American Masterpieces: Musical Theater Curtains Up!

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The Shark girls

The Shark girls extol the virtues of "America" in Portland Center Stage's production of West Side Story (left to right: Courtney Laine Mazza, Ivette Sosa, Dayna Tietzen, Kristen J. Smith, and Anna Kaiser). Photo by Owen Carey.

The hills are alive with the sound of musical theater thanks to the $580,000 received by 13 theater companies as part of American Masterpieces. According to NEA Director of Theater and Musical Theater Bill O'Brien, "The inclusion of the discipline in the initiative has a particular resonance since, along with jazz, musical theater developed as an outgrowth of American culture. You can reach back and find influences in work that was generated in England and Germany and other places, but the form didn't really take flight until the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and some of the other American masters started to have their way with it."

The productions supported by the grants include familiar masterworks, such as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, which is being pro duced by the Lyric Theater of Oklahoma as part of the state's year-long, statewide centennial celebration. Starring Oklahoma native and two-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara, the production features an all-Oklahoma cast and outreach presentations in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Education.

Less familiar works by master artists, such as Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars, and more recent works, including Caroline, or Change by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori, are also on the bill. O'Brien said that what the works have in common is that "in every case, the works represent the very best that the form has ever produced. ...The [funded projects] offer a number of very vivid snapshots of what lies at the heart of the American experience."

Oregon's Portland Center Stage received an American Masterpieces grant of $45,000 to support a revival of West Side Story. More than 30,000 people saw the play during its extended run, including more than 2,000 children and youth, and the production involved 25 actors and 15 musicians. Wall Street Journal critic (and National Council on the Arts member) Terry Teachout raved, "Among other things, it's the best-sung revival of a musical that I've ever seen, whether on or off Broadway." The company's managing director Edith Love said that the NEA grant made the production possible: "It enabled us to produce something that Portland Center Stage could never have produced artistically on our own. It's twice the size of the average production that we do...it was probably the best received play in the history of the theater. It totally sold out weeks before."