BWW Interview: U of U Musical Theater Program's Denny Berry Promises 'Something New and Unexpected' With Frank Wildhorn's DRACULA
The shows selected for production by the University of Utah Musical Theater Program are generally not your standard musical theater fare.
Because the University of Utah Musical Theater Program is generally not your typical university musical theater program.
For that, audiences thank Denny Berry, head of the U of U's Musical Theater Program -- who has direct and extensive ties to Broadway. This association includes a partnership with the late mega producer Hal Prince. (With her background as Dance Captain for the original production of "The Phantom of the Opera," Prince asked her to stage each new production of longest-running musical across the globe.)
To open the university's season, Berry directs and choreographs Frank Wildhorn's DRACULA. With "Jekyll & Hyde," "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "The Civil War" to his credit, the composer has achieved worldwide acclaim. However, when DRACULA opened on Broadway in 2004, it ran for only 154 performances and received mainly negative reviews -- and subsequently the musical has not frequently been revived.
"This is a production of DRACULA that has not ever been done before," Berry assures, "like many other of our shows. Come see something new and unexpected. You will be on the edge of your seat!"
You seem to often select intriguing but problematic musicals to stage with your students. Is it because of the challenges and possibilities of these off-the-radar shows?
Denny Berry: YES! Very clever of you to notice that! Two reasons for this: a desire to build an audience of theatergoers who are curious to see things they don't already know and a desire to explore interesting, little-known theater.
I have considered who our audience might be, in juxtaposition with the various audiences for other Salt Lake City venues. They are each unique and play to specific ideas or kinds of theater. I considered what our strengths as the University of Utah Musical Theater Program were and how we could best use them to find a unique, niche audience -- always hoping to enlarge its scope.
What does the U of U MTP have that other theaters in the city don't enjoy? We have funding that does not tie us to the box office sales for existence. This allows us to explore work that is not so well recognized, indeed a risk for other theaters. Although we like and need to sell tickets, we won't go under if we don't fill a house. That gives us the opportunity to examine work that other theaters can't afford to examine. And we are building an audience of curious theatergoers who want to see the unknown, unexpected, unusual. This is the place to come to see a show one may have heard about but didn't see.
Yes, these shows are oftentimes difficult or even flawed but usually their authors are interested in having their work not only performed but also re-examined. This is a huge gift and an awesome challenge and unique to what the U of U's MTP can tackle!
What criteria do you employ when deciding on a show and why are those factors important?
DB: The criteria include:
1.) That our young actors can realistically portray the cast of characters. If older characters are required, we look outside the students of the program for those roles. We prefer to try to cast it within the student body, however.
2.) As we only have two musicals a year, we tend to look for musicals in which we can cast a substantial number of students.
3.) We want to push the student experience with the shows we offer.
4.) We choose plays that enlighten. And illuminate the human condition and try to ensure that they are within the grasp of our students and the community in general.
5.) We like to expand the boundaries of the program with involvement with other programs. This production will have a virtual reality component whereby the audience can experience the Vamgoth battle as if they were in the midst of it on stage!
6.) Lastly, we do have budgetary constraints that force us to consider orchestra size, number of costumes, cost of special set or other component needs.
How are you able to make this less commercial musicals so wildly entertaining?
DB: Aren't you sweet! And so kind. I work very hard to bring to life a story in a way that keeps the audience involved, if not enthralled. I learned everything I know about storytelling and showmaking from standing next to the truly great Harold Prince for 33 years. He did not win 21 Tony awards for nothing. The artist with the next biggest number of Tonys is Tommy Tune, with 10. Hal was my mentor and inspiration. I get my curiosity and desire to realize something different from him.
The music of Frank Wildhorn has enormous appeal in Utah. How do you explain his popularity?
DB: Unique among most composers, Frank always seems to get his work produced on Broadway! Frank is more prolific than almost anyone else of whom I'm aware. He is brilliant at getting his work produced. Which is what seems to matter to him. He, like Brecht, is more open for the work to resonate than for the work to be what it was originally. That is unique and fun for someone like myself to work with.
Why was DRACULA selected?
DB: I had a meeting with Frank in New York, and he showed me ideas about other kinds of productions of this work of his. Especially the Japanese production in which his wife played Dracula! He was interested in finding other ways to do it. He was animated and excited, and I thought...this is GREAT! I want to work with him!
Why has the show not received the same level of popularity of his others?
I can't answer that. I can say that I was and am intrigued by elements of it that are perhaps subtextual but that we have decided to bring a bit further to the front of the story. In this iteration, it is -- yes -- a gothic horror story, but it is also an incredibly touching romance. The fight of a being who is driven through 800 years to realign with the love of his life. And once finding her, lets her go in a gesture of greater love than his own need to have her. Oh, my goodness...