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The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival makes the numbers work

New musicals are inherently fragile. Festivals devoted to them, exponentially more so. Chicago has seen ambitious fests showcasing new tuners come and go: The Musical Theatre Writers Workshop, Midwest New Musicals and . . . New Tuners—all shone brightly and went dark. The latest casualty in the field is the New York Musical Festival, where Next to Normal and [title of show] (among others), got early productions. NYMF shuttered suddenly in January, leaving 2020’s festival entrants with little but feedback from the selection committee.

Which brings us to Underscore Theatre’s Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, running February 3-23 at the Edge Theater’s two spaces. Showcasing eight new musicals, several staged readings, and a program of ten-minute shows, the fest is one of the last of its kind in the nation. The challenges of keeping it solvent aren’t lost on Rachel Elise Johnson, festival producer and Underscore’s executive director. But as a tenured professor of mathematics, Johnson thrives on difficult equations. She believes she’s found a formula that’ll make Underscore’s fest viable for years to come.

“It’s very hard to mount a show that won’t take a hit,” Johnson says of the costly task of getting musicals on their feet. “But we’ve got a festival model that’s financially self-sustaining.”

It sounds like magic, but it’s actually math.

The shows selected for the sixth annual UCMTF each get a minimum of five performances. Underscore provides marketing, performance space, box office, light and soundboards, and board operators. It also manages a massive open-call audition where out-of-towners can cast from local talent and provides visiting artists with a database of Chicago-based designers and recommendations on who to hire.

Ticket sales ($10-$25) are split between Underscore and the musicals’ “producers,” usually the creators of the new shows, Johnson says. A panel of judges hands out awards at the fest’s culmination. Half the gate plus participation fees ($1,400 for each of the eight musicals, less for the ten-minute shows and staged readings) is enough to keep the festival funded and cover expenses for much of Underscore’s season, Johnson says.

“Most of the entrants are artists, not necessarily producers,” she adds. “We want to help them with that, however we can. Give them the tools to get the show up with the intent and the integrity they envision. We try to help them keep their entire budget under $7,000. We’ve had some spend up to $12,000, but there’ve been shows done for $3,000 that have won. It’s not about having a lavish set or costumes. It’s about having a developed plot, complicated characters, and a good story.

“For the most part, a few sold-out performances should make (entrants) back their money. Our idea is everyone should break even or come out ahead,” she says.

In the two months between being selected for the fest and mounting their show, some producers turn to crowdfunding. That’s the route Deepak Kumar, a doctoral candidate finishing up his computer science dissertation at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Jordan Liu, a San Francisco-based Google software engineer, took when they learned their show Baked! had been selected for both Underscore’s fest and the New York Musical Festival. The latter’s sudden end barely fazed them.

“In December, the NYMF artistic director emailed—’Look, I don’t want to alarm you, but I’ve quit,'” Liu recalls. “The next day they declared bankruptcy. We’re treating it as a positive thing. I mean, I’m already in negative vacation days just with Chicago. And obviously we now have more money for Chicago.”

Baked! raised almost $8,000 via Indiegogo. It will cover the show’s all-Asian American ensemble, which Liu and Kumar cast locally. Liu is paying for a $7-a-night Airbnb out of pocket. Kumar’s commuting from Champaign several times a week. They describe Baked! as an Asian American high school story that upends the cliches of both high school and Asian American teens.

“Other high school stories we saw on stage—Dear Evan Hansen, Heathers, Be More Chill—they didn’t feel that honest to our experiences,” says Liu.

“For us, high school wasn’t like a John Hughes movie,” he adds. “The popular kids were popular because they were really nice and really smart. There’s no rampant bullying or drug use. And our parents weren’t putting tons of pressure on us. We knew our parents would love us no matter what. We put the pressure on ourselves.”

“The main question we want to ask in Baked! is why do we put so much pressure on ourselves? And what happens when we lie because of that pressure?” Kumar says.

Verve takes on pressure of a different kind. The musical, featuring Chicagoan Fran Zell’s book and lyrics and a score composed by the late Karena Mendoza, is rooted in Zell’s experiences at a Curves gym. “I almost didn’t have to read the local newspaper because I got all the news from women chatting at Curves. I mostly just listened,” Zell recalls. Musical theater luminary Joan Mazzonelli will direct a five-woman cast that ranges in age from teen to grandmother. Mazzonelli has a long history of putting new works on their feet: She logged 24 years (1985-2009) as the executive director of Theatre Building Chicago (now Stage 773), in an era when the venue was the city’s premiere spot for brand-new musicals.

Zell describes the show as a celebration of community, flaws and all. “You can celebrate the importance of community without idealizing or romanticizing it. There are always going to be issues,” Zell says. “I’m not saying there aren’t laughs in the show, but we don’t trivialize things. It isn’t necessarily built for laughs, like a sitcom. I consider myself a feminist. I think it’s important for women to have the opportunity to be seen and heard on stage.”

While Underscore’s fest is in its sixth year, Johnson’s been helming it for three. She expects 2021 could bring a spike in entrants.

“I think with the closing of NYMF we’re one of the last festivals devoted to new musicals left in the country. That will probably impact our submissions,” she says. For artists, the benefits are tough to calculate.

Johnson sums it up: “You can be the first person to play a role, to really help something great come to life. You don’t know—you could be working on the next Hamilton. You’re part of something bigger than you.”  v

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