission will spend time on campus conducting readings, workshops and, ultimately, the production. During that time they will teach master classes and lecture in their area of expertise for the students.

"Patti Harrison is serious about supporting our alternative vision for creating new works for musical theatre," said Kaitlin Hopkins, head of the musical theatre program at Texas State.  "I think the time is right to embrace a new model for developing shows. I’m very happy that Texas State can be on the forefront of that partnership between academia and the professional world."

The gift continues a tradition of Harrison generously supporting the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas State. In 2008 she gave the university $8 million to support the construction of a new performing arts center on the university campus--due to be operational in the spring of 2014 in time to premiere Lippa’s work.

Harrison attended Texas State in 1947 and 1948. As president of the PSH Foundation, she puts special emphasis on education, health and youth in Texas.

For additional information, please contact the Texas State Department of Theatre and Dance at (512) 245-3660.

Composer-in-Residence Andrew Lippa and the head of the Musical Theatre department (and Broadway alum) Kaitlin Hopkins took some time to speak to BroadwayWorld about their upcoming collaboration.  In addition to Lippa's presence at Texas State next week (during which he will be working on his new musical, The Man In The Ceiling), TSU's Musical Theatre students will be doing a production of Lippa's The Wild Party in Spring 2011.  Read on to see what Lippa and Hopkins had to say about this exciting venture!

BWW:  As composer-in-residence, what do you hope to impart on TSU's musical theatre students?

Andrew Lippa:  When I was a junior at the University of Michigan in 1986, Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo brought their new musical "A Wonderful Life" to our musical theatre department.  I had the opportunity to play the lead (Jimmy Stewart) role in that production.  Working on a new show by legendary writers WITH those same writers was an indelible experience. I remember what that was like, working with a living composer and lyricist, and working on their songs with them.  I hope I can offer the TSU students some writerly insights - the how and why of the writing choices - that they might otherwise not hear.

BWW:  How did you get your start in professional musical composition?

AL:  The Goodspeed Opera House produced "John & Jen" in 1993.  At our final performance, producer Carolyn Rossi-Copeland (she of the Lamb's Theatre in NYC), came up to me and my co-writer, Tom Greenwald, and said, "I want to produce this show off-Broadway!" And she did.  It was my first professionally produced musical (in 1995). It ran for almost 6 months, was recorded (thank you, Bruce Kimmel) and later licensed by MTI and had vocal selections published by Hal Leonard. It was, for a first time out, quite a thrill.

BWW:  Do you credit any particular teacher or adviser with your development?

AL:  Two, actually. Both of them at the University of Michigan. First, I took a class for non composition majors taught by Pulitzer prize winning composer William Bolcom.  Bill greatly encouraged me to write music.  When I'd written my first musical in college, I played it for him. He was incredibly supportive, instructive and simply said something like "You've got talent. Keep going!" Well, that was pretty great encouragement.

Second, my teacher, mentor and, for these 23 years since I graduated, Brent Wagner was instrumental in my career path. Brent runs the musical theatre program at Michigan.  His love of the art form was, for me, all the permission I needed.  But he constantly encouraged me to write, had students of his sing my songs, and expressed a deep interest in my development as a writer.  He was (and still is) an inspiration.

BWW:  The Wild Party seems to have garnered a significant following since its Off-Broadway run in 2000.  Idina Menzel and Julia Murney recently discussed what an amazing experience it was, and how much they would love to work with that cast again.  Could there be a potential revival with the original cast?

AL:  I loved working with that original cast - it was an incredible experience for many of us - and am so happy to hear that Idina Menzel and Julia Murney expressed similar feelings.  There's no current plan for a revival with the original cast but can you imagine how much fun that would be?!?

BWW:  When your production was running Off-Broadway, Michael John LaChiusa's adaptation of the same poem was running on Broadway.  Do you think that this impacted the reception of your show?

AL:  I don't know and never will.  The future is what's important and, for my show, the future is exciting. Many productions coming up and continued talk of an eventual return to NYC - some day.

BWW:  What was your inspiration for John & Jen?

AL:  Tom Greenwald and I were approached by two actor friends who were looking for new material to showcase their talents.  They suggested a short, two-character play about a brother and sister in apartheid South Africa.  While we didn't respond to that play we were inspired by the idea of writing about a brother and a sister living during a trying political time.  Thus, Tom came up with the idea of story that centered around the Vietnam war.

BWW:  Will Asphalt Beach become a fully produced musical someday?  Its songs are wonderfully entertaining - "Like Her" is my personal favorite.

AL:  Thanks for the kind words.  "Asphalt Beach" may get a production in Los Angeles next year.  Can't say much more than that at the moment.

BWW:  What can you share with us about the new musical you have in the works, The Man In The Ceiling?

AL:  The Man In The Ceiling is based on a book of the same name by Jules Feiffer.  It's about a 12-year old boy who wants to be a cartoonist.  We've done two readings and are in the process of some rewrites prior to a developmental production.  I put it on the shelf for a couple years while working on The Addams Family but am getting back to it soon.

BWW:  You've been Kristin Chenoweth's musical director since 1999.  Will you be working with her on her upcoming concert tour and/or album?

AL:  I love working with Kristin and have really enjoyed the concert work we've done. My composing life is so busy at the moment that I'm not sure I'll be available for her concert schedule.  I think her new album is being produced outside of NYC and, therefore, I'm not working on it.

BWW:  Would you say that the Internet is having a positive or negative effect on musical theatre?

AL:  Probably both.  The internet has the potential to reach many people very quickly and positively expose them to your show. But, in the case of a show aborning, it has the power to spread negativity very quickly, too.  I think the internet is a wonderful thing.  I hope people out there who love musical theatre will realize its potential for good (and harm) and simply be careful when they talk about shows during their infancy.

BWW:  How have you enjoyed your position as head of the Musical Theatre department at TSU thus far?

Kaitlin Hopkins:  Yes, running this program and directing the musicals at Texas State has been one of the great joys of my career. It is incredible to be around this level of talent at such an exciting time in their development as artists. It is very liberating to take the need for commercial success out of the equation and just be able to focus on the craft. It allows for brave work from the artists and innovative opportunities for discovery in the process. This is the next generation of artists who will define the future of musical theater and getting to guide them to that is pretty exciting stuff. So yes, I am enjoying my new gig!

BWW:  If you could option any show to produce with your students, what would you choose and why?

There are two shows I want to do with my students, one of them Bat Boy-The Musical, we already produced last year, and the other one Lippa’s The Wild Party, we are producing next spring.  Bat Boy was the first show I directed at Texas State. I still feel such a strong connection to that show and what it represents to me. That show was cut short, due to Sept 11th. It closed at a time when the show was really taking off and finding its audience. The reviews on the show were stunning. I don't think we got a bad notice. The reason I wanted to do it at Texas State was partly because Larry's score is brilliant and Keythe and Brian wrote a kick ass book but it was also about having closure with the show, something none of us were able to have at the time. It was very healing to share it with young artists and pass along what Jim and I had to offer, from being in the original cast. It was an opportunity to pass along to students what the development process is like after four years of workshops and doing the Los Angeles production at The Actors Gang. It was also wonderful to rediscover it for myself after almost 10 years and find things that I wanted to explore from a director's stand point, not as an actor. The other show, I really want to do with the students, we are producing in the spring Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. My reasons for that are many. One, because I think it is one of the most exciting contemporary scores out there and I know the students will have an incredible experience working on that material but also because Andrew and I go back a long way and have been through a lot together over the years. It is an incredible thing to direct a composers work when you know them. I can't explain it, it is a special relationship I have always had to Andrew's music. I like to think it allows me to see and feel things in his compositions that resonate on a deep level and in doing so, gives my actors insight into the material that can take them to a different level of work as actors. This particular piece of work requires brave, raw, exposed work from the actors. It will push them, challenge them, and probably scare the crap out of them at times but isn't that why we do it? On some level, the work that pushes us into those places, is what I am interested in exploring with my artist here at Texas State, and Andrew's work in The Wild Party certainly does just that.?

BWW:  Do you think you'll return to Broadway some day, or have you found a home away from home here in south Texas?

KH:  Great questions, both are true. Yes, of course I will still work professionally as an actress and a director, and I do still work whenever I can. Part of what is so exciting about what we are doing at Texas State is that all our faculty in the theater department are all working professionals. I think that is part of what keeps the training current and cutting edge. Having said that, yes, Jim and I do have a beautiful home here but I have always lived in Los Angeles or New York and I don't see that changing. So now we have three homes instead of two!

Texas State's production of The Wild Party will take place April 27-30.  Lippa and TSU's musical theatre students will be hosting a private world premiere showcase of songs from his new musical, The Man In The Ceiling on October 23.


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