Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Stage Preview: The making of a musical

A creative trio pulls together world premiere at Point Park

Tuesday, October 30, 2007
By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It starts with one person, maybe two, but it also takes a village. It can take years, but there's never enough time. It seems impossible, but sometimes it works out. It's one of the most improbable achievements in the arts, creating a new musical.

This week, Pittsburgh sees the world premiere of just such an achievement, "Streets of America," staged at the Pittsburgh Playhouse by the theater program of Point Park University. To make some sense of the story so far, we talked with the three people most responsible for words, music and putting them together on stage -- composer (and book writer and lyricist) Michael Rupert, book writer and lyricist Matthew Riopelle and director Scott Wise.

"Streets of America" is about the lives and loves of three brothers amid the passions that exploded on the streets of San Francisco in the late 1960s. It's also about the heady folk-rock music of that day. And it's about what they call The Society, a fictional political street theater group like the famous San Francisco Mime Troupe, which provides the musical's framing device.

We found the composer, Michael Rupert, on Broadway, pursuing his day job, playing Professor Callahan in someone else's hit musical, "Legally Blonde." Rupert, 56, was a teenager in the late '60s, growing up in Southern California, but his circle of friends extended to the Bay Area.

"I was a musician, into the whole San Francisco sound and California folk-rock sound," he says. He wasn't in college yet, so he was a little young to be involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. "But come '72, '73, I was in the draft lottery, so I became very aware of what was going on."

By then, Rupert had also started his performing career, which began on Broadway in 1968 as the boy in "The Happy Time" (he received a Tony nomination even though the musical flopped). Most notably, he went on to win a Tony as Oscar in the 1986 Debbie Allen revival of "Sweet Charity," to play Marvin in "Falsettos" (Tony nomination) and to take over the role of Father in "Ragtime." Along the way, he also made his Broadway debut as a composer in 1988 with "Mail."

As a composer looking for a collaborator, he met Riopelle about eight years ago. Riopelle was working on a show with a professor of his from the Boston Conservatory, and Rupert was touring with "Ragtime." "I knew him more as an actor, but I knew he had written 'Mail,' " says Riopelle, some 20 years younger than Rupert. They hit it off and began talking about creating a show about the '60s: "Not much had been written about it other than 'Hair.' "

They came up with three separate stories set in different years and using different musical styles: one in the 1963 Mississippi delta, with a blues sound; one about a 1967 Philadelphia girl, using the girl-group sound; and one in 1969 San Francisco, focusing on an up-and-coming folk-rock singer, modeled on Phil Ochs.

"It's really a trilogy," says Riopelle, with far too much story for one show. They had to choose which story they could tell the best, and in a workshop, people responded most to the San Francisco story.

They worked in the usual way, Rupert says, with Riopelle sending him a lyric. "But as I'd start to set it to music, I'd go off in another direction and his lyrics didn't fit, so I'd write dummy lyrics and ask if he could re-write. More often than not, my dummy lyrics seemed to work. But except for one or two songs, almost every lyric started with Matt. It was the same with the book. I acted almost as an editor, and pretty soon I was helping to write it as well."

"Michael is brilliant," says Riopelle. "He thinks on all those different levels -- writer, director, actor, producer. He's always saying, 'We've got to be entertaining.' " Riopelle distinguishes their show from "Hair" as "much more of a book musical. The structure is classic, about how the characters develop with a payoff at the end."

Unlike Rupert, he had no memories of the '60s. But he had a lucky break. Working as a personal trainer, he met Susan Rosenberg, a former member of the radical left organization Weather Underground, just freed by President Clinton after 16 years in prison. She told him her story and asked what he was working on, so he gave her the script, and she became a kind of native informant, even inviting him to a homecoming party with some ex-radical friends.

He was still struggling with the characters' motivations when she told him something he considers important: "Sometimes we do the wrong things for the right reasons. ... That's kind of what the show is about."

On to Pittsburgh

Their show is in Pittsburgh because of "Ragtime" and Scott Wise.

At just this time last year, Rupert directed a splendid "Ragtime" for Point Park, assisted by Wise. Rupert thought so much of his skills as a director and dramaturg that he gave him the script of "Streets of America" to read for suggestions. Wise came up with three single-spaced pages of notes, the basis for another rewrite.

A self-described country boy, Wise graduated from Penn State with a degree in health-care administration. But he made a U-turn into dance, then moved into choreography and directing.

Now 45, he started teaching part time at Point Park nearly two decades ago and gradually grew into one of the pillars of its big program in musical theater. But he has also worked for many theaters in town, especially Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, for whom his work has included directing "James Joyce's The Dead" and the upcoming "Pride and Prejudice."

Wise surprised Rupert and Riopelle by saying he thought they already had something about ready to stage. So he took "Streets of America" to Point Park's Playhouse Rep producing director Ron Lindblom, who is ambitious for the Downtown university to develop new works.

Lindblom was even willing to provide a three-week workshop last June with professional actors. Riopelle was able to get here three days each week, and Rupert managed a few days, too, and they did another rewrite. They've continued to rewrite during rehearsals this fall.

Riopelle says a college is a perfect place to stage their material, because the characters are already college-age, they get a much fuller production than they could otherwise afford, and Pittsburgh is far from the pressure cooker of Manhattan.

"There are enormous resources you don't have in a [professional] workshop, with its time limits. And there's a freshness, the kids aren't jaded, there's a willingness to try things. You can shape something and you won't end up in some Broadway chat room. That's why a lot of pieces with potential don't develop, because it's a vicious world."

There are also the Point Park personnel, starting with Wise but including the student performers, the designers and music director Douglas Levine, on whom both Rupert and Riopelle shower praise. Riopelle says there are a couple of young performers "I'd put up against anyone."

They will both be here for Thursday's opening. "We're actually going to get to see what we have," Rupert says. "It's like having a first-class, fully realized workshop, but also a full production."

Maybe the show will have a future, too.

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