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Chicago Musical Theatre Fest Says 'Hamilton' Is Just The Beginning

By Gwendolyn Purdom in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 9, 2016 3:03PM

Colleen DeRosa, Cody Dericks and Jess Thigpen in CPA Productions’ "Daphne's Sunset," a production featured in this year's Chicago Musical Theatre Festival (Michael Courier/Courtesy Underscore Theatre Company)

In addition to inspiring a national shout-out during Hillary Clinton’s DNC acceptance speech and whipping determined Chicago ticket-seekers into a frenzy this summer, the unprecedented success of Broadway’s Hamilton this year might signify another unexpected cultural shift: that the general public is ready for more original musical theater. Festival director Alex Higgin-Houser is convinced that’s the case in Chicago, where he and his Underscore Theatre Company team will open their third annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival Tuesday at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater in Lincoln Park.

“Theater companies are far more afraid of new musicals than audience members are,” Higgin-Houser told Chicagoist. “I can’t repeat that enough times.”

This year, Underscore’s festival has again expanded its offerings, including 12 full-length new musical productions and two free workshops from Chicago artists in its nearly month-long lineup. When the festival started in 2014, it consisted of only eight one-act shows in Wicker Park’s smaller Den Theatre space. The fest’s organizers are also partnering with other local companies CPA Theatricals, Kokandy Productions and Balliwick Chicago for artistic guidance, equipment and sponsorship, respectively, on three of this year’s participating shows.

While the city's dramatic theater and comedy scenes are long-established, Chicago creators of new musical theater have seen their local support network strengthen significantly in recent years. Programs like Underscore's, FWD Theatre Project's musical theater incubator (which is accepting submissions through Sept. 1 for its next showcase), and others with similar missions have been growing and introducing new audiences to the art, Higgin-Houser said. And rather than compete with each other, the various new musical-focused groups have gladly worked together to achieve their goal of turning Chicago “from an importer of musical theater to an exporter.”

Conor McGarry, Francisco Lopez, Maxwell J. DeTogne, Vasily Deris, Jerome Riley and Korey White in Rogue Elephant Productions’ "Planted" (Michael Courier/Courtesy Underscore Theatre Company)

“We’re tired of importing our plays and doing things from Broadway,” Higgin-Houser said. “[We want to] do the things that are going to go to Broadway.”

Among this year’s potential future Broadway hits: a musical adaptation of “The Flight of Icarus,” a song-cycle style production about queer men’s relationships, a musical biography of the Righteous Brothers, and a love story about a dystopian world where stalking has replaced romantic interactions, to name a few. Each production will have four performances during the festival that runs through Aug. 28.

“It’s a terrific mix,” Higgin-Houser said. “Shining the spotlight on the composers that are in Chicago and the resources that are available to producers here, it’s really thrilling.”

While Chicago’s musical theater scene has yet to match the reputation of some of the city’s other dramatic and comedic pursuits, Higgin-Houser points to the acclaim and box office success of productions like “Haymarket: The Anarchist’s Songbook,” his company’s world premiere show that debuted in May, as evidence that theatergoers’ appetite for something different is very real and will only continue to grow.
“There’s always going to be an audience for [classic musicals like] “Little Shop [of Horrors],” Higgin-Houser said. “But the trick is to not take a piece of the pie— it’s to make the pie bigger when it comes to new musical theater.”

The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival kicks off Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. For tickets, click here.