The irony didn’t escape him. When local actor Benjamin Davis was working as an associate producer for The Last Time We Were Here — a musical written and performed by Atlanta artists Jeremiah Parker Hobbs and Jessica De Maria — and getting ready to debut it at the New York Musical Theatre Festival two years back, he wondered to himself why he couldn’t just do it on a local stage. “It certainly would be a lot cheaper to do this here than getting all this ready to go to New York,” he recalls thinking.
From that moment on, he has been working on his own local version. The Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival, running July 30 to August 1 at Out Front Theatre Company, is devoted — as the name suggests — to new musicals. The festival’s second year sees the bow of three works.
As a performer, Davis has been seen all over Atlanta stages, including the Alliance Theatre, Actor’s Express, Theatrical Outfit, Horizon Theatre, Arís Theatre, Dad’s Garage, Stage Door Players, Warehouse Theatre and Synchronicity. After he finished with his producer duties with The Last Time We Were Here in New York, he knew his next mission. “I thought doing the festival would be a cool thing,” he says. “We are really exploding here with film and theater opportunities, so this felt like the next step. My experience solidified the fact that this is something that is necessary. I thought it would be a vital element to help the Atlanta theater community here grow.”
With Davis as founder and artistic director, and De Maria as the director of development, the company made an announcement in January 2016 and put out a call for submissions. They received more than 20 and produced four of them last year. When they opened submissions for this year, they were pleasantly surprised at the diverse regions they got responses from — domestically from New York to California, internationally from Australia to New Zealand.
Part of the reasoning in bringing the festival to Atlanta is that there’s nothing like it in the region. The New York version lasts several weeks and produces more than 30 shows, and Chicago has a noted one as well, but nothing of its kind exists in the South.
New musicals are especially expensive to stage, so festivals such as these give artists opportunities. “It’s relatively cheap and easy to produce a new play — there are not that many expenses — but to develop a new musical there are more expenses involved,” says Davis. “There are fewer outlets for artists to get their work produced. Opportunities for young writers are few and far between. We try to fill that void in the artistic community.”
This year, 22 musicals were submitted. The selections committee choosing the 2017 fare is made up of four veteran theater professionals: Clifton Guterman, Bill Newberry, Jeff McKerley and Theo Harness. “These people all have 10-plus years of experience in the Atlanta theater community,” says Davis.
The committee has no set rules in how to choose selections. “We are not tied to any specific programming, so we don’t go into the year saying we have to have five selections on these days,” says Davis. “We get them in, see what we have, take into account the venues and then craft the festival off of that.”
Davis doesn’t place any regulations on the committee, either, to pick Atlanta-centric shows. The committee, however, has chosen at least one local musical each of the two years.
One mandate, though, is that the chosen musicals have to be premieres. They could have had staged readings or development productions, but no full productions. Davis likes to think the Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival is the “in-between” from a reading into a world premiere production.
This year’s selections are a diverse trio. In the Middle of the Ocean, with book, music and lyrics by Chris Alonzo, is described as a “one-man punk rock opera adaptation of the myth of Orpheus, set in a pirate brothel in the Atlantic Ocean.” “It’s very untraditional musical theater, very avant garde and more like a fringe show than a book musical,” say Davis. Cakewalk, with book and lyrics by Beverly Trader Austin and music by Bryan Mercer, is more mainstream. A satire set in 1917 Claxton (yes, there are fruitcakes involved) about a mayoral candidate whose dysfunctional family threatens to undo him, it bears an uncanny resemblance to 2017 America. Rounding out the trio is Mother of God, with book and lyrics by Christian Albright and music by Christian Magby. It’s the story of Mary of Nazareth and her trials and tribulations to fulfill her undertaking. Each show gets a single performance.
One aspect that is different from most theater productions is that each musical here is responsible for its own staging. The Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival doesn’t make any artistic decisions. “If you are chosen, you are essentially responsible for your show,” says Davis. “They are in charge of casting and rehearsing. We don’t micro-manage. We give them free rein.” The company does offer guidance or mentorship — but only when asked.
As Davis looks at long-terms goals, he wants to expand in the future with more shows and additional venues. Aware of the talent pool out there, it’s equally important for him as well to showcase the work that is being created — and get it seen.