The ASCAP Foundation/Universal Theatrical Group Musical Theatre Workshop

SBO Staff • FeatureNovember/December 2019 • November 22, 2019

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They’re an indelible part of American culture, those exhilarating, spellbinding, iconic Broadway musicals like Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, and Wicked, created by legendary tunesmiths of the theater world such as Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Meredith Willson, Marvin Hamlisch, Stephen Sondheim, and Stephen Schwartz. Shows and composers like these as well as such contemporary smash hits as Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Come from Away have endowed musical theatre with an extraordinarily rich and vibrant catalog of stories and songs that are warmly imbued in the public mind. But where are tomorrow’s shows and composers coming from?

Foundation/Universal Theatrical Group Musical Theatre Workshop is headed by artistic director Stephen Schwartz and ASCAP’s director of musical theatre Michael Kerker. Started in 1979 as the ASCAP Foundation Musical Theatre Workshop by Bye Bye Birdie and Annie composer Charles Strouse, its purpose is to nurture and inspire new composers and lyricists for musical theater.

ASCAP is one of a handful of American performing rights organizations that serves as an agent for licensing the public performing rights of its writer and publisher members’ songs to users of music.

A musical is an integrated creative enterprise in which each cog in its wheel—dialogue, music and lyrics—is a necessary and vital part of the whole. Moreover, with the heavy costs of a director, actors, musicians, orchestrator, conductor, the theater itself and much more, it can take millions of dollars to mount a full-blown musical at a legitimate venue. Because the odds of mounting a show can be slim and the idea of succeeding can be daunting, sponsors such as the ASCAP/UTG Music Theatre Workshop are gatekeepers to the future of musical shows.

Kerker has earned a reputation as a passionate steward of music theatre writing talent in America today. He joined the ASCAP musical theatre workshop in 1990 when Birdie composer Strouse was still running it. Although he had an enormously busy schedule, Schwartz graciously consented (27 years later he still runs it with Kerker!) and the workshop was reborn. Schwartz made some suggestions for running the workshop, such as that writers should present pieces of their book and not just their songs as they had before, the idea being that you can have great songs in a show but if you don’t have a great book to go along with those songs then your show will not work.

The ASCAP musical theatre workshop was held at the society’s New York offices, but with talent spread out all over Kerker thought it should also be held on the West Coast. In 1996, when Schwartz was working as a lyricist on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and was fresh off penning the lyrics for Disney’s Pocahontas movie, Kerker was looking for space in Los Angeles to run the ASCAP workshop there and asked Schwartz if he thought Disney would provide a venue. Disney’s head of feature animation, Tom Schumacher, approved the request, and consequently, the ASCAP/Disney Musical Theatre Workshop was inaugurated. In 2012 Disney could no longer host the workshop in L.A., but Kerker wanted to maintain its L.A. presence. Schwartz, who had written the songs for DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt thought DreamWorks could provide space in L.A. and had Kerker contact Bill Damaschke of the musical theatre department at DreamWorks, who consented and so the ASCAP workshop stayed in L.A. but moved to DreamWorks. In 2017 DreamWorks underwent a structural change and the workshop was put under the Universal Theatrical Group banner.

Musical theatre writers interested in becoming part of the ASCAP/UTG Musical Theatre Workshop have to submit four songs with descriptions of how the songs fit into the plot of their shows and a synopsis of their musical. Workshop participants must present 45 consecutive minutes of their musical, preferably from the beginning, but which can launch from any point, before a panel of musical theatre professionals (headed by Schwartz himself) and an invited audience. Each year some 200 submissions come from all over the world—Kerker attributes this to the massive appeal of having the opportunity to work with Schwartz who now sits in the pantheon of musical theatre writers with his multiple smash-Broadway hits for the few spots available—usually three for L.A. and three for New York. Applicants who were not accepted for the workshop can attend the sessions, which with industry people in attendance are a great place for aspiring musical theatre writers to network.

Some writers in the workshops go on to great success in the musical theatre world. Among its recent distinguished alum are Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid, School of Rock), Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar (The Prom, Elf the Musical, The Wedding Singer), and Steven Lutvak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) although going back to the workshop under Charles Strouse’s aegis there are such celebrated erstwhile participants as Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Once on This Island, Seussical).

While he himself is not a musical theater writer, the genre could have no greater supporter than Michael Kerker. In his time at ASCAP he has worked with some of the society’s great musical theatre writers such as Mame, Hello, Dolly!, and La Cage aux Folles composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, with whom he used to travel the country in presenting ASCAP’s Legacy Concert Series. Other luminaries this veteran booster of musical theatre feels privileged to have interviewed on prominent public stages include Marvin Hamlisch, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and Stephen Sondheim. But the golden heritage of Broadway notwithstanding, Kerker knows the Great White Way will only shine resplendently in the future with the influx of fresh and exciting new scribes. Indeed, the musical theatre world should be thankful that this passionate lodestar of stage entertainment ardently forages and plucks far and near in helping undiscovered musical theatre talent become tomorrow’s legends.

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