Oscar Hammerstein Festival at Bucks County Playhouse Encourages New Work

Laura Osnes, James Snyder, and Jessica Walter in “Showboat.”

By John Dwyer

Bucks County Playhouse was reconceived when it was purchased back in 2012 by the Bridge Street Foundation and the generosity of founders Kevin and Sherri Daugherty. Part of its new mission was to encourage new work, as had been done in earlier years when producers St. John Terrell, Mike Ellis and Walter Perner were at the helm. (As an example, back in 1963, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” premiered at the playhouse and went on to Broadway).

The Fourth Annual Oscar Hammerstein Festival culminated in a fantastic concert of  “Show Boat” on June 23. The festival is “a year-long program that offers expert mentorship to early career composers and lyricists.” The concert raises awareness and money for this noble effort. More about the concert in a moment.

Last year, its efforts were focused on bringing to the stage “The New World,” a musical by composer Gary Adler, lyricist Phoebe Kreutz, and writers L.F. Turner and Regina DeCicco. The show premiered in November to rave reviews. It originally was workshopped here as part of the festival in 2014 and, at that time, was called “Thanks!” The producing team of the Playhouse stuck with the musical and were rewarded by the successful production that was seen this last fall.

Oscar Hammerstein

This year, the Playhouse is partnering with Roundabout Theatre Company’s Space Jam Program, a playwright-support initiative designed to give writers the time and space to work through various types of solo and group writing retreats. There were two song writing teams who were sponsored by the festival and the Roundabout. They are Nathan Dame and Rob Baumgartner, Jr., who are adapting Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle,” as well as Carol Heikkinen and Zoe Sarnak, who are adapting the film “Empire Records.” “Empire Records” was originally written by Heikkinen. Their works were performed at Lambertville Hall during Festival week.

That a festival encouraging new works is called “Oscar Hammerstein Festival” is fitting for a variety of reasons. Hammerstein knew about artist’s obstacle, knew about mentoring and was not adverse to risk and innovation.

He was mentor and basically surrogate father to Stephen Sondheim. And it was his innovation in musical theater that garnered not just praise but made the name Hammerstein recognizable all over the world. No one in musical theater, prior to Hammerstein, had ever adapted a serious book or play, weaving the music and lyrics into the fabric of the storytelling and having the song advance the story, as much as the dialogue.

In regards to “Show Boat,” the concert was more of a show than just a concert. It did not have changing sets, but the gifted actors who had only a few days to rehearse together were so talented that it certainly proved the premise that all that is needed is a good story and even better storyteller and an audience can be mesmerized. In an abbreviated version, we were swept downriver joyfully afloat with good songs, great voices, very fine dancing and smart staging. Originally, the show comes in over three hours, but, with all the songs intact, it was adapted to under two and a half hours with narration to fill in a few blanks by Ted Chapin (Chief Creative Officer at The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization).

As background, “Showboat” was first a book written by Edna Ferber. Its genesis has a connection with playwright George S. Kaufman, another Bucks County resident.

When “Minick,” a play by Ferber and Kaufman, opened on Broadway in 1924 at the Booth Theater, its producer, Winthrop Ames, remarked when bats started flying crazily around the theater, “Next time… we won’t bother with tryouts. We’ll all charter a show boat and we’ll just drift down the rivers, playing the towns as we come to them.”

Ferber had to ask what was a showboat. When told, she became so intrigued by the idea of a traveling theater on a river, that she was determined to make a story out of it. She stated, “Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way. It was not only the theater — it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself… I spent a year hunting down every available scrap of show-boat material; reading, interviewing, taking notes and making outlines.”

The story that Ferber eventually wrote dealt with race, class, inter-racial marriage, gambling and alcoholism. It was not what would be thought of as adaptable material for a musical of its day. But that did not deter Jerome Kern, who asked Hammerstein to write the book and lyrics. They had previously worked together on the musical “Sunny,” which had the popular song “Who (Stole My Heart Away?)” Showboat was adapted into a musical by Oscar Hammerstein and was given a lavish production by Florenz Ziegfel at his Ziegfeld Theater at 54th Street and Sixth Avenue. It took courage to produce it.

Prior to this, light operettas and musical comedies with breezy dialogue that was there just to connect the songs were popular. “Show Boat” is recognized as changing the genre.

Hammerstein continued to challenge minds and hearts concerning race and culture with “South Pacific” and “King and I,” and dealt with other challenging subject matter in “Carousel, “Allegro” and “The Sound of Music.”

The one-night-only show had a spectacular cast of Broadway professionals. Laura Osnes from Broadway’s “Cinderella” and “Anything Goes” played Magnolia, daughter of Captain Andy (Lee Wilkof) and Parthy (Jessica Walter from Broadway’s “Anything Goes” and TV’s “Arrested Development”) who own the Mississippi showboat, the Cotton Blossom.

The headliners are Julie (Marcy Harriell from Broadway’s “In the Heights”) and Steve Baker. Comic song and dance couple are Frank (Clyde Alves from Broadway’s “On the Town” and the Bucks County Playhouse “The New World”) and Ellie (Stephanie Gibson from Broadway’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). The play shows the life on the river, with lives of black sweat and strain juxtaposed by a much easier white life, that is nonetheless still difficult. Julie is part black and is thrown off the showboat for being married to a white man. Magnolia falls in love with a river boat gambler, Ravenal (James Snyder from Broadway’s If/Then and Encore Series “Grand Hotel”).

Joe (Michael Bell, nominated for a Tony for Joe in “Show Boat” on Broadway) is a black docks man and sings the classic song of working hard on the Mississippi, “Ol’Man River.” He is married to Queenie (Natasha Yvette Williams from Broadway’s “Waitress) who prognosticates that bad things are a’ comin’ in the song “Misery’s Comin’ Around.” Other songs in the show include musical standards “Only Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.” Direction is by Josh Rhodes and music director is Andy Einhorn.

The Playhouse should be encouraged to continue with this format that is reminiscent of New York City Center’s Encore Series. Certainly, they should continue to mount full-fledged productions, but assembling a great group of actors for a week of concert performances for shows seldom seen, a’ la City Center, would be a real treat. This format was a huge success and worked very well for them.

“Show Boat” was launched and the sailing was smooth. We are all awaiting the arrival of the new musicals that are being readied for departure. Looking forward to being on board.

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