"You gotta get a gimmick," according to the Stephen Sondheim song, and the new company Music Theatre Arizona has gotten a gimmick of its own: gimmick-free musicals.
"No helicopters," declares Richard T. Hanson, the UA theater professor who doubles as Music Theatre Arizona's artistic director.
No helicopters, no crashing chandeliers, no roller skates--in fact, nothing big. "We're not even interested in doing something like 42nd Street," Hanson says.
The new local company will specialize in small and mid-sized musicals, things that can be done with modest casts and without big choruses and sets. Productions, in other words, that will fit quite comfortably into its home, the roughly 500-seat TCC Leo Rich Theater.
The company is starting off almost as small as can be, with the three-person show Side by Side by Sondheim. It's a long-popular revue of Stephen Sondheim's work from his early days as a lyricist (West Side Story) to his mid-career pinnacle as an innovative yet approachable craftsman of both words and music. The show stops around the time of A Little Night Music (source of "Send in the Clowns"); since then, it's gotten harder to yank individual songs out of Sondheim's through-composed works.
This show may be small-scaled, but it isn't exactly something anyone can whistle.
"The vocal range is huge, to begin with," says Betty Craig, one of the cast members and one of the company's managing producer/founders. And just mastering the technical challenges is only the beginning.
"Even when I was singing in lounges and bars, I looked at every song as a one-act play," Craig says. "But with Stephen Sondheim, it's especially true. Every song has a story to tell, but it's also packed with conflict and drama. He's a master at commenting on relationships and the world at large."
"Every one of these songs is its own little three-act play," says Hanson. "The revue showcases the music and the lyrics, and we didn't want anything to get in the way of that, so our production is simple and spare and elegant."
That doesn't mean all the company's future shows will be austere. Music Theatre Arizona's first full season, starting in the fall, will begin with Annie Warbucks, the sequel to Annie. That's a fairly successful Off-Broadway show that's never been produced in Tucson, which is precisely what the company wants to put on ever year. "We'd also like to be sure at least one musical is available to children and their families," says Hanson, and Annie Warbucks fits that description. The company also intends to do one "American classic" per year, which in the coming season will be She Loves Me. The company's third component is called "American Songbook"; Side by Side by Sondheim fits into that category, and its counterpart next year will be Jerry's Girls, revolving around the music of Jerry (Hello, Dolly!) Herman.
Tucson is not exactly musical-theater poor. Theatre League brings in touring productions of big shows, usually of a certain vintage. UApresents offers touring productions of even bigger shows, usually extravaganzas that hit Broadway fairly recently. But that's hardly the intimate sort of production that Music Theatre Arizona will feature; only Arizona Theatre Company, Invisible Theatre and a few other scattered companies do anything like that, and then it's only once a season.
Craig and her co-managing producer, Brooke Davis, got the idea for Music Theatre Arizona a couple of years ago when they were involved in a show very much like what their new company will present.
"It began with Brooke and me sitting backstage at the university when we did Quilters together in '99, and we were just talking about what a lovely show it was, a 7-member show, and we talked about how there was a void of this sort of thing in Tucson," Davis recalls. "With both of us being from Tucson, we had a pretty good perspective of what was here and what wasn't here." Both are veterans of many professional-level shows in town; Craig may be most familiar from her annual summer stint in Invisible Theatre's Sizzlin' Summer Sounds revue.
"One of my dreams is this idea of the 'Great American Songbook,' bringing back wonderful American composers like Jerry Herman and George Gershwin, all those hummable, beautiful composers." Is that an implied criticism of certain English and French composers whose less hummable spectacles have dominated Broadway for at least a decade? "Oh, not at all," says Craig. "It's just that my folks always had great jazz and standards and cast albums; that's the music I grew up with, and that's the music I love most."
It's not entirely coincidental that the cast of Side by Side by Sondheim consists of company founders Craig and Davis, plus their frequent co-conspirator Jack Neubeck, pros all. It is, after all, their company. Craig says, "You can certainly anticipate seeing me in some of the (future) productions, but not all of them. I love to sing this music, and I love to perform, so as long as there are parts or music that work for me, I'll be there, happily. But I'm not casting myself in some ridiculous role that's all wrong for me. I'm not a lyric soprano, so I'd never think about something like that."
Hanson, as artistic director, says he wasn't indulging them in a vanity project. "They were perfect vocally for the show, and they're the right age to do this music, so it was pretty perfect."
This is, of course, only the beginning for a non-profit organization that has ambitious plans. Hanson wants to produce original works as part of future seasons, and set up an internship program for UA acting students, even though Music Theatre Arizona will work mainly with union professionals.
"We also hope to have an offshoot program for at-risk children," says Craig. "We have big dreams, but it always starts with the beautiful music."
Music Theatre Arizona presents Side by Side by Sondheim at 8 p.m. February 22 through 24 and at 2 p.m. February 25 at the Tucson Convention Center Leo Rich Theatre, 220 S. Church Ave. Tickets cost $24, available through Music Theatre Arizona (293-7880), Ticketmaster (321-1000) and all TCC and Ticketmaster outlets.