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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Making of a New Musical

The genesis of a new musical is always fascinating.

Where does the inspiration come from? What motivates and propels a

creator or creative team to embark on what is undoubtedly a satisfying

but also a long, arduous, and only occasionally profitable project?

The creation of the new musical revue "Let Me Sing, A Musical

Evolution," which has its world premiere at George Street Playhouse

on Friday, December 6, is a collaborative effort led by Michael Bush.

Bush created the show with co-author Michael Aman and musical director

Joel Silberman. Bush also makes his professional directing debut.

The show marks another transition for Bush who was appointed this

year artistic producing director of the Charlotte Repertory Company

in his original hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.

How the new musical came to life is intriguing not only because of

its author’s 22-year history at the Manhattan Theater Club, but also

his long and intimate relationship with its true subject, American

Musical Theater.

During our recent phone conversation from his home in New York, Bush

shared his thoughts on the nurturing and development of the show.

Our talk was interrupted only once by the barking of his Sheltie named

Cole Porter.

"Let Me Sing" is a show that takes its audience on a historical

journey that recalls the birth of the modern musical theater. It follows

the sometimes happy, sometimes turbulent lives of six people who represent

different famous characters during a time that encompassed the Depression,

racial unrest, political change, and the emergence of a sense of cultural

identity.

For eight years, from 1993 to 2001, Bush taught "The History of

the American Musical," for the Graduate Program at Brooklyn College.

"I would tend to revamp my syllabus every year, and I noticed

that I would be using the word ‘definition’ over and over again,"

says Bush. He came to recognize how certain songs have tended to define

a personality or an era.

"At the beginning of the 20th century, people began to re-define

themselves as Americans. So I began to think what would happen if

I put the songs into a chronological order." Not surprising that

among the composers that include the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers

and Hammerstein, it was Irving Berlin who played the biggest role

in defining the American personality. Bush told his students that

he would prove his thesis over 15 weeks, and he did.

If Bush’s thesis included the notion that the art form at the beginning

of the century was an expression "I," as with George M. Cohan’s

"I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy," he also deduced that midway in

the century when we were at war ("nothing changes theater more

than war"), Rodgers and Hammerstein raised the bar by defining

the national "We." "If you look at ‘Oklahoma,’ it’s a

definition of what we are fighting for. ‘South Pacific’ looks at the

racial prejudices that were defining our morals." It was at this

time in history, the beginning of the golden age of American Musical

Theater, that Bush says we would be recognized by the rest of the

world for introducing the one theatrical art form born in America.

Bush explains that by the 1960s, when no one musical voice could speak

for everybody, the "I" concept returned once again with shows

by Stephen Sondheim who re-explored the question of "who am I."

Bush and his collaborators, decided, however, to focus on only the

first half of the century. "Let Me Sing" was given an encouraging

workshop production at the Manhattan Theater club. It includes such

defining classics as "Someone to Watch Over Me," "You

Made Me Love You," "Look for the Silver Lining," "A

Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," and "Alexander’s Ragtime Band."

Throughout the changes chronicled in "Let Me Sing," Bush says

the one recurring theme that most Americans traditionally buy into

in our musicals is the Cinderella story It is the American dream that

"anyone can become president and the girl from 10th Avenue can

become a Ziegfeld star," he emphasizes.

Bush sees the theme of the show as the effect of assimilation in the

melting pot, with a particular emphasis he says on the more difficult

aspects of "the black-white issue." Each of the six characters

or, as he calls them "archetypes" — George (think Cohan),

Molly (think Picon), Irene (think Dunne), Ethel (think Waters), Buddy

(think Ebsen), and Bill (think "Bojangles" Robinson), may

be considered types. But it will be on the shoulder of the show’s

stars to make them recognizable and memorable.

About Randy Skinner, "Let Me Sing"s" Tony-nominated choreographer

("42nd Street"), Bush says, "he has gone to town creating

dances we don’t see any more. He wasn’t Gower Champion’s protege for

nothing."

Other cast members who boast Tony nominations include Gretha Boston

(for "It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues"), Andre De Shields (for

"The Full Monty"), Maria Schaffel (for the title role in "Jane

Eyre"), plus Danny Gurwin and Stephanie Block.

Bush shares authorship with Aman, who was once a student

in Bush’s Brooklyn College class and the person who urged him to "go

the distance with it." Aman is currently Charlotte Repertory Theater’s

dramaturg and also served in that position at George Street.

Bush and Silberman — introduced by Andre De Shield more than 20

years ago — began a professional relationship that has included

collaborations on the fund-raising galas that Bush produced for the

Manhattan Theater Club over 22 years. Guiding more than 120 productions

from text to stage, Bush was in charge of the day-to-day artistic

and business life of the Manhattan Theater Club.

MTC’s Musical Theater Program was designed by Bush in 1993 to develop

work by emerging composers and lyricists. About his years at MTC,

Bush says he is particularly proud of producing Terrence McNally’s

award-winning "Love! Valour! Compassion" during the year that

artistic director Lynne Meadow was on sick leave.

Bush says his love of musical theater began in the early ’60s when

his parents took him to see Julie Newmar in "Damn Yankees"

in his hometown Charlotte, North Carolina. His professional career

began after he graduated in 1979 from Emerson College in Boston. It

may have been that taking a double major in Business Administration

and Theater that subsequently made him interesting to the powers at

MTC, who hired him as soon as he moved to New York.

"To be honest," Bush says, "I can get off on a creative

marketing meeting as much as I can on discussing characters and casting."

"Let Me Sing" was still only a chronological series of songs

until Meadow said, "what this show is missing is Michael Bush.

All that fascinating stuff you have at your fingertips you need to

put into the show," she told Bush. He soon realized that she was

right and that the characters not only wanted to sing but to talk.

Quoting Ellen Steward, the renowned artistic director of New York’s

La Mama, who feels "everybody needs his own push cart," Bush

now feels the need to run his own organization. And it isn’t surprising

that "Let Me Sing" is being co-produced by George Street Playhouse

and the Charlotte Repertory Company, the musical’s destination following

its area run.

Is the possibility of a Broadway production of "Let Me Sing"

part of Bush’s very own American dream? For the 48-year-old Bush,

it is undoubtedly a part of his personal "Cinderfella" story.

— Simon Saltzman

Let Me Sing: A Musical Evolution, George Street Playhouse,

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night. Performances

continue to January 4. $55. Friday, December 6, 8 p.m.


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