Above my desk hangs a poster commemorating the “premiere season” of the American Music Theater Festival, bearing the dates June 27 – July 15, 1984.
That year, I was a young man in the midst of what astrologers call the “Saturn return,” a coming-of-age that occurs between the ages of 27 and 29, coinciding with time it takes the planet Saturn to make one full circuit in its travels around the sun.
Gertrude Stein writes of this transition in her 1904 novel Fernhurst, written at the time of her own “Saturn return:”
It happens often in the twenty-ninth year of a life that all the forces that have been engaged through the years of childhood, adolescence and youth in confused and ferocious combat range themselves in ordered ranks – one is uncertain of one’s aims, meaning and power during these years of tumultuous growth when aspiration has no relation to fulfillment and one plungers here and there with energy and misdirection during the storm and stress of the making of a personality until at last we reach the twenty-ninth year the straight and narrow gate-way of maturity and life with was all uproar and confusion narrows down to form and purpose and we exchange a great dim possibility for a small hard reality.
Decades later, composer and lyricist Adam Guettel would write a song entitled “Saturn Returns,” and that song provided the first title for a work that would later become known as “Myths and Hymns” when it was produced at the Prince Music Theater in 2002. The end of his 20’s gave Guettel an opportunity to reflect, and inspired this work’s title. “SATURN RETURNS refers to the completion of Saturn’s 28-year cycle around the sun,” his program note explains. “It is thought to be, for many of us, a time of profound reassessment. What have I done with this first cycle of my life? Who have I become?”
I don’t know what I hunger for,
I don’t know why I feel the hunger more
And more with every passing day…
In 1984, I felt “the hunger,” both personally and professionally. As a composer and lyricist, I had tried my hand at writing for the musical stage on several occasions, creating three original musicals, including one called “Assassins” that was produced at Theater Express in Pittsburgh in 1979, and another called “B.G.D.F.” which I self-produced in New York City in a 1983 showcase production. It was exciting to see and hear the work I’d imagined brought to life on the stage, but my work had received little attention, and I remained hungry, filled with a passionate desire to create original musical theater.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I was thrilled to discover a new producing organization had been established in Philadelphia, just up the interstate from my then-home in Wilmington, Delaware, called the American Music Theater Festival, “in search of a new vision of American musical theater.” I recognized the Festival’s founders, Marjorie Samoff and Eric Salzman, as kindred spirits, and offered my services in support of the launch of their daring venture.
At the time I am presently writing this, it is the summer of 2014, thirty years later. Saturn has taken another lap around the sun, and in the midst of my second “Saturn return,” I find myself in the midst of another time of reassessment. In the years since 1984, I penned another seven musicals, helped establish the musical theater training program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, climbed the academic ladder to the rank of Professor, spent a number of years at the forefront of an international organization of musical theater pedagogues, and somehow found time to be a husband and raise two remarkable sons (one of whom is in the midst of his first “Saturn return”).
During that time, I found myself at the American Music Theater Festival (which became the Prince Music Theater in 1999) on countless occasions in a variety of roles: composer, lyricist, director, music director and, with great frequency, audience member. AMTF brought guest artists like Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Tina Landau and others to develop new work at my school. The Prince commissioned me to write Gemini the Musical and hired my younger son, Kerry, to perform in several of its shows. Many of my students booked their first professional work at the Prince. In 2009, my school presented a concert version of the musical Follies on the stage at the Prince, with my wife and me in leading roles.
And now the Prince is gone. Not the building, which remains in operation as a kind of performing arts center, presenting music, theater and film attractions. But the Prince as an organization dedicated to a “new vision of American musical theater?” The curtain’s come down on the final act of that ambitious endeavor, and the Prince has exchanged “a great dim possibility for a small hard reality.”
Long ago, I left myself
And now I try to return
As a stranger to a strange land and to the burn.
But the hollow inside me
might be there to guide me home again
back to something sweet…