Signature Theatre awarded $1 million grant


Critic's Corner//Theater


Over the years, Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., has built a national reputation for developing new musicals. Now the theater has more to sing about.

Last week, Signature received a $1 million grant from the Shen Family Foundation earmarked for the creation and development of three new musicals, which will be produced at the theater over three seasons, beginning in 2007-2008.

"Many [donors] would do one musical, but to commit to three musicals and produce them as well as develop them, to have that commitment with one theater is very unique," Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer said earlier this week.

The commissions are to three composers in the forefront of new musical theater.

They are: Ricky Ian Gordon, composer of the Proust musical, My Life With Albertine, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead; Michael John LaChiusa, whose show about van Gogh, The Highest Yellow, had its world premiere at Signature last season and whose Broadway credits include Marie Christine and The Wild Party; and Joseph Thalken, whose credits include Harold and Maude and Was.

Over the next four years, each composer will receive a total of $100,000, plus health insurance. The subject matter of the musicals is yet to be determined; the only stipulation is that they have no more than 18 characters and 10 musicians.

Schaeffer, who will direct all three shows, recalled that on April 1, when he broke the good news to LaChiusa, and the composer replied, "Yeah, right, Eric, April Fool's."

The artistic director said he had been talking with retired New York investment banker Theodore P. Shen over the past five months.

Shen and his foundation contributed major funding to the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Celebration and also helped underwrite The Highest Yellow.

The foundation is awarding one-time grants of $25,000, in recognition of "musical theater leadership," to orchestrator Bruce Coughlin, composer Adam Guettel, singer Audra McDonald and director/orchestrator Ted Sperling.

It has also donated $250,000 to pay for the largest of three rehearsal halls in Signature's new theater complex, which is scheduled to open in September.

Meanwhile, Schaeffer is busy directing the revival of Mame that begins performances at the Kennedy Center, starring Christine Baranski, May 27.

He also directed the new family show, Barbie Live in Fairytopia, which opens a nine-performance run at the Hippodrome Theatre May 31.

The hour-long show, inspired by the video, Barbie Fairytopia, features Barbie as a wingless fairy who yearns to fly.

Barbie isn't as far a stretch for Schaeffer as it might seem. Two years ago, he directed Snow White at Disneyland. Part of the attraction for him, he said, is that these shows "introduce [children] to the musical theater, and hopefully they'll say, `Let's see another one, mom.'"

Cabaret at Everyman

Everyman Theatre has announced some details of its new 2006-2007 cabaret series, as well as an added non-subscription offering. The cabaret series will open Nov. 12-14 with a show called Broadway Boys, featuring music by leading Broadway songwriters. The series will present a tribute to Stephen Sondheim from April 22-24. The series' director is Judy Simmons, who served as director of Signature Theatre's cabaret series for seven years.

Also, Sept. 17-19, 25 and 26, Everyman Theatre will present a staged reading of The Cone Sister, an original one-woman show about Baltimore art collector, Etta Cone. The show will be a sister act on two levels. Not only is it about Etta -- and, by extension, her art-collecting sister, Claribel -- the script is also by Everyman resident dramaturg Naomi Greenberg-Slovin, and it will be read by her sister, Everyman company member Vivienne Shub.

For more information about the cabaret series or The Cone Sister, call 410-752-2208.

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