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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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Robert Meffe, MFA Musical Theatre Program (Photo: Sandy Huffaker) Robert Meffe, MFA Musical Theatre Program (Photo: Sandy Huffaker)

A Stage of Development

The Musical Theatre Program is putting on a show developed over two years with a New York-based creative team.
By Jeff Ristine

“Why don't we do an initiative where we develop a piece over a longer period of time and see what that looks like?”

This story is featured in the spring 2019 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

He calls it the Silicon Valley model of musical theater: producing a new show with a long, upfront period of collaboration instead of a traditional approach that pushes composers and writers out of the picture before the cast members sing a single note.

Robert Meffe, head of San Diego State University’s MFA Musical Theatre Program, hopes the model he is spearheading will help sustain a “uniquely American art form” that has defied persistent predictions of its demise. Over two full years, Meffe—together with SDSU director and choreographer Stephen Brotebeck and the cohort of MFA students who enrolled last fall—will collaborate with a creative team to polish their original work for a full production on the SDSU stage.

Both Meffe and Brotebeck have worked on Broadway, where the creative process of fine-tuning a musical is shoehorned into staged readings limited by union contract to just 29 hours. This high-pressure, low-continuity method frustrates composers and writers, Meffe said, and doesn’t befit student performers and stage designers who are just beginning to learn theater.

“Stephen and I both thought, why don’t we do an initiative where we develop a piece over a longer period of time and see what that looks like?”

Thus was born the New Musical Initiative, which is developing “’Til Death Do Us Part” in three steps:

•    Fall 2018: A traditional 29-hour reading, attended by the composer/lyricist and book writer, who then had an extended period to revise their work.

•    Spring 2019: A one-week workshop with SDSU student performers reading and singing with limited staging. After this, the writers have yet another chance to touch up their work; the designers begin developing ideas for lights, costumes and sets.

•    Spring 2020: A full production in SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, with seven public performances.

Long-time SDSU supporter Julia Brown underwrites the New Musical Initiative. Brown's foundational experiences with musical theatre, and appreciation for the art form, inspired her to support the SDSU Musical Theatre program. In addition to underwriting the initiative, she created the Julia R. Brown Musical Theatre Endowed Scholarship, which has supported a Musical Theatre MFA student each year since 2016.

Last year, when the New Musical Initiative was still taking shape in their minds, Meffe and Brotebeck published an open call for submissions, encouraging women writers to apply. Meffe said that preference reflects a commitment by the School of Theatre, Television, and Film to 50 percent representation by female authors in the plays and musicals they choose. It also addresses the almost complete dearth of female writers in published musicals.

Meffe received more than 120 submissions. “’Til Death Do Us Part,” by Bobby Cronin and Caroline Prugh, is the story of Gracie Jean, the wife of an evangelical preacher in Tennessee who aspires to ministry herself in the face of opposition from her husband Matthew, his dogmatic parents and their community.

“The story is very relevant,” Meffe said. “What is faith and what is grace in terms of that community, and in terms of where we live in 2019 in the United States?”

Prugh, the New York City-based book writer on the musical, describes Meffe’s initiative as “the Cadillac of developmental opportunities,” and she’s excited by staying connected to the production throughout.

“We came to San Diego with a draft that we had never heard read before,” Prugh said. “We were getting to see it for the first time and make changes as we went along.”

Prugh and composer/lyricist Cronin “immediately realized that we needed to make some major changes at the beginning,” she said. “We did some work right away while it was still fresh.” They will deliver a new draft before the spring break workshop.

Annie Barrack, who plays Gracie, said this approach to staging a musical is more relaxed than the traditional method of learning a new show. When she asked Cronin about changing a vowel sound in one number to make it easier to sing, he agreed instantly.

The initiative has elicited a positive reaction, including a $15,000 gift from a program donor impressed by the first iteration of the idea, and a writers residency grant from the National Alliance for Musical Theatre.

Meffe said the learning process—not the outcome of the show—is at the foundation of the initiative. It’s all right if they make mistakes.

Being innovative, he said, means “you have to be unafraid of disaster.”