Buried Treasure: Ideal Musicals for Educational Theatre Not Available for Production

By Hugh Fletcher posted 09-06-2017 15:41

Not every musical is a Broadway hit. Even some musicals with the best of intentions are flops, never find their audience, are panned by critics, or simply never make it to Broadway. Some shows were not necessarily meant to be on Broadway, and are far more successful Off-Broadway and in Regional Theatre. Many shows that weren't critical or box office smashes find new life in Educational Theatre. Many shows are reworked and retooled in order to make them appealing to Amateur and Educational Theatre producers once their Professional Theatre lives have all but expired. Without the comparative pressures of the bottom line, schools have the freedom to take risks with these shows that Professional Theaters and Producers may not. 

As a regular Theatre attendee, I have the opportunity see a lot new musicals. Some of the best musicals I've seen never really stood a chance on Broadway. Others had fatal missteps. Some composers never seem to make it work on Broadway, even though they always seem to make it to Broadway. Some are successful in their own right whether or not they open on Broadway. I've watched many shows, some of which I traveled across the country to see, and considered the merits and shortcomings of each show. Some shows I see have great potential for success in Educational Theatre, but never find a home in any of the Theatre licensing agencies. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, for schools to produce these shows; they are rarely, if ever, revived, and they eventually fall into obscurity.

Play On!
SYNOPSIS: William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is re-set by playwright Cheryl West in 1940s Harlem to the music of Duke Ellington. In this retelling, would-be songwriter Vy must disguise herself as a man to get her songs heard by bandleader Duke, and sung by the Cotton Club's star singer Lady Liv.

I happened upon this musical while I was a senior in high school. I didn't have much exposure to Duke Ellington, and I might have bought the cast recording by accident. It soon became one of my favorite soundtracks, and introduced me to both the music of Ellington, and the Shakespeare play Twelfth Nigh. During my Freshman year of College, members of the Original Broadway Cast performed a staged concert of Play On! at my school. It is a remarkable, lively, unheralded work. This show has many unique educational opportunities from Shakespeare, to Duke Ellington, to Jazz, to Harlem life in the 1940s. I have no intentions of directing this show with my Middle School students, but it would be a great work for High Schools, especially for those here in New York City. It was most recently revived at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, but considering the success of All Shook Up, which borrows from the same source material, this show could be a highly successful and effective musical in High Schools. Play On! can introduce a new generation to Duke Ellington in much the way shows like Crazy for You and An American in Paris continue to keep the Gershwins relevant for generations to come.

Fortress of Solitude
The Fortress of Solitude is a musical with music and lyrics written by Michael Friedman, and a book by Itamar Moses adapted from The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. The Fortress of Solitude is the extraordinary coming-of-age story about 1970s Brooklyn and beyond — of black and white, soul and rap, block parties and blackouts, friendship and betrayal, comic books and 45s. And the story of what would happen if two teenagers obsessed with superheroes believed that maybe, just maybe, they could fly."


The 2014-2015 Season was a strong one for the Public Theatre, with Hamilton premiering Off-Broadway, and Fun Home opening on Broadway. A third musical also had its New York premiere, sandwiched in between these two highly successful musicals. Fortress of Solitude is a lesser known musical, but no less innovative or entertaining, than the aforementioned. It was quite successful in its own right, playing an extended run at the Public Theatre, and garnering solid reviews. I left this show truly inspired and expected that this show would be a Regional hit, if not open on Broadway. Strangely, shortly after it closed at the Public, this show disappeared. With a Drama Desk Award nominated score, they took an unusually long time to release the cast recording.

Fortress of Solitude is a musical about an unlikely friendship between a Black teen and a White teen in Brooklyn, who forge a symbiotic bond through a mutual interest in superheros as they both seek to escape the pains of their realities. This show offers a realistic take on adolescence, especially in an urban environment. The energetic score incorporates a variety of musical styles, and the book is engrossing. The story is powerful and moving, dealing with a wide range of issues, including loss of a parent, juvenile incarceration, identity, abandonment, divorce, and father-son relations. This show would have just as much appeal to High School Theatre programs as In the HeightsGrease, or West Side Story, however, three years later, this show is neither being produced regionally, nor available for license from any Musical Theatre libraries. A production was recently mounted at New York University, so there is glimmer of hope that this show will become available soon.

In this new musical with a book by Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd, lyrics by Murphy, and music by Frank Wildhorn, Wonderland is a story about a new Alice who has lost her joy in life. Estranged from her husband, alienated from her daughter and in danger of losing her career, Alice finds herself in Wonderland where she encounters strange though familiar characters that help her rediscover the wonder in her life while searching for her daughter.

Wonderland is probably the least successful of these shows, but in a way, it's the one with the most potential. This show certainly had it's structural problems, but critics were unnecessarily harsh on this lavish music, and ultimately caused its demise. Frank Wildhorn can never catch a break with Broadway critics. This lavish show arrived on Broadway after successful tryouts in Tampa and Houston, but the creators never really worked out the kinks. It felt as if everyone had showed up early to the Mad Hatter's party an hour early, and she (yes, she) was not quite ready. 

was a huge flop, but it wouldn't be the first Broadway flop to be reworked for subsequent runs. That's exactly what I expected to happen. The book was problematic, but could be revised. The songs are generally enjoyable, even if not groundbreaking or breathtaking. Ranging in styles from Pop, Jazz, Latin, to Traditional and Contemporary Broadway, Wildhorn's songs, though they never seem to work for Broadway critics, could work for Middle or High School. Therein lies the shows biggest problem. It doesn't have a sense of whom it's audience is. This huge spectacle has so much appeal for children, but detaches them from the story by making Alice a middle aged divorcee, school teacher, and children's author (because it worked so well in the film version of The Wiz). Ironically, it was a young Carly Rose Sonenclar, later a finalist on X-Factor, who received the best reviews in that show, and she didn't spend much time onstage. That is because Wonderland is a child's fantasy. Adults experience it best through the eyes of a child. Had the writers restructured this show and refocused the plot around a child or teenage protagonist, this show would have become a mainstay in Educational Theatre programs.  

Twist - An American Musical
Set in Jazz Era New Orleans on the eve of the Great Depression, Twist tells the story of a young orphan boy born of a interracial parentage who navigates the colorful and rough waters of street life and racial intolerance in his quest to find his family and love, book by William F. Brown, music and lyrics by Tena Clark and Gary Prim.

Twist: An American Musical was the show for which I was most hopeful, and about which I'm most disappointed. It sets Charles Dickens' timeless classic Oliver Twist in 1920s New Orleans. I first learned about Twist when it opened at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre. I was not able to catch it there, but it would later open at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. I booked a trip to California just to see this show. This lively musical was quite true to its source material while still fully committed to the New Orleans aesthetic. It was a heartfelt story, with big musical numbers, intensely choreographed. 

Twist enjoyed a record-breaking, sold-out run at the Pasadena Playhouse, and favorable, if not rave, reviews. This show had potential. I didn't know if a Broadway run was in this show's future, but I was optimistic about producing it at my school when it was ultimately released for licensing. Sadly, when Twist ended its run it simply vanished. There's very little evidence that it ever happened. There's no cast recording, not even a Wikipedia entry. Had I not been crazy enough to fly to California, I might have never seen this show. Twist would have been a great alternative for those who love the story Oliver Twist, but would rather exclude the incidents of domestic violence. By setting the musical in New Orleans, Brown makes it an American story. His adaptation is one of the first I've seen or read that makes Oliver the central figure who has action rather than simply being impacted by the actions of other characters. There are many parts for children and teens, allowing them to play roles written for their age. Tragically, unlike Oliver, Twist may never find a home.

    I don't know the particular reasons or issues behind why these shows are not available for production. I also can't tell what the future holds for them, but it seems unlikely for a show's life to be sustainable once it falls into obscurity. It's a shame. The Educational Theatre community, primarily the Middle School segment, is always hard pressed to find musicals appropriate for this demographic. We find ourselves recycling the same shows while new works are discarded. I know that some shows may have copyright issues, while others spend an eternity in revision purgatory. Saddest of all is when shows that may be imperfect are simply rejected by all licensing agencies because they don't see the value or potential in these shows. One never knows how a show may resonate with a particular audience and when. As they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure.



    12-13-2017 20:27

    I saw "Play On" at The Pasadena Playhouse and it was filmed by PBS for Great Performances - it is a wonderful show and was a terrific production.  I would love to find the video.

    09-08-2017 00:55

    Thanks Hugh for putting this together! Very interesting! I agree, "TWIST" sounded like it'd be a great show! I wonder what happened!