Charlie in Potatoland – A weird sort of autobiography

Although Charlie has never seen Richard Foreman’s “Rhoda in Potatoland” (1976), he is a connoisseur of exotic titles and has no compunctions about adapting this one to serve as the title of this chronicle of one lad’s initiation into the wonderful world of weird contemporary MT. “We Are All Weird,” or so cultural commentator Seth Godin observes in the title of his 2011 book. “As Godin has identified, a new era of weirdness is upon us. People with more choices, more interests and the power to do something about it are stepping forward and insisting that the world work in a different way. By enabling choice we allow people to survive and thrive.” Seth’s observations about how “weirdness” is flourishing in a world where success was previously only associated with “mass” experiences (that is, products and experiences capable of appealing to a mass audience) are particularly timely. Charlie’s story, a weird tale of a weird lad with weird tastes, is not remotely “typical” of anyone’s experience, but in retrospect it seems a chronicle of serendipities that have led him to exactly where he needs to be, enabling him to not only survive but thrive.

The year is 1970. A high school savant, Charlie and several precocious friends create The Kretschmeier Opera. Under the heady influence of Sergeant Pepper, Frank Zappa and James Joyce’s literary innovations (especially the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses and Andre Hodier’s jazz-cantata adaptation of the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter from Finnegans Wake), they indulge their creative fantasies and capture the results on reel-to-reel tape.

As an undergrad at UD starting in 1971, Charlie attends the Kennedy Center premiere of Bernstein’s Mass, performs in Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War and discovers the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, along with the musical theater of Stephen Sondheim, whose works Company, Follies and A Little Night Music premiere during these years and find their way instantly onto the turntable at Toad Hall. (He feels considerable gratitude in retrospect that his roommates didn’t disembowel him after being forced to listen to the album of Anyone Can Whistle once too often.) An opportunity to see Candide on Broadway, in a 1974 environmental production directed by Harold Prince, also proves particularly memorable.

Charlie has the opportunity to work with director Allan Albert in the summer of 1975, performing as music director in an improvised musical revue called The Boston Tea Party, adapted from the long-running Cambridge revue Albert directed called The Proposition. That same summer, Charlie appears in the cast of The Wanted Wagon, a collage-style piece based on folk songs and personal accounts of life on the Western frontier. (Chili and Beans, anybody?) Charlie receives a memorable scolding from Allan Albert in rehearsal that helps hasten the departure of his ambitions as a stage performer and the sharpening of his desire to be on the creative team of future works.

At grad school, pursuing an MFA in Directing at Carnegie Mellon University (1975-77), Charlie encounters William (“Bill”) Turner and recognizes a kindred spirit, a theater director who composes music and cherishes notions of creating original musical theater. Turner introduces Charlie to the work of Richard Foreman and Stanley Silverman (Elephant Steps 1970, Hotel for Criminals 1975) and to the poems and plays of Gertrude Stein. Their professor, Leon Katz, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the work of Stein. Sondheim writes Pacific Overtures during this period, and Foreman directs a production of Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center music directed by Stanley Silverman. Meanwhile, Gilbert composes his first full-length musical, Glitz (directed by Turner), appears in a minor role in a school production of Follies, and music-directs Turner’s senior project, a stage version of Sondheim’s Evening Primrose.

After graduation, Turner remains in Pittsburgh to start Theater Express, a small not-for-profit theater company that produces work from 1976-1980. Gilbert joins the company as resident music director in 1977 and assists in the creation of Turner’s The Unlit Corridor (1977) and A Lyrical Opera Made By Two (1978), a setting of a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Foreman and Silverman’s Hotel for Criminals is among the works produced in Theater Express’s 1978 season, presented in a converted tire warehouse on Baum Boulevard.

Eager to stretch his creative wings, Charlie finds inspiration in Sondheim and Weidman’s Pacific Overtures and the “collage works” of director Allan Albert, including The Wanted Wagon (in which he performed in 1975) and The Whale Show (a 1976 show whose cast included several Wanted Wagon alumni). He begins work in 1977 on his original musical Assassins, which Bill Turner directs at Theater Express in 1978 (workshop) and 1979 (mainstage premiere). Seen in retrospect, the influence of Foreman in general and Elephant Steps in particular is evident in this work. Inspired by Silverman, Charlie mingles musical styles from old-time Tin Pan Alley and hard rock to Second Viennese School-style aleatory twinkles and copies a Foreman trademark device, the recorded authorial voice-over, while photos from that production reveal the unmistakable influence of Foreman’s style on Turner’s stage tableaux.

Charlie’s involvement as music director in the creation of the Turner-Stein Made By Two proves to have profound consequences for his future. It is during the workshop production of that opera that he first meets his wife of more than thirty years, D’Arcy Webb, playing the role of “young” Gertrude Stein. Made By Two has its New York premiere (without Charlie and D’Arcy) in 1980 at La Mama ETC, but passes into obscurity after Turner’s death during the AIDS epidemic in 1987. Years later, Charlie reconstructs the work and directs productions of it in 2005 (International Festival of Musical Theater, Cardiff, Wales) and 2011 (Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts). It should come as no surprise that Stein’s work is cited by Richard Foreman as being an important influence on his esthetic as a creative artist.

“Rather than striving to create “dramatic masterpieces” with linear plots and coherent characters, [Foreman] … wanted to document in his writing the unconscious impulses of the creative act. The process as well as the material traces of writing—no longer what it signified or tried to represent as content—became the main subject of Foreman’s artistic endeavor. For the theoretical underpinnings of his new approach Foreman basically drew upon two writers: the theatre avant-gardist Gertrude Stein and the psychoanalyst Anton Ehrenzweig, who had recently developed a theory of creativity in his book The Hidden Order of Art. As regards Stein, Foreman was particularly struck by two of her ideas about writing which he later adopted: The notion of writing in a state of continuous presence and the concept of continually “beginning again” in the writing.” from A Short History of Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre [1999], by Markus Wessendorf

It is Charlie’s great good fortune to be recruited into an academic career by several former teachers who invite him to apply for a position at the University of Delaware, his undergrad alma mater. There he continues to indulge his interest in experimental musical theater, directing a production of The King of The United States there in 1980. Jean-Claude van Itallie, a member of the pioneering Open Theater best known as the author of America Hurrah and The Serpent, wrote this work with composer Richard Peaslee in 1972, and the premiere was directed by Allan Albert, the connection that originally led Charlie to discover this unique music theater “mosaic.”

Charlie’s familiarity with the work of Foreman in performance is limited to his experience of the 1976 Lincoln Center production of The Threepenny Opera until he sees Penguin Touquet at the Public Theater in 1981. Suffice it to say that his mind is suitably blown. Foreman’s work is presented by the Public on a number of occasions over the next thirty years.

The year 1984 proves highly significant for Charlie’s artistic journeys. It is during that year that he attends a production of Einstein on the Beach at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, and finds the music of Philip Glass and the stagecraft of Robert Wilson equally breathtaking. Sunday in the Park with George, a new musical by Stephen Sondheim written with a new artistic collaborator, James Lapine, opens on Broadway after a developmental workshop at the not-for-profit Playwrights Horizons, and Charlie finds it weird and wonderful (as do the judges who eventually award it the Pultizer Prize for Drama).

Equally significant is Charlie’s introduction to the founders of the American Music Theater Festival, Eric Salzman and Marjorie Samoff, leading to his engagement in the summer of 1984 working on productions in the Festival’s premiere season.

The artistic mission of the American Music Theatre Festival (which became known as the Prince Music Theater after 1991) was a unique and daring one: they chose to create and present works representing three different aspects of the American musical theater: the Broadway musical (vintage and current), contemporary opera and the experimental music theater. Their first season included revival of Strike Up the Band, the Gershwin’s 1919 musical reconstructed by Eric Salzman and directed by Frank Corsaro; a production of Jack Eric Williams’ Mrs. Farmer’s Daughter, a contemporary musical written and composed by the actor best known for playing the Beadle in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; and a contemporary opera entitled simply X, based on the life of Malcolm X with music by the composer Anthony Davis, presented in a renovated burlesque house called the Trocadero.

Their second season proved even more adventurous. It featured a production of a work by Harry Partch entitled Revelation in the Courthouse Square, directed by Jiri Zizka in a remarkable production at the University of the Arts, where the handmade Partch instruments were ideally displayed in the school’s architecturally imposing Great Hall, whose Greek pillars provided a fitting backdrop for Partch’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae. Meanwhile, across town at the Annenberg Center, a production of a musical entitled The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by David Spencer, showcased the work of a composer who would go on to become of nation’s pre-eminent musical theater tunesmiths. Incredibly, the season also included a production of The Gospel at Colonus, adapted from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus by author and director Lee Breuer with music by Bob Telson and featuring actor Morgan Freeman; this especially memorable event was filmed and broadcast on the PBS series Great Performances. Elsewhere, in a little cabaret theater on the University of Pennsylvania campus, AMTF produced on a very small scale in its Festival Cabaret Theater. The repertoire presented there ranged from a freewheeling work entitled Ubu Lear, with text by Christopher Durang and music by Richard Peaslee inspired by Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, to a one-act opera by entitled Back to Back, with the libretto by Winnie Holtzman, who would go on to write the book for Broadway’s Wicked and the TV series My So-Called Life, and music by David Evans.

The third season of AMTF in 1986 opened with The Transposed Heads, a new work adapted and directed by Julie Taymor with music by her husband, Elliot Goldenthal. Taymor and Goldenthal went on to create Juan Darien (Music Theater Works, 1988; Lincoln Center Theater, 1996) and The Green Bird (Theater for a New Audience, 1996) before Taymor directed The Lion King in 1997, propelling her into a remarkable career as a director, designer and creator of adventurous works on stage and film.

AMTF’s 1988 season features 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, a collaboration between composer Philip Glass, playwright David Henry Hwang and designer Jerome Sirlin. Glass’s work The Juniper Tree (written with Robert Moran) had been previously seen in AMTF’s 1986 festival after a 1985 premiere at American Repertory Theater. His song cycle Hydrogen Jukebox (1990) with texts by poet Allen Ginsberg was commissioned by AMTF and the Spoleto Festival, with Sirlin providing visuals in Spoleto.

1988 also brought Slow Fire to Philadelphia, a work by composer Paul Dresher and librettist/performer Rinde Eckert. Another work by Dresher and Eckert, Power Failure, had a 1989 premiere in UArts’ Great Hall in a production directed by Tom O’Horgan, best known as the man who staged the premiere productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s adventures include the birth of his first son, Alex, and a short-lived appointment as Head of Musical Theater at Syracuse University. Within months, he runs afoul of the particularly toxic academic politics there and finds himself unemployed and living with his wife and infant son in his father’s home in the suburbs outside Philadelphia. In the next few years, he freelances aggressively and lands a commission to write a children’s musical, A Is For Anything, for the Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education. The work tours repeatedly in schools in Delaware and New York State.

In a turn of events that seems more improbable than serendipitous, Sondheim appears in Charlie’s life in 1988, entering via the mail slot to propose working with librettist John Weidman to adapt the idea of Charlie’s Assassins musical into a new work of the same name; in a moment of uncharacteristic shrewdness, Charlie eagerly accedes to the plan. In the fulness of time, the project will go on to an off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons in January 1991 and a Broadway revival in 2007, where it will win the Tony Award as Best Revival of a Musical. Along the way, Charlie will direct the Philadelphia premiere of Assassins in 1992 to local acclaim and receive both program credit and a share of the authors’ royalties for years to come.

Happily, by then our weird wanderer has found a new home at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, first as an adjunct faculty member teaching musical theater classes to Dance majors, then as the founding head of the college’s new BFA program in musical theater. Philadelphia and UArts will be his artistic home for the next 25 years. One promising sign of his new employer’s taste was UArts’ decision to award an honorary doctorate to “performance artist” Laurie Anderson, whose work presented by AMTF would include The Nerve Bible (1995), Songs and Stories from Moby Dick (1999) and The End of the Moon (2003). Anderson’s eccentric personality and fascination with technology are both elements of the character Maureen, featured in the 1994 musical Rent, of which more below.

During his first years at UArts, Charlie helps facilitate a symposium about Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s Love Life, offered in conjunction with a production of that newly-reconstructed work presented by AMTF, and later performs in the pit for William Bolcom’s Casino Paradise (1990), appearing on the 1991 CD recording. His students undertake workshop productions undertaken jointly with AMTF that lead to the creation of Ricky Ian Gordon’s States of Independence and Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins. Both these works prove to be early-career breakthroughs for artists who would go on to significant future accomplishments.

Around that same time, in 1989, AMTF awarded the first-ever Stephen Sondheim Award in recognition of a promising young musical theater composer to Jonathan Larson. Larson contributed an original song entitled “Hosing the Furniture” to a musical revue entitled Sitting on the Edge of the Future. In 1991, Larson gives AMTF founder Marjorie Samoff a demo cassette and the draft libretto for the first act of a musical entitled Rent, based on Puccini’s La Boheme. Marjorie asks Charlie, would UArts like to partner with AMTF on a workshop production of this new work by a promising young artist? Charlie and his boss, Walter Dallas, then-Director of the School of Theater Arts, consider the project but decide to “pass,” leaving the door open for Larson to eventually approach New York Musical Theater Workshop with a show that will prove to be one of the most significant works of the decade.

A few of the characters in this adventure make the leap from “weird” to “mass,” moving from work which delights elite niche audiences at occasional festivals to work experienced by millions on stage, screen and CD. Taymor, Larson, Glass and Anderson would all fall into this category, though only the first two of these attained success on Broadway, and one of those two did it posthumously.

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