For Phila., A 3d Season Of Innovation

Posted: September 07, 1986

There is an air of excitement - some might call it frenzy - pervading preparations for the American Music Theater Festival, which opens this week in Philadelphia. Entering its third season, the festival already has won praise as one of the most innovative cultural ventures in the area, managing each season to pull together an ambitiously varied list of works in an impressively short time. But if that feat has inspired admiration, its difficulty also has created no little anxiety among the festival's directors.

This year isn't an exception. The season's centerpiece is the world premiere of Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie. The great jazz musician worked on what he called his "street opera" for nearly 20 years, but at the time of his death in 1974 it was still incomplete, left in rough form for a never-made public television production. After festival officials decided less than a year ago to tackle it - expanding the hour-long piece and adding dialogue, songs and dancing - they selected a creative team: conductor and music director Maurice Peress, co-directors Robert Kalfin and Garth Fagan, librettist George C. Wolfe, lyricist George David Weiss and production coordinator Mercer Ellington.

That team has had to work quickly, and the complex process has produced occasional strains and delays, requiring coordination from a collection of individuals, each of whom has his own particular vision of Ellington's intent. Although previews begin Tuesday at the Annenberg Center's Zellerbach Theater, as of only a few days ago the score was not yet complete, the lyrics and dances were not yet finished, and perhaps most worrisome to the cast and staff, there was a brand new singer, Theresa Burrell, in the title role who had not yet had time to learn her part.

But it's like this every year, the festival's directors point out. And so far, every year, things have worked out fine.

The Ellington musical, which officially opens Sept. 18, is the largest of the four works being staged at this festival. Two pieces, parts of which have been done elsewhere, are also receiving their first-ever complete performances:

The first is The Transposed Heads, already in preview and opening officially Thursday at Drexel's Mandell Theater. A musical based on Thomas Mann's retelling of an Indian legend (the same story inspired a 1954 opera by Peggy Granville-Hicks), this completely new version features dancers, puppets and an array of Eastern and Western instruments, and is directed by Julie Taymor with music by Elliot Goldenthal and libretto by Taymor and Sidney Goldfarb.

The second, Slow Fire, which previews Sept. 24 and opens the next night at the Painted Bride, is a mixed-media performance-art work by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert. Dresher's Seehear was staged at last year's festival.

The Juniper Tree is the festival's fourth offering. An opera based on the Grimm fairy tale with music by Philip Glass and Philadelphia composer Robert Moran, it premiered last spring at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and is being revived here. After a preview on Oct. 8, it will open the 9th at the Walnut Street Theater.

In addition to these four mainstage productions, the festival includes cabaret concerts Wednesdays through Saturdays at 10 p.m. at the Top of Center Square, 15th and Market Streets. Starting Sept. 17 and running through the 27th, Neva Small - who sang in last year's festival production of The Golden Land, - will perform, with Sy Johnson, a program of classic show tunes and songs by Latin American composers.

The Incurable Dorothy Parker premieres at the cabaret Oct. 1-4. The work is by Kirk Nurock - whose Mowgli was staged at the festival last season - and it features Mowgli singer Bertilla Baker. The final cabaret week, Oct. 8-11, brings composer-pianist William Bolcom and singer Joan Morris to town, doing songs by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Bolcom.

Two productions of works in progress - The Voyage of the Beagle and Stauf - that the festival had announced earlier this year have been postponed until next season.

As they were in 1984 and '85, the offerings this year are eclectic and, by and large, unconventional. But somewhat ironically, it is Queenie Pie, the most conventional of the mainstage works being offered, that may best sum up the spirit and direction of the American Music Theater Festival.

Like Gershwin's Strike Up the Band, the centerpiece two years ago, Queenie Pie is not a new work but a re-creation of an old one. The festival is as intent on demonstrating its ties with the past as on promoting new pieces of musical theater.

More significantly, like both the other large-scale works developed by the festival thus far - last season's opera X, composed by Anthony Davis, and, to a lesser extent, the Gershwin - Queenie Pie is not easy to categorize.

It is a work that crosses traditional musical boundaries and, in so doing, seeks a middle ground that will attract a broader audience than would the standard opera or Broadway-type show. The Ellington piece is a reflection of the festival organizers' continuing belief that, in the words of artistic director Eric Salzman, "very little evolution can take place within the conventional confines of the opera house or the Broadway stage."

And Queenie Pie, like X and Strike Up the Band, was composed by someone noted for his work in a jazz idiom, which is not so much a matter of personal preference as a recognition by festival directors that jazz - unlike opera, for instance - is a singularly American creation. They have said in a statement of purpose that one of their aims is "to help build the future of a distinctive American art form." In promoting works that have links with jazz, the festival is working toward this goal.

Lastly, Queenie Pie has in common with X the fact that its composer was black and its cast is largely black. The most lavish production of last season's festival was Gospel at Colonus, which also featured an all-black cast and many noted black gospel musicians; in 1984, a dance version of The Emperor Jones also had a largely black cast.

In discussing this, the festival's directors have pointed to the quality of the black artists they have showcased, but in a broader sense, it is apparent that they also are proud to promote the distinctive work of black American musicmakers as part of the same effort toward creating a distinctively American musical theater.

Salzman and producing director Marjorie Samoff acknowledge some of the themes that have run through the festival's three years and are exemplified by Queenie Pie. But they want to resist defining music theater too narrowly.

"We see it as something in which music and theater are equal partners and singing plays a dominant role," says Samoff. "But beyond that we want to leave things open to interpretation."

"I think the range of works we present at the festival is important to emphasize. . . . We consider it to be an advantage, not a disadvantage," agrees Salzman. "If there is an evolution taking place in music theater, and we think there is, it's not up to us to decide what that is, but to produce the works and let others decide."

Adds Samoff, "We want to keep on developing new projects . . . partly

because people aren't writing them - and they're not writing them because there are no outlets for them."

In recent years, many artists in various disciplines have explored the benefits of collaborative, interdisciplinary work, producing the sort of hybrid pieces that, like X and, to a lesser extent, Queenie Pie, have fallen in the gaps between traditional performing fields - between opera and the Broadway stage, in particular.

The festival, says Salzman, has sought to foster such pieces and to develop workable relationships among these sometimes incompatible art forms. ''The opera world has its routines, the music theater has its, and the avant-garde has its own mess, and they don't mesh," he explains. "That's our job, to make them work together."

In its short history, the festival already has been responsible for developing works that have gone on to prestigious venues. The range of sites, Samoff and Salzman believe, demonstrates the diversity of pieces it has offered. Davis' X, which had its first complete performance here last year, is being given its official "world premiere" this month by the New York City Opera company. The Golden Land moved from the Mandell to an Off-Broadway theater in New York, where it had a substantial run. And following its premiere in Philadelphia this month, The Transposed Heads is to be staged at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater in New York next month.

Samoff and Salzman are proud of the festival's role in these productions but worried about the possible perception that their stages are serving as practice platforms for New York. "There is a big difference," Salzman insists, "between being a tryout town . . . and an organization that is producing and developing new works outside New York. We feel we are a national festival strongly rooted in Philadelphia."

Samoff frequently talks about the festival someday becoming like Edinburgh or Spoleto - an annual event that, while not based in an international cultural center such as Paris, London or New York, nevertheless attracts international attention, one that features a wide range of works, and most important, one that plays "a role of creative ferment."

Both directors say they are devoted to this city - so long as its residents, in turn, support their festival. Adds Salzman (who lives in New York but describes himself as "an honorary Philadelphian"): "If Philadelphia wants it, it can have it. If it doesn't, it can happen somewhere else."

He and Samoff note the success in recent years of regional outfits around the country and outside New York, such as the Goodman Theater in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. The American Music Theater Festival has helped to create a partnership that includes these companies, and plans to develop new music theater pieces in association with them, as well as occasionally borrowing and lending works from them, such as this year's Cambridge production of The Juniper Tree. In the near future, Samoff says, she would also like her festival to offer music theater events year-round.

At the moment, both Samoff and Salzman are not only putting the finishing touches on this season but well into planning for next year. The hope, they say, is that the rush they've had previously pulling things together can be reduced next time around. But the chances, they cheerfully admit, aren't good.

The '87 festival will be the largest yet, and for the first time will include works by composers from outside the United States. At the moment, it promises to be no less far-ranging and unusual than any of the past years. While pieces have been tentatively accepted from Bali, Japan, Venezuela and Zaire, Samoff - as usual flying in the face of the expected - says, "I don't know why, but we've just not been able to single out a work from Europe yet."

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