The title: Underground.
The creator: Akil DuPont.
The occasion: The very first Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival.
By the time the fest ended some 36 hours later, an estimated 400 theatergoers had seen four new musicals, listened to powerhouse vocals and gone down the rabbit hole and into the dark for stories about freedom, feminism, a woman in crisis (it was funny, too) and a pair of siblings that may possess magical powers.
If you saw the hashtags #theamtf and #welovenewmusicals on your Facebook or Twitter feeds, this is what it was all about. Besides Underground, the lineup included:
- The Yellow Wallpaper, adapted by Hannah Church, music and lyrics by Julia Appleton.
- The Fine Art of Forgetting, book by Heidi Cline McKerley, music by S. Renee Clark, lyrics by Jeff McKerley. (Its website includes several songs; we recommend “Memory Box.”)
- What’s Past, written by Jessica De Maria and Chase Peacock.
The four shows vary in stages of development and musical style — from spirituals to Sara Bareilles-style folk-pop, from modern Broadway to contemporary pop-rock-country. Some used costumes; some did not. All were at least partially on book. Some used live music; some used prerecorded tracks. Some held post-performance talkbacks of various designs; some did not.
The big question among playgoers: What’s next? Well, it varies.
At least one has a solid second date with theatergoers. What’s Past, the De Maria-Peacock piece about the mystical siblings, is part of the 2016/17 Threshold New Play Festival at Actor’s Express (which hosted two of the four premieres). Look for it in the spring.
And the team behind The Fine Art of Forgetting pledged to get back to work almost immediately.
The fest is the brainchild of Benjamin Davis, an Atlanta actor, singer and producer who doesn’t sleep much. It’s modeled after the much larger and better-known New York Musical Theatre Festival. Davis attended the 2015 NYMF as producer of The Last Time We Were Here, a piece written by De Maria and actor/musician Jeremiah Parker Hobbs.
He recalls thinking: “Why don’t we have one of these in Atlanta?”
Now we do.
“The support from the Atlanta community was overwhelming for me, at times,” Davis says after sleeping for nearly a day and a half. “I was so inspired and impressed. I was hoping it would be an event that Atlanta could be proud of, that Atlanta would support, that the Atlanta community would show out for. And it was that.”
“I learned that Atlanta is such a small supportive family,” he says. “We had so much help from so many people who selflessly reached out asking if there was anything they could do, from volunteering to performing to donating and people just showing up and buying tickets.”
When Davis wasn’t sleeping Wednesday or Thursday, he was at work on the to-do list for the 2017 festival. But first, a recap.
- The inaugural AMTF had a budget of $15,000 and a team of about 185 people behind it. This includes staff, the board of directors, volunteers, performers and donors who ponied up money, goods and services. The staff, and the sound and light board operators were paid. Everyone else was a volunteer.
- The four finalists came from a pool of 30 submissions, about half from Georgia and half from out of state, including California and New York.
- Each creative team was responsible for casting its own show, from among a pretty talented list of volunteers.
- Audience members were asked to complete a 10-question survey about each show, so the creative teams could use the comments in moving forward. There’s no count yet on how many spectators did so.
- If you think you know Atlanta’s musical theater community, you probably don’t. The depth and scope of musical talent here is eye-opening, even if you regularly attend/take part in musicals. The vocals came from performers you might know (Julissa Sabino in The Yellow Wallpaper; Wendy Melkonian, TC Carson and Kayce Grogan-Wallace in Fine Art; and Deb Bowman, De Maria and Peacock in What’s Past) and some you might not (Church in The Yellow Wallpaper and Kaia Davis, Marcus Hopkins-Turner, Sandie Lee and S. Linda Robinson in Underground).
- All four musicals feel too long, which is often the case with new work. All should probably take a whittling tool to their respective first acts.
- The size of the casts — three of the four call for a minimum of 12 actors (Underground has at least 25 but can be done with 12, DuPont says) — might make potential producers think twice.
- It was tough to know who was performing, unless you’d previously seen the actors. Casts were listed on a framed single sheet of paper at the box office or concession stand. It’d be great to have cast lineups inserted into the programs next year.
- Underground features 12 original songs and eight well-known spirituals. Does this really constitute a “new” musical? You decide.
Davis and his 11-member team of staffers and artistic advisers plan to accelerate the 2017 planning process by about two months. The call for submissions will go out in late September or early October, he says, and close in December. Final selections will be announced in January.
He takes home at least one other lesson. “I learned that it takes a village, and definitely in Year 2, the process of delegating is going to be a focus of mine.”