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Festival of New Musicals: Annual surprises at Goodspeed

January 9, 2019

Affordable, intriguing and still in the formative stage, the productions of Goodspeed’s Festival of New Musicals are an annual treat for theater insiders and area fans on a winter’s weekend.

The East Haddam landmark theater and organization welcomed 70 writers, music directors, directors and college-student actors Jan. 7 for the two-week process that will culminate in the staged readings of three musicals Friday, Jan.18, through Sunday, Jan. 20. In addition to the performance of one play per day, there will be seminars and symposiums along with two cabarets (with promising musical writers Douglas Waterbury-Tieman and Shana Taub performing) that are available to premium-paying patrons.

The playwrights are heavily invested in the process.

“They’re here the whole time,” said Donna Lynn Hilton, producer of the event. “And ... really our first instruction to them is to please use this time to work on your show. With ‘Devotion,’ the show that’s being done on Sunday, that writer has never heard this draft of the show read aloud, much less performed with the amount of rehearsal that he’ll have.”

“Devotion,” by Mark Sonnenblick, is about an Ohio woman, her 10-year-old brother who says he’s on a divine mission and an ex-football star addicted to painkillers. The other two pieces are Friday night’s “The Peculiar Tale of the Prince of Bohemia and the Society of Desperate Victorians” and Saturday’s “The Proxy Marriage.”

“I think for the average theater-goer, the value (of seeing the readings)... is you never know what you’re going to see in the very earliest stages,” said Hilton, who said the musical “Come From Away” is the best example of a development piece at Goodspeed going national and international. One of the five touring versions of the show will be at the Bushnell in Hartford in April, in fact.

“You could have the opportunity to see something... that’s going to go on to become something that changes our business, changes the conversation about the work we are doing,” Hilton said.

Asked what playwrights learn from such performances, Hilton said, “Writers are always surprised at the things that they think might not work but do work in front of an audience. ... I think one of the things writers learn is how smart audiences are; I think that’s really important, actually. One of the things I say a lot... is that things are overwritten. The audience is ahead of the writers.”

The audience of nearly 400 provides “a very honest reaction to the show, and you can’t get away from that,” Hilton said.

Hilton said the three shows are very different. “The Proxy Marriage” is about two teens who stand in for military couples during proxy marriage ceremonies and how they continue to run into each other over 13 years after high school. “The Peculiar Tale” features a reluctant prince who, with a chaperone, joins a secret society that plays a deadly card game. She called it “really funny, smart and sarcastic.” Hilton is excited to find out which of the three shows will surprise her and other staff the most.

She’s also excited about theater critic Chris Jones coming in to talk about his new book, “Rise Up!” and a symposium by Kelvin Dinkins Jr. of the Yale School of Drama and Yale Rep, speaking about inclusion in regional theater.

As for one impressive feat already, Hilton said, Sonnenblick has written music, book and lyrics for “Devotion.” She called him “an artist who sort of stands alone... He’s just an incredibly talented songwriter.” And he’s been part of two Johnny Mercer Writers Colony winter sessions at Goodspeed.

jamarante@nhregister.com; @Joeammo on Twitter

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