For anybody crafting a show aimed at Broadway (or Off Broadway, or the U.S. regional theater circuit), getting it showcased in the annual Village Originals festival at Village Theatre in Issaquah is a real plum. Recently, the fest was an early stop for Tony- and Pulitzer-winning "Next to Normal," and the smash "Million Dollar Quartet."
It is just a single performance, slated for 2 p.m. Saturday. No sets, no costumes. The actors can consult their scripts, propped on music stands. A small combo, not an orchestra, will play the musical score.
But the informal look of the Village Theatre’s presentation of “Plane Crazy” belies its importance to Suzy Conn.
Conn, a Mercer Island resident, has penned the lyrics, music and dialogue for this musical comedy with a feminist slant, about life as a stewardess in the 1960s.
And for anybody crafting a show aimed at Broadway (or Off Broadway, or the U.S. regional theater circuit), getting it showcased in the annual Village Originals festival is a real plum.
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“I’m excited about this piece, I’m proud of it and I want it to be seen here,” says Conn, a showbiz veteran.
It’s the same for a lot of her fellow writers and composers. Some 120 of them submitted works for Village Originals — for just six slots.
Nursing along new musicals has been a mission of the Issaquah-based Village through its 30-year history. But two recent shows incubated in the 10-year-old Village Originals series are gilding the theater’s efforts.
The ’50s rock “jukebox” musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” aired in the 2006 fest, went on to a smash mainstage run at Village and is now a solid hit on Broadway.
And the offbeat tuner “Next to Normal,” a 2005 fest entry about the repercussions of mental illness on a woman and her family, also triumphed on Broadway — winning a 2009 Tony for best musical score, among others, and a 2010 Pulitzer Prize. (It returns on tour to the 5th Avenue Theatre next spring.)
Brian Yorkey, author-lyricist of “Next to Normal,” spent several years as a Village staffer, running its new-musicals programs. He says the success of Village Originals, and the 5th Avenue’s pre-Broadway tryouts of future hits (“Hairspray,” “Memphis”), have made this area a hot spot for incubating shows.
“Seattle has a reputation for having fantastic musical-theater performers who will really do justice to the material,” said Yorkey, a local native. “And the Village takes care of authors and composers. It’s such a supportive and helpful environment, such a nurturing atmosphere.”
In addition to the onstage and backstage talent (“Plane Crazy” will feature such primo Seattle actor-singers as John Bogar and Billie Wildrick), Village artistic director Steve Tomkins lists other advantages.
“We do the whole show at the festival, not an abridged version,” he said. “And there’s an opportunity that your musical may be produced later on our mainstage, since we do two new ones a season. That’s rare — most theaters and festivals give you a reading or workshop, but it ends there.”
Another enticement: You don’t have to bankroll the showcase or give the theater a cut of the royalties should your musical hit the big time.
“Those are great things,” says Conn, who had to fundraise to cover more than $2,000 in expenses for an earlier workshop of “Plane Crazy” at the New Musical Theatre Festival, an influential New York showcase.
If that smacks of amateur hour, Conn is very much a pro. She’s completed five musicals, including a children’s piece (“The Tale of Pigling Bland”) staged in Canada and the U.S., and “The Mercer Girls,” a 5th Avenue educational show about the young women imported to Seattle to teach school in the pioneering 1860s.
Conn also has pop-song and ad-jingle credits. And she knows that, with musicals, it can be a long haul.
“Plane Crazy” has (so far) been five years in the making. (“Next to Normal” took about eight years, from inception to Broadway debut.)
Why so much longer than the average play takes? A musical has more elements to get right — libretto, music, choreography. It’s also the most expensive genre of show to mount. Even in a bare-bones staging, “Plane Crazy” requires 16 actors and several musicians.
“It’s very, very difficult for most people to get their shows done,” says Village executive producer Robb Hunt. “It’s a constant challenge, going through reading after reading at different theaters.
“If we decide to do your show, you get one of the longest runs and biggest audiences in regional theater — six weeks in Issaquah, and another four weeks [at Everett Performing Arts Center]. That’s pretty appealing.”
The Village’s 2010-11 season includes two fest alums, “Iron Curtain” and “Anne of Green Gables.”
But out of 50-60 shows nurtured by Village Originals, Hunt estimates only a dozen have had a “future life” of full productions. Even Yorkey and “Next to Normal” composer Tom Kitt have no guarantee their show in this year’s fest — “In Your Eyes” — will get snatched up.
The good news for Conn and her peers is that musicals are still the lifeblood of Broadway and numerous regional companies. Though devilishly difficult to perfect (Village has staged its share of groaners), exciting new tuners are much in demand. That’s why the “Plane Crazy” audience may well include producers scouting for new material — including Conn’s director for the showcase, Arizona Theatre Company honcho David Ira Goldstein.
Conn should get plenty of feedback from the audience (mostly theater insiders and Village supporters) on post-show comment sheets. And she’ll be scrutinizing the piece herself.
Her ultimate goal for “Plane Crazy” is — can you guess? — a Broadway berth. But, adds Conn, “I’d also love to see a regional theater do it. It’s pie in the sky, but if the Village decided to produce it? That would be the most amazing thing in the world.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org