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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

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The Next Tony Award Winners Could Have an SDSU Program to Thank

SDSU’s New Musical Initiative helps early-career writers workshop their musicals over a two-year period.
By Kellie Woodhouse

The article first published in the 2022 edition of Highlights: A Magazine of Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities at SDSU.
It took Lin-Manuel Miranda seven years to write the hit broadway show “Hamilton,” and the acclaimed playwright is no exception. It can take years for writers to refine their musicals.

San Diego State University launched the New Musical Initiative in 2016, a competitive incubator and writers-in-residence program that partners early-career writers with the university’s musical theater MFA program to help workshop their musicals over a two-year period. 

The donor-funded incubator, led by Robert Meffe, head of the SDSU MFA Musical Theatre Program, supports writers who are exploring difficult subjects through their art, and encourages them to innovate and take risks in their storytelling. 

Meffe and his team work with one creative team for a two-year period, helping the writer consider how elements like score, choreography, and costume and set design will influence their script. Writers visit campus several times for extended workshops, during which MFA students perform their scripts so writers can take notes and work to revise and improve their work. At the end of the two-year period, the musical is given a full-scale production by the same cohort of MFA students who helped workshop it all along. 

“Writing a successful musical is equivalent to developing a patent on a new drug. You have to try things out, test them in front of people and see what's going to make the best theater,” Meffe said, noting that the initiative’s most recent call for musicals received over 150 applications. “Our incubator is a coveted resource. It gives new voices a platform, and it provides our MFA students with an opportunity to work with professionals in the field.”

In April 2022, “Postcard American Town,” a musical written by Lynne Shankel and Crystal Skillman, debuted in San Diego after participating in the multiyear incubator process. The contemporary musical examines the hardship of cultural discrimination and the importance of community activism.