After a series of rigorous auditions last December, Twin Cities singer and actor Regina Marie Williams faced an enviable but still agonizing dilemma. She was offered two big roles in two big summer musicals — “Guys and Dolls” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and “42nd Street” at St. Paul’s Ordway Center. She opted for the former.
“But, seriously, I wish I didn’t have to choose,” Williams said by phone recently. “It’s like having someone put all the cakes in front of you.”
In many ways, Williams’ dueling job offers capture the perfect snapshot of the Twin Cities theater scene in 2019, with its unprecedented number of musicals running now and into next season.
The Ordway will originate three big musicals during the 2019-20 season as part of its Broadway offerings, including “The Color Purple” and “Once on This Island.” Park Square Theatre in St. Paul will mark its 45th season by doing three song-and-dance shows — a record number for the theater — including hot new property “Miss You Like Hell” by Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegría Hudes. The Children’s Theatre has “Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds” on its 2019-20 schedule alongside revivals of “Cinderella” and “Annie.”
Then there are the companies long known for their musicals. Currently, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres glams it up with “Mamma Mia!” Theater Latté Da offers a visceral “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Artistry presents the gender-bender musical “Victor/Victoria.” And the Old Log has “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical.”
Even theaters known for their straight plays have ventured into musicals in recent seasons. Ten Thousand Things mounted Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” this winter. The Jungle staged its own production of the off-Broadway hit “Fly by Night” a couple of years ago.
“There was a time, 10 to 15 years ago, when people were saying musical theater was dead,” said Twin Cities leading lady Ann Michels, a classically trained singer best known for her roles in musicals (including the just opened “Victor/Victoria”). “It’s been reborn, as it periodically does.”
Casting a wider net
Of course, the situation represents a bonanza for musically trained talent — and there is a lot in Minnesota, starting at the high school level. The Ordway auditioned hundreds of performers for its upcoming productions of “42nd Street” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” The vast majority brought strong vocal résumés.
But ramping up musical theater offerings has forced companies to search farther and wider for talent. And that means casting performers without the musical pedigree.
Children’s Theatre Company recently put actor H. Adam Harris in two singing roles, for “The Hobbit” and last year’s “The Lorax.”
“I’m not planning a major shift to musical theater, mostly because I don’t have the requisite training,” he said recently. “But if they call me in [for an audition], you’d best bet I’m going.”
Harris doesn’t know how to read music, though, which can surface some insecurities during rehearsals. “If someone gives me a note in a straight play, I understand and can adjust,” he said. “But if someone is coming at me like this is a quarter-note, this is 7/8 — music is math, and I was never good at math.”
With the help of a voice coach, Harris managed to land in his comfort zone for “The Lorax,” in which he sang three songs. Rather than focusing on what he lacked — an occupational hazard not only in theater — Harris zeroed in on all he could bring. Namely, he could inject the character with deep emotion not just by singing, but also by acting the songs.
A lack of musical training can be a gift, said Ten Thousand Things music director Peter Vitale. Also a composer, writer and actor, Vitale said that “sometimes there’s a great vulnerability in an actor who doesn’t consider him- or herself a singer when they open up and sing.”
Ten Thousand Things specializes in staging shows for raw, open spaces — such as prison cafeterias and common rooms at homeless shelters. These venues serve to train the audience’s focus on story and character rather than the quality of vocal delivery. “When you work with trained singers, they are rightly concerned about things like technique,” Vitale said. “But with an actor, you talk about the character, and why they’re doing something.”
Vitale gave the example of Luverne Seifert, more a straight actor than a singer. He played a great Harold Hill in a 2014 Ten Thousand Things production of “The Music Man,” a portrayal filled with bluster and unexpected vocal interest.
Vitale also pointed to actor Stephen D’Ambrose’s 2001 turn in Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella.” “The part was written for an opera singer, and there was no way we wanted to blow that out in an intimate space,” Vitale said. “Stephen had a musical ear and good sense of rhythm. So the way we unlocked that character for him was to talk about how he had a collection of opera records that he was always playing and singing along to.”
Hooked on musicals
What explains all the musical theater productions in recent years?
Children’s Theatre Company played a big role introducing Minnesota’s youngsters to the form. Founded in 1965, the company has staged musicals and other music-infused shows from the outset, treating generations of theatergoers to beloved productions such as “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” “Cinderella” and “Annie.”
Michels also credited Disney, whose cartoon-to-musical pipeline hooks children on shows such as “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Mulan” before the stage productions roll into Broadway theaters and beyond.
“Hamilton” certainly has a little something to do with it. The hip-hop musical opened at New York City’s Public Theater in 2015, setting the theater world agog.
Another explanation is all the fresh blood in the Twin Cities theater scene, from Ordway artistic director Rod Kaats to Flordelino Lagundino, the new head at Park Square. Both came from New York, the world capital of musical theater.
While the cost of producing musicals remains high in Minnesota — this was always a complaint — it’s still a bargain compared with New York. And besides, hit musicals can significantly boost the bottom line, since ticket buyers are accustomed to paying more for musicals than straight plays (prices top out at $249 for “Dear Evan Hansen,” opening May 28 at the Orpheum Theatre).
One person who is beyond excited by the plethora of options is Tyler Michaels King, a musically trained actor headlining “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” for Theater Latté Da. “It’s not just the volume of shows but the quality, the types of shows and the hot properties,” he said. He’ll return to the stage this summer for the Ordway’s “42nd Street.”
He hopes all these high-quality musicals bring more attention to the Twin Cities scene. “We have the talent here in town to be at the forefront of these conversations nationally.”
Michels, who studied opera at the University of Minnesota, Morris, is similarly pleased with all the musicals. But she still hopes Twin Cities companies keep an open mind. “Straight theater shouldn’t be ignored and become the ugly stepsister,” she said. “It’s important for our community to have all the options.”