A Study of an Exemplary
Musical Theater Workshop Curriculum
(for the American Center for Musical Theater)
This tale of an unsung yet highly-influential musical theater training
program begins twenty years into its complete history and six years into
its quiet residency at the Los Angeles Music Center, with the following
excerpt from a fund-raising letter which succinctly captures the raison
d'être for the Musical Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles Civic Light
Opera, its next generation, the American Center for Musical Theater, and
for that matter, it may be argued, for any musical theater or opera
"The vitality of the musical theater depends upon the creation of
new works and the emergence of new talents. With our highly
successful Musical Theater Workshop, we have become a nation-wide
leader in training fresh young talent for important careers. Over
50% of the Workshop students in our six sessions to date have since
appeared with us and on Broadway, in national companies and in major
theaters throughout the country."
[ 1 ]
Thus began an appeal letter to the guarantors of the Los Angeles Civic
Light Opera Association (LACLOA), a large group of corporations and
private sector sponsors who covered production cost deficits. This
letter, written by then President of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera
(LACLO) Association, William T. Sesnon, Jr., sought funding for an
ongoing scholarship program to assist in the training of "fine young
talents who audition" but "must regrettably be omitted from our group
because of a lack of funds."
[ 2 ]
What the LACLO Association sought was support for the
professional training of talent, towards a career in musical theater,
both within the LACLO company and with companies across the nation. This
emergence of new talent was utmost in the minds of the founders and
preservers of this Musical Theater Workshop, begun in 1962 under the
auspices of the LACLOA, and in the best interests of the LACLO as a
producing organization. The reason was and remains crystal clear, and
that is to ensure the vitality of the art and business of musical
theater by discovering and nurturing new talent. To find and train this
new emerging talent, the MTW method was to hand-pick through auditions
the most promising of performers, and train them through an orientation
curriculum specifically for the needs of a professional musical theater
It was for precisely these reasons that the Musical
Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera was created in
1962, with the charge to audition, evaluate, select and train promising
musical theater performers towards the goal of employment with the Los
Angeles Civic Light Opera, and its sister organization, the San
Francisco Civic Light Opera (SFCLO). In time, the LACLO and the SFCLO
would merge, as corporations, into the California Civic Light Opera
Association. From the Musical Theater Workshop's inception to its
ultimate reorganization in the present day as the American Center for
Musical Theater, this educational agency has been graduating trained
performers for long-term careers in musical theater, and beyond.
Yet, outside the musical theater community, this agency is little known,
and sometimes misunderstood. Sylvie Drake, a well known theater
journalist and critic, wrote that the Musical Theater Workshop is "one
of Los Angeles' better kept secrets...."
[ 3 ]
Drake wrote this, the Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO stood among
many other musical theater workshops in the greater Los Angeles area,
and was often undifferentiated from the general perception of the goals
and structures of what musical theater workshops are, or are supposed to
be. At the time of Ms. Drake's article, musical theater workshops were
part of the curriculum of the University of California, Los Angeles
(UCLA), the University of Southern California (USC), and several
campuses of the California State University system, not to mention many
similar programs at local junior colleges. Amid all these, to include
the several private workshops which would advertise in local
entertainment periodicals such as Dramalogue and the Hollywood Reporter,
the impact of the Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO was central,
influential and curiously unpublicized.
What was it about the
Civic Light Opera's Musical Theater Workshop (MTW) that made it a
seemingly well-kept secret, at the same time was so productive a
training program as measured by academic and professional standards?
This can be uniquely answered by an examination of its philosophy,
methods and curriculum.
While the MTW's "workshop" character
indicates its similarity to all the above mentioned college and
university workshops, its overall goals, structure and curriculum
reflect different concerns for the musical theater performer from the
usual workshop program. In view of ACMT's wholly professional approach
to the training of performers for a career, it can by example provide
for procedures, strategies and suggestions for heightening the
effectiveness of college and university musical theaters workshops, and,
by extension, opera workshops, as well.
This claim of being
productive is ubiquitous among all training programs, whether privately
run or found in schools and universities. Pointing to and celebrating
the well-known and working professionals among an organization's alumni
is the usually accepted measure of such productivity, and the Musical
Theater Workshop, though a "better kept secret," has had the distinction
of placing an unusually high percentage of working professionals within
the entertainment industry. There are exemplary reasons, based in the
MTW's foundational philosophy and curriculum, which can explain this
Irrespective of the current name, the once named
Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO and now ACMT's charge, in general,
is still to orient stage performers - that is, actors, singers and
dancers - towards a viable stage career. Its ongoing effectiveness was
at one time appraised at "70 per cent of the graduates..." earning
"their living in the entertainment industry."
[ 4 ]
Whether standing at the 70 % level of 1981, or the earlier 50% claimed
in Sesnon's letter quoted earlier, the effectiveness of this program
stands far above the usual workshop's productivity, for a number of
reasons, including its standards in selecting participants for the
program, its methodology, and, to this writer, the centrality of its
two-fold concentration on preparation for the professional audition and
the integration of those skills into scene study.
Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO has been renamed the American
Center for Musical Theater (ACMT) and has been restructured. It is no
longer operated by and administered through a weakened LACLO after
seminal changes in the industry here in Los Angeles and around the
world, but relies on its own non-profit, public-benefit corporation for
both support and direction. Having moved from its long-term residency in
the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center, in downtown Los
Angeles, it is now headquartered next to the Pantages Theater in
Hollywood. As before its restructuring, it remains a privately run
educational agency, under its own board of directors, among whom is a
legend within the panoply of musical theater stars, John Raitt.
2. DEFINING THE MUSICAL THEATER PERFORMER'S SKILLS
Musical theater, for the performer, is a cross-disciplined complex,
which involves acceptable [
5 ] levels of proficiency in singing and musicianship,
acting and stage awareness, movement and dance, as well as an
understanding of the business aspects of the field, such as relating to
agents and managers, unions, company structures and personnel
relationships, and, of course, the crucial audition process by which
employment is won. It is around this complex of skills that the
curriculum of the Workshop was designed.
Today, it is important
to note that additional study may involve languages, as the genre of
American musical theater now encompasses professional opportunities with
producing and performing companies throughout the world. For the
classical musical theater, which runs the gamut from light opera to
grand opera, the inclusion of language study becomes much more crucial.
In the last decade, the Metropolitan Opera has finally produced
Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," and such American musical theater pieces as
"Pajama Game" and "Sweeney Todd" have been included in the season of the
New York City Opera, Lincoln Center neighbor to the Met. As the
distinctions between musical theater genre blur with the passage of
time, what remains is the consistent need for the same "triple threat"
skills as above mentioned.
Because of this blurring of
distinctions between genres, under the aegis of the ACMT banner, several
"opera intensives" were run over the years, but these were essentially
structured and supported by the same philosophic bases and pragmatic
concerns which have consistently driven the Workshop.
musical theater is the craft and art of singing, which is interlocked
with proficiency in acting, and its corollary, stage movement. Therefore
the song in its scene, whether a simple ballad, aria or complete
ensemble, is the central focus of the ACMT curriculum.
The song, in any and all of its incarnations, can be viewed from two
interlocking perspectives: first, its appearance within the scene and
show, and second, its ancillary use in the audition process. The song
exists, as Richard Rodgers paraphrased Oscar Hammerstein, and "becomes a
song only when someone sings it."
[ 6 ]
Therefore, the Workshop has placed its central emphasis on the song, and
the multiple skills required for today's musical theater performer
(acting, movement, and business related issues) are clustered around the
study of the song. This will be taken up in more detail in a discussion
of the philosophy and curriculum planning of the Workshop.
3. A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORKSHOP WITHIN THE LOS ANGELES
CIVIC LIGHT OPERA
The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera began with presentations of standards
operettas, and slowly evolved, in its heyday, into the west coast's
leading producer of stage musicals. It was initially established by
Edwin Lester, a transplanted New Yorker who had come to Los Angeles as a
pianist. In the first season of the LACLO in 1938, four shows were
offered during a five-week season. Prior to this, Lester had presented
two smaller seasons in 1935 and 1936 of what he had called a "Light
[ 7 ]
In the LACLO's first season, Lester featured John
Charles Thomas in a premiere production of Blossom Time, and, in the
same season, introduced Bob Hope to Los Angeles audiences in another
operetta, Roberta. These ventures attracted the notice of Homer Curran,
the owner and operator of San Francisco's Curran Theater, and soon
Curran was arranging with Lester for shows to be jointly presented,
under the LACLO, and a sister organization, the San Francisco Civic
Light Opera (SFCLO). Lester's operative motto for the LACLO was "no
compromise - get the best."
[ 8 ]
The Music Center Story, published to celebrate the
twenty-fifth anniversary of the institution, lauded many decades of
Lester's LACLO with the following:
In order to bring musical
theater within the reach of as many as possible, CLO has remained a
civic, non-profit organization, thereby enabling it to present Broadway
hits and comparable productions at prices nearly one-third less than
those which prevail in New York. Never subsidized, Civic Light Opera has
always been self-sustaining, underwritten against loss by hundreds of
public-spirited citizens and business organizations of the community. In
the past twenty years these guarantors have been called on only once, a
record unparalleled in theatrical circles.
Lester's "no compromise - get the best" mentality
prompted him to institute a workshop for the specific purpose of
providing new yet experienced talent to the LACLO. In a 1962 brochure
for the newly created Musical Theater Workshop, he wrote,
need of such training was clear; of the thousands of singers and dancers
we audition, it is amazing how few know the things they must know to
achieve any kind of importance in this field. While much first rate
schooling was available in the separate disciplines of acting, singing
and dancing, we found no procedure that satisfied the basic purpose of
the workshop - the integration of all these elements into one
Lester, as General Director of the LACLO, arranged an appropriation of
funds out of the LACLO and SFCLO, for the express purpose of creating
the Workshop. Edward Greenberg, then resident stage director for the
LACLO and SFCLO associations who has been brought from New York to Los
Angeles by Lester in 1959, was assigned the task of organizing the first
Workshop. Greenberg had taught acting and speech at Queens College and
City College, in parallel with a professional directorial career. At the
time of his appointment to head the Musical Theater Workshop, he had
staged over eighty productions, and was also director of the St. Louis
Municipal Opera. Greenberg was joined by choreographer Eugene Loring and
musical director Harper MacKay, both highly experienced professionals in
musical theater, and associated with the LACLO.
The first and
second sessions, in the spring and fall of 1962, consisted of 65 hours,
over a six and one-half week period. The Workshop was limited to
eighteen participants, by audition only. The curriculum included 1)
musical scene study, the heart of the program, in which performers were
cast into standard repertoire scenes for presentation and reworking
under the faculty team of stage director, choreographer and musical
director; 2) speech for the stage; 3) musical preparation for scene
study; 4) movement techniques; and 5) effective auditioning, to guide
the selection and preparation of audition materials best suited to a
specific performer's personality and casting potential.
third session in the spring of 1963, the course work was extended to 78
hours over an eight week period, with an enlarged enrollment of
twenty-two performers. In the season brochure for 1963, Lester wrote:
"...we are proud to note that more than half of the forty members
chosen for the first two Workshops have since been engaged for
musical productions in New York, Las Vegas, with touring companies,
and in our own Civic Light Opera presentations. In several
instances, they have been awarded major roles, thereby reflecting
those high professional standards by which we have always measured
all Civic Light Opera activities."
In 1966, the LACLO and SFCLO management wished to reinforce the Workshop
by aligning it with the newly formed School of Performing Arts, of the
University of Southern California (USC). The program was billed as the
"University of Southern California/School of Performing Arts, Musical
Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles and San Francisco Civic Light Opera
Associations. Raymond Kendall, then Dean of the School of Performing
Arts, addressed the idea behind this handshake affiliation as follows:
"In many ways and in multiple directions, the American university
has become both a patron and a home for the performing arts. It
often fulfills the role which royalty, the church, even the state
have served in other times, in other cultures."
Dean Kendall highlighted a number of university programs under the aegis
of the School of Performing Arts, and then introduces the Workshop to
the university's family of programs:
"To these special programs is now being added a Musical Theater
Workshop sponsored jointly by the University and the Los Angeles and
San Francisco Civic Light Opera Associations. This addition is in
keeping with the philosophy of the School of Performing Arts: to
supplement the formal University training of singers, composers,
critics, instrumentalists, actors and directors with professional,
non-credit workshops which will enable them to adapt their basic
training to the more specific requirements of their chosen
professions, where there may be jobs and stable future employment.
The University should train young professionals for jobs which exist
and have a future." [
4. THE BASIC PROGRAM
The curriculum for the fall of 1966 ran a "Basic Program," which
included the following classes: 1) musical scene study; 2) speech for
the stage; 3) musical preparation; 4) movement and mime, with the
inclusion of mime a change from previous seasons; 5) a course now titled
"Effective Auditioning;" and the addition of two new classes, 6)
sight-singing, with "primary emphasis upon those musical numbers to be
performed in scene study;"
[ 13 ]
and 7) a business orientation, called
"The Performer in Professional Theater," surveying the structure of a
musical production company, contractual rights and responsibilities,
rehearsal behaviors, and career opportunities.
In addition to the
"Basic Program," additional classes were offered. They were 1) a second
and more advanced round of musical scene study which concentrated on
longer and more difficult materials, and 2) an extension of
sight-singing for musical theater performers. Two additional classes,
which were offered both to the musical theater performer and other
interested parties within the university, rounded out USC's offering: 1)
a seminar on producing, directing, choreographing, designing and
managing productions; 2) a course entitled "Writing and Composing for
the Musical Theater," aimed at book writers, composers and lyricists.
These last two courses of study were ancillary to the Musical Theater
Workshop, and essentially curricula to broaden the course of study at
the University of Southern California.
The Workshop staff grew
from three to ten. Len Bedsow, supervisor of theater operations for the
LACLO and experienced as a production and stage manager, was added as
the Workshop's administrator. Now included were Richmond Sheppard, a
student of Marcel Marceau, who had previously taught at Princeton and
the Living Theater in New York City; Jerome Chorodov, author and
playwright; Forman Brown, lyricist, author and playwright; Harvey
Warren, set designer; Albert Nickel, from Western Costume Company; and
Michael Zimring, from the literary department of the William Morris
The Basic Program increased from 78 to 160 hours of
training over a ten week period, and the Workshop functioned as a
'non-academic' and non-credited activity within the School of Performing
Arts at USC, although exceptions were made for regularly enrolled USC
students. Auditions were held at the Curran Theater in San Francisco and
at USC. Aside from the making available of classroom and rehearsal
facilities, the responsibility for operating the Workshop remained with
the LACLO and SFCLO managements. Funding came from both sources, with
scholarships donated by supporters of both Civic Light Opera
During the ensuing three year residence at the
campus of USC, two more faculty members who were not a part of the first
season were engaged. Curt Conway, head of New Talent Development for
Twentieth-Century Fox and an noted actor, added a new level of
sophistication to the Workshop's integration of acting into the Workshop
curriculum. Conway taught the class in advanced musical scene study, and
its focus was on the development of stage characterizations with
reference to established acting systems, including the Stanislavsky
Method. He addressed the demand for theatrical reality required in the
musical theater works being created at that time. His advanced class,
separate from the Basic Program, added another 45 hours to the
instructional package. Paul Gleason, an experienced performer,
choreographer and assistant Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Dance
Theater, took on the responsibility for movement and dance instruction.
Gleason remains to this time as Director of the current ACMT Workshop
sessions and its other activities.
The producing offices of the
LACLO were moved to the new Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, which
had been completed in 1964, and the management decided to bring its
Workshop into the Music Center in the 1969 season. As a result, the
association with the School of Performing Arts was abandoned, and the
Workshop held its sessions in the rehearsal studios on the fourth floor
of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This provided a genuine working
atmosphere for each ensuing session during its residency at the Music
Center, and placed the Workshop classes, Workshop offices and LACLO
offices in the same building.
In 1970, Edward Greenberg left the
Workshop to return to the St. Louis Municipal Opera, and Len Bedsow was
named director of the Workshop, while continuing his work as Director of
Operations for the LACLO. Bedsow reaffirmed the Workshop's mission this
Hopefully, each of these performers will enter or re-enter the world
of the musical theater better equipped to meet the realities of an
industry which, while unquestionably fascinating, can be frequently
confusing to the uninitiated.
[ 14 ]
Bedsow began augmenting his faculty with the inclusion of guest
speakers. The Curtain Call article documents, "Seminars are conducted by
experienced business managers, agents, press agents, producers and
directors, to answer practical questions and illustrate some of the
pitfalls which might conceivably confuse and confound the neophyte. One
of the important messages emphasized by the Workshop faculty is that
although the musical theater is a field with high artistic components,
it is also a business faced with the daily survival crisis which plagues
[ 15 ]
years 1970-76, the additional activities which had become part of the
Workshop during its tenure at USC were discontinued. Issues of writing
for, composing for and producing musical theater were put aside, and the
original concept of intensive orientation and training of performers,
which was Lester's fundamental concern, was reaffirmed. With the
excision of the university additions, the Basic Program and advanced
musical scene study under Conway's supervision were the whole of the
In this period, added to the Basic Program
were more time for scene rehearsal, organized within a working rehearsal
environment, and acting as separate from the musical scene. The faculty
was also culled, reformed into a smaller permanent cadre of six
instructors. They were Bedsow, Conway, Gleason, Sheppard, MacKay and a
new addition, Larry Ferguson, who was concurrently teaching speech at
UCLA. This smaller faculty had an interesting effect in focusing
Lester's goals more closely on the issues most crucial to the individual
stage performer. The Workshop was said to "act as an effective bridge
between the academic environment of the developing young performer and
the higher plateau of the skilled artisan who works within the
[ 16 ]
Clearly, this documents the
Workshop's self-image, and that began as and remained the "effective
bridge" between the academic and professional worlds, orienting the
Workshop participant from student to "artisan."
In 1976, Paul
Gleason succeeded Len Bedsow as director, while Bedsow continued on with
the LACLO as general manager, into its re-incorporation with the SFCLO
into the California Civic Light Opera Association. The core faculty
remained together for a number of years thereafter. A press release from
1979 shows the following class list from the Basic Program: 1) musical
scene study; 2) scene rehearsal; 3) speech for the stage; 4) musical
preparation; 5) sight-singing; 6) movement; 7) basic acting; 8)
theatrical make-up, a recent addition; 9) song interpretation; and 10)
The environment, in which these classes
were run, was patterned after professional production standards.
"Upstairs," it was written in a press release, "in the Dorothy Chandler
Pavilion's rehearsal rooms, directly above the stage, it is a lot less
glamorous. On hard wood floors in front of unblinking mirrored walls,
the Workshop meets...."
[ 17 ]
In this period, the Workshop was meeting for 300 hours
across a twelve week period. The training, which had begun in 1963 with
78 hours, was now fulfilling its billing as "intensive." The enrollment
was still severely limited, at this time to twenty-two participants.
Lester's focus on the individual performer's orientation and training
was clearly being met by his Workshop, and those alumni were finding
their way consistently into employment within the industry.
Heightening the emphasis on acting, a course in "Cold Reading" was added
to train in techniques for audition situations in which a performer has
not been previously given script materials, and is not acquainted with
those materials, but must read them effectively in an audition.
In the continual realignment towards Lester's clear goals for Workshop
alumni, among those joining the faculty were directors Gary Davis and
Lew Palter, Gordon Hunt
[ 18 ]
(who was both a director
and casting director for the Mark Taper Forum in this period), musical
directors David Hubler and Robb Webb, and a speech coach, Larry Moss.
Accompanying these changes and realignments in the Workshop were a
number of corporate changes in the structure of the LACLO itself.
Effective on February 21, 1977, the California Civic Light Opera was
created by the merger of the San Francisco Civic Light Opera (termed the
"disappearing" corporation) and the LACLO (termed the "surviving"
corporation) for the purpose of creating "a statewide light opera
[ 19 ]
The California Civic Light Opera
(CCLO) was officially "founded" by Edwin Lester, and board members from
both boards of directors sat together as members of the CCLO. During
these years, production expenses and changes in management within the
producing side of the CCLO created lessened fiscal security for the
organization, and therefore for its Musical Theater Workshop.
Diminishing audiences and the importing of more and more traveling
companies diminished the CCLO's impact as a producing company, and it
began to move towards a management role in musical theater, booking
shows from outside.
Into this sparse economic climate for the
CCLO stepped the non-profit wing of an economically solvent theatrical
producer, James Nederlander. This non-profit entity, the American
Corporation for the Arts, proposed a joint venture bearing the name of
the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, but in reality a joint venture of the
CCLO and the American Corporation for the Arts. Nederlander, in an
announcement of the joint venture, said, "This alliance is a further
step in the movement to establish Los Angeles as a prime source of
Musical Theater serving not only the U.S., but also the theatrical
capitals throughout the world."
[ 20 ]
In this period, additional faculty members were
engaged. Carlos Noble and Jack Elton joined as musical directors, Larry
Hyman and Frank Bayer, who was casting director for the Mark Taper Forum
at this time, as directors. It may be noted that from its inception, the
Workshop chose faculty who were widely recognized in the field of
musical theater. With the untimely death of musical director David
Hubler and Gordon Hunt's increased professional responsibilities, the
faculty remained at eleven, centering its curricular focus on musical
scene study as the core of the program.
With the continued growth
of the Workshop's expenses and the fiscal demands placed on the LACLO's
production and presentation plans, a decision was reached by the board
of directors to create a separate non-profit agency to shelter the
Workshop. Therefore in 1984 the American Center for Musical Theater, or
ACMT, was incorporated. As a separate entity, it could raise its own
funds, direct its own future, and yet rely on the quasi-familial support
of the LACLO, CCLO and American Corporation for the Arts. During this
period, its hours and session length remained at the previous level, and
enrollment remained limited to twenty-two participants.
with the Basic Program, several other projects were taken on. A Youth
Conservatory Program for performers too young for the adult-level Basic
Program was begun. An Opera Workshop was run, working concurrently with
the Basic Program, and with its same goals. A New Work Program was
attempted, with the purpose of stimulating new writing and staged
readings of new works, and alumni of the Workshop performed as a part of
the Music Center's Educational Division, in a "Music Center on Tour."
Given these circumstances of a certain degree of independence along with
scheduling problems involving the use of rehearsal facilities between
the L.A. Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Master Chorale and
LACLO-sponsored shows all competing for funding, support and space
within the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, plans were made to move the
Workshop to its current home, next door to the Pantages Theater in
Since its inception in 1962, the Workshop, now ACMT,
has continued to make a central and influential contribution to the
ongoing liveliness of musical theater. Yet, its lack of public
recognition stems from the fact that, in its now decades long life, it
has yet to produce a single public performance, outside of the
public-service performances which it does as an educational outreach, or
through lecture - demonstrations presented to local schools.
the many performing organizations with which it has been associated, or
been a 'neighbor' during its tenure at USC, the Music Center, or in its
current home, and in the midst of the many publicized performances by
musical theater and opera workshops in colleges, universities and
community-based theaters, the Workshop, now ACMT, stands quietly unique,
continuing its charge -Edwin Lester's charge- to act as an "effective
professional bridge" between study and eventual employment.
the Workshop, it was written, "Conducted by prominent working
professionals in a professional environment, the Workshop is the only
training program of its kind in the nation."
[ 21 ] This journalist's assertion is an accurate
philosophical and practical account of the Workshop's conduct and its
promise to the performer that has been accepted into its curriculum. It
is to an examination of the ACMT curriculum and the specific goals of
that curriculum that we must look for the supportive facts.
recent years, Edwin Lester and a number of the original faculty members
of the workshop have passed away. With them, a historic era in musical
theater begins to pass as well. The sponsorship of the Workshop has been
diminished from the organizations connected with the Music Center, and
the function of the Civic Light Opera Associations as producing entities
has been diluted by shifts in the way that musical theater, as an
evolving business, is created and operated. ACMT continues to run
smaller versions of the workshop under reduced financial support from
organizations such as the old LACLO, but retains the crucial spirit and
philosophic and pragmatic foundations which were established and
clarified by Edwin Lester and his generation of musical theater titans.
Irrespective of current curricula in college, university and privately
run musical theater workshops which operate across the country, there
are basic lessons to be learned from this era and the legacy of Edwin
Lester's vision of creating and maintaining an "effective bridge"
between the study of musical theater and the entry into the profession
5. "GET THE BEST"
There are a number of consistent threads woven through the history of
the Workshop. The first and now frequently cited is Lester's "get the
best" mentality. In his time as producer, Lester had used this as his
watchword in casting, and it proved, during his tenure with the LACLO,
to be a successful strategy in attracting and maintaining audiences. It
is from this perspective that Lester viewed candidates for the Workshop
as feeder material, with proper orientation and training, to cast his
shows with the best talent available. The impetus and central focus for
the Workshop was therefore to select the best candidates, and then make
them better through professionally oriented training.
in auditioning candidates for the Workshop's Basic Program, both
advanced skill levels and evidence of promise were easy to understand
'sorting filters' by which to select those with the highest chance of
building professional careers. One candidate might be especially
accomplished as a singer, another as an actor, and another as a dancer;
another candidate might be moderately skilled in all three areas. A mix
of these kinds of performers was more likely to result of casting, than
a concentration only on the best singers, or only on the most all around
skilled. Therefore there was a usual diversity among the casting choices
made for each session. Along with these obvious sorting filters was one
much less obvious, and that was the looking for an indication of
"directability." This is a clear facet of getting "the best," for the
performer who can take direction, whether during an audition or in
rehearsal, will have an advantage over the performer who is resistant to
Therefore selecting Lester's "best" was a matter of
taking on Workshop participants who showed themselves already rather
well schooled and well skilled, or showed evidence of being able to
attain that level, along with the crucial psychological component of
being "directable." Being a relatively intangible commodity,
directability was deemed to be 1) identifiable in a candidate during an
audition and interview, and 2) a skill which can be heightened during
A Workshop participant was then immersed into the Basic
Program, which has changed in duration and detail over the years, and
yet remained remarkably attuned to its function as a professional bridge
towards the ultimate goal - employment in musical theater. The
environment in which the Basic Program was run was a mimic of
professional employment, complete with assigned stage managers, sign-in
sheets following the Equity plan, and a no-excuses mentality about
attendance, tardiness or lack of preparation of assigned materials. As
this was a non-graded, non-academic environment, school style
organization was avoided. The following is a sampling of the structure
of the Basic Program in several of its seasons:
The growth of the Basic Program from its beginnings in 1962 was an
continuing intensification of focus on the same issues, which have
been clearly summarized earlier in this article: musical scene
study, and preparation for employment, via audition training and
learning about the business side of musical theater. The additional
classes shown above all were intended to support these central
The program was to put the performer into the
material, guiding and directing the study of the scenes and
supporting music, in a kind of 'on the job' training, towards the
goal of a performance level proficiency. Therefore, the professional
environment was mimicked, as best possible within the instructional
setting. Classes were quasi-rehearsals, and not run in an academic
style in the sense of lectures and periodic testing of effectiveness
of learning. Even the 'lectures' were more interviews, question and
answer sessions being the normative behavior of the lectures.
The goal of each scene study session was to bring up to performance
level, as possible, one or more performers in a working situation,
and then 'presenting' in rehearsal for the remainder of the Workshop
participants the ongoing "work-in-progress," a favored expression.
Therefore, performers in a scene would receive coaching and
criticism from one or more directors, musical directors and other
such faculty and guests as would be in attendance during a
particular session. This was an ongoing practice throughout the
More than one opinion might be offered by the
instructors, sometimes even conflicting opinions, in large part
because the business of theater can involve conflicting views
existing simultaneously within a production team. Out of this, there
was adequate opportunity to discuss and demonstrate coping skills
for such eventualities, by the leader of an instructional team. The
continual upgrading of musical theater's basic skills of singing,
acting and movement were incorporated into the casting and direction
of each scene, and the work was most frequently done in front of the
remainder of the workshop participants, making the subjective lesson
for certain performers an objective lesson for the rest.
mentioned earlier, a complete and publicly presented production was
never an end goal of the Workshop. This is a distinction from the
college and university workshop sensibilities, wherein a production
of a musical theater (or opera) work, staged and presented as a
finished work, is the end goal of specific workshop sessions.
Without the pressure to "fill out" a cast list, roles and scenes
could be assigned to most closely fit a participant's skill level
and likely casting type. This lent a freedom in the decision to
include certain participants in the workshop, since balance between
casting types was never sought; the only real sorting filters in
auditions for the Workshop were ability, and gender, as an equal
number of men and women were usually enrolled.
Along with the
clear focus on musical scene study, there was an intense emphasis on
auditioning, on the selection of 'sure-fire' material, and the
honing of presentations skills, such that directors have from time
to time been able to identify Workshop alumni by the professionalism
of their auditions.
[ 22 ] The Workshop schedule required regular
auditioning by participants in front of their peers and a panel
drawn from the faculty, to repetitively work audition skills and
materials. This feature of the Workshop is often not a significant
part of the usual workshop curriculum, as class time is often
invested into the university's or organization's preparations for a
performed work as its ultimate goal.
There was a final night,
in which "work in progress" was showcased for an invited audience,
which usually consisted of family and friends of the participants,
plus faculty, sponsors and guests from the producing organizations.
While emceed and run like a performance, it was a loosely organized
event and not open to the general public. This final night was a
continued forum to espouse the basics of the Workshop - the
centeredness on musical scenes, effective auditioning and
professional expectations and standards.
As an example of the
general organization of the Workshop's classes, the following is an
real and representative outline of a twelve week long regimen, taken
from the 1978-9 season. In this particular season, eleven men and
eleven women participated, each responsible for preparing three
musical scenes, as well as several audition numbers, production
numbers and monologues as assigned. The general schedule allowed for
five hours per evening, running from 6 to 11 P.M., five days a week
for twelve weeks. This immersion into a professional environment was
complete with deadlines for preparation of materials, and required
off-hours rehearsal preparation with assigned scene partners.
Curriculum Outline, c. 1979 [
The weekly schedule was structured so as to allow the assignment of
scenes, with several days made available to prepare the new
materials, coach the music and direct the scenes in limited, private
sessions prior to the rehearsal-style running of the scenes on
Wednesday's Scene Study period, complete with subject/object lessons
for individual performer and the assembled workshop, discussion and
critique from a combined faculty panel. Musical preparation for
auditioning was given on Thursday, such that a week of preparation
could be done before the following Wednesday's Audition Class, also
presented before a combined panel for direction, discussion and
critique. The twelfth week was the culmination of scene study
classes and audition classes, in which the more representative
projects were combined with certain production numbers involving all
the participants into a quasi-revue format for final "Workshop
Night" presentation to a small, invited audience.
Workshop also featured, as part of its basic philosophy, instruction
by professionals within the industry. From management and stage
directors for the LACLO, to casting directors from the Mark Taper
Forum, to choreographers and musical directors with significant
professional as well as academic resumes, the Workshop, through its
key associations with the musical theater industry, was able to
maintain a faculty unsurpassed in the nation.
In summary, the
Basic Program of the Workshop was built upon a significant
concentration on musical scene study supported by acting, musical
coaching and movement classes, preparation for effective
auditioning, and the mentoring of a range of professionals in the
field. This mix of an immersion in the professional environment,
focus on the musical scene as the fundamental unit of musical
theater, audition preparation and contact between and exposure to
industry professionals built the "effective bridge" envisioned by
6. IMPLICATIONS FOR MUSICAL THEATER AND OPERA WORKSHOPS
This Workshop has been a laboratory in which to test the premises
which Lester was committed to during his tenure with the Los Angeles
Civic Light Opera. The significance of this particular Workshop lies
in the high number of working professionals who passed through its
programs. The Workshop had many luxuries throughout it history -
most significantly the access to a cadre of working professionals to
direct and mentor its participants. The average university and
privately run workshop must usually be staffed by fewer instructors,
as the professional "bridge" of the Workshop was a costly endeavor
in terms of personnel payroll, even given the fact that most of the
instructors received far less in compensation than their career
credits would have warranted. The workshops of the future can
emulate some portion of the LACLO Workshop's good fortune by yoking
as many disciplines and outside guests into its instructional
package as is possible. Invitation to guests who are professionals
in the industry can layer a curriculum with additional pragmatic and
tested perspectives beyond the scope of an instructional staff, just
a guest lecturers to the Workshop, whether alumni or specially
arranged instructors outside its faculty, brought their own unique
experiences within the industry into the workshop.
the finite fiscal issue of faculty payroll, the two broad study
goals of the Workshop need to be consistently emphasized. It is
generally asserted that the basic unit of the art form is the
musical scene, and, therefore, continued stress on the study of
musical scenes within a rehearsal environment places the performer
into the physical, artistic and emotional act of making musical
theater as a hands-on, collaborative effort. In an academic program,
the centering on musical scene study would require a supporting role
be played by acting classes, musical coaching and instruction in
movement and dance.
Moreover, the central place of musical
scene study within the curriculum might frequently frustrate the
sometimes competing goal of producing a work for public performance.
This is a dissonance between two often disparate end goals of a
workshop - either training tailored solely to the individual
participant versus the greater needs of a production's casting
requirements. The resolution to this conflict becomes a testimony to
the basic philosophy of any workshop. The production goal will argue
for lessons learned in the compromises made to mount and present a
finished product for a constituent public, while Lester's Workshop
philosophy dispenses with the need for a finished product, and
focuses instead on the process of building skills within the
structure of individual scenes. The tension between these generally
defined goals, often exclusive one of the other, can only be settled
by a faculty's choice as to its direction: finished productions
versus ongoing scene study.
The basic entry into musical
theater employment is the audition. Therefore, an ongoing
preparation of audition materials and skills prepares a performer to
compete within the industry for employment. It is only over the
"bridge" of the audition that the performer wins roles, and gains
employment. Therefore, the Workshop curriculum forces repetitive
confrontations with the audition process and environment - its
material, skills and strategies. This most pragmatic concern is
rarely evidenced within the academic environment. It is the
recommendation of this study that it might be a welcome addition to
any workshop within an academic curriculum.
curriculum choices, the aim can always be agreed upon, and that is
that the Workshop, and any musical theater and opera workshop, must
achieve a finer understanding of the structures, skills and the art
of musical theater. A reassessment of this exemplary curriculum, its
methods and goals, can assist in that finer understanding. To again
cite Sesnon, "The vitality of the musical theater depends upon the
creation of new works and the emergence of new talents." [
The new works will be written in the privacy
of collaborations and artists' studios; the emergence of new talents
will remain the province and charge of the musical theater and opera
workshops. This cursory study of this Musical Theater Workshop,
under the successive banners of the LACLO, CCLO and, now, ACMT
points the way to highly effective instruction, the sensibility of
shoring up and preserving that "effective bridge" from study into
the profession of musical theater, and the continual and vital
"emergence of new talent." This was the vision of Edwin Lester, and
his clear-sighted and forward-thinking view is applicable today, and
will remain a lesson for our tomorrows.
Copyright © 1999 by Gary Bachlund
[ 1 ] Letter dated February 20, 1968, from William
T. Sesnon, Jr., titled "LOS ANGELES CIVIC LIGHT OPERA ASSOCIATION (LACLOA),
to the 'Guarantors of the Civic Light Opera'."
[ 2 ] Ibid.
[ 3 ] p. 3, Calendar Section,
Angeles Times, October 6, 1983.
[ 4 ] p. 7, "The Musical Theater Workshop of
the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera," an unpublished report by Paul
Gleason, prepared for the California Civic Light Opera Association
and the American Corporation for the Arts, July 27, 1981.
[ 5 ] Read
"salable," as the discipline's ultimate goal is the employment of
[ 6 ]
Richard Rodgers, Musical Stages, p.78. New York: Random
[ 7 ]
From a personal phone interview with Mr. Lester, April 10, 1985.
[ 8 ] Martin Schwartz, "A Passion for Excellence -
The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera," in The Music Center Story, A
Decade of Achievement, James Toland, ed., p. 101. Los Angeles:
The Music Center Foundation, 1974.
[ 10 ] See the season brochure for the Musical
Theater Workshop of the LACLO, 1962-63 season.
[ 11 ] Quoted in an unpublished "Outline for
Musical Theater Workshop Application for Foundation Grant Monies,"
1967, pp. 2-3.
[ 12 ] Raymond Kendall, "The University and
the Performing Arts," in the 1965-66 brochure for the Musical
Theater Workshop, announced in conjunction with the University of
[ 13 ] Ibid.
14 ] By
'phillips 2/72,' the only annotation of the authorship of an
unpublished draft of the article, "The Workshop - A Fact of Life,"
written for Curtain Call, a publication for the Music
Center's theaters, p.3.
[ 15 ]
Ibid. p. 2-3.
[ 16 ] Ibid. p. 2-3.
[ 17 ]
Unpublished draft of a press release, author unknown, titled "Less
than Glamorous," written for Playbill, April 1980. p. 3.
[ 18 ] Gordon Hunt authored the highly respected
To Audition. New York: Dramatic Publishing Company, 1977. Gordon
was casting director for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, is
additionally a well respected television director and father to
actress, Helen Hunt.
[ 19 ] "Agreement of Merger," dated February 21,
1977. Robert Kingsley, president, and Ernest Martin, managing
director. p. 1.
[ 20 ]
Performing Arts, Vol. 15, no. 7,
July 1981. p. 31.
[ 21 ] Libby Slate, "The Musical Theater Workshop:
Grooming Tomorrow's Stars," in Performing Arts, vol. 16, no.
8, August 1982. p. 10.
22 ] From a personal conversation with Paul
Gleason, choreographer, director, past director of the Musical
Theater Workshop of the LACLO, and current director of ACMT.
document, no official date given. Taken from an unpublished internal
report from the Musical Theater Workshop to the LACLO, CCLO and
American Corporation of the Arts.
[ 24 ] op. cit.