Chicago-bred actress Jessie Mueller, who received the 2014 Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical for “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” may be one of the hottest properties on Broadway at the moment. But she has not lost touch with her roots. Nor has her sister, Abby Mueller, who also works on Broadway (she’s now in “Kinky Boots”), or Karen Mason (whose Broadway credits include “Mamma Mia!,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “And the World Goes Round”).
All three actress-singers will be in Chicago for the Sept. 22 launch of a new musical theater incubator — FWD Theatre Project. The festivities will take place at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, with doors opening at 6 p.m. for food and cocktails, and a concert of selections from five new musicals in development to begin at 8 p.m.
So just exactly what is the FWD Theatre Project (the FWD stands for “Festival of Works in Development”)? It is the brainchild of eight veteran actors, directors, writers, choreographers and producers who have created a grass-roots initiative for the discovery, development and delivery of original musical theater to the Chicago community. Serving as artistic director is Amber Mak (a performer and choreographer whose credits range from Drury Lane Oakbrook to Chicago Shakespeare). Mak’s collective of artistic associates includes Justin Brill, Wade Elkins, Michael Gillis, Karen Multer, Steve Multer, Missy Greenburg and Scott Sowinski.
The Sept. 22 LaunchingFWD! concert will introduce this new initiative and showcase selections from the five new musicals selected for FWD’s inaugural season of staged reading presentations. Mueller will be making her first hometown appearance since winning the Tony earlier this year, joined by Abby, Mason and a cast of Chicago industry favorites and up-and-coming musical theater performers.
Rather than self-producing new works, Mak and her team have devised a seed organization to partner with Chicago’s strong community of producing entities, delivering worthy but as-of-yet undiscovered projects to local artistic directors and dedicated audiences. The FWD Theatre Project will seek out the best original projects from around the globe with strong production appeal. Following development through festival-style staged readings, workshops, educational seminars and community outreach, FWD will actively work to place those new shows into the hands of Chicago theaters structured to bring them to their next levels.
This past May 15, FWD Theatre Project called for submissions of original, unpublished, full book musicals for its inaugural festival season. By June 30 they had received more than 220 works from across the U.S. and beyond. The reading committee narrowed the field to 30 semifinalists, then 10 finalists, and in August selected five winners to be featured in the LaunchingFWD! program on Sept. 22. These shows will go on to receive two fully produced staged readings in the 2015 Festival of Works in Development, planned for Summer 2015.
The five inaugural FWD Theatre Project works include:
“THE BLACK AND WHITE BALL,” by Stephen Cole (book, lyrics) and Todd Ellison (music): Set amid the racial tensions in New York City in the summer of 1966, this work is an energetic, big-band-filled exploration of complex social issues. It revolves around Truman Capote, who has just announced he will host a Black and White Ball for 500 of his closest friends. In the depths of Brooklyn, Emma, a young black teenager, hears about the Ball and misunderstands it to be a party to unite the races. She tenaciously meets Capote and unwittingly becomes his next “cause,” joining the two in a revelatory friendship.
“SWIFT AS DESIRE,” by Jeffrey Lunden (music) and Arthur Perlman (book, lyrics): Based on a novel by Laura Esquivel, this musical uses fiery Latin music to tell the tale of Jubilo, a war telegraph operator, and his desire for Lucha, a wealthy girl who abandons herself to passion but misses possessions. Shifting between past and present, Jubilo, now infirm and in the care of his daughter, reflects on his love affair with Lucha and the tragedy that has haunted his life.
“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE,” by Lawrence Rush (book, lyrics, music): A musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s literary classic about social class, gender politics and unexpected romance. This period piece with strong female leads brings fresh insight to the strong-willed and warm-hearted characters of Austen’s 19th century England as Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Bingley and all of Austen’s beloved characters burst to life through an elegant, lush score.
“EXPOSURE,” by Erik Della Penna (music, lyrics), William Brown & Doug Frew (book), conceived by Cathy Nathan: Composed in a bohemian, “rockabilly” musical style, this musical is the story of a young lesbian who finds herself homeless on the streets of New York City after being thrown out of her family’s Midwest home. With an encyclopedic knowledge — and even physical resemblance — to James Dean, she befriends a former uber-star photographer, and together they discover an unlikely but transformative connection.
“LOVE AND OTHER FABLES,” by John McMahon (music, book) and Jay Jeffries (lyrics, book): This romantic screwball comedy set in 600 BC follows the early life of Aesop, the not-yet-famous slave, as he creates the “fable” while persistently wooing the headstrong girl of his dreams and entering into a battle of wits with the King of Egypt, changing the course of history.
Single tickets ($20-$35) for LaunchingFWD! are on sale now, with a limited number of VIP tickets available for $100. Tickets are available through the City Winery box office at (312) 733-9463 or online at citywinery.com.
The FWD Theatre Project describes its mission as follows: To establish Chicago as a premier place to develop the new American musical by producing a Festival of Works in Development with industry professionals through concerts, readings, workshops, productions, and educational seminars. Its founding collective are Chicago artists championing the future of “the great American musical,” and the power of collaboration to reach that goal. This varied team shares a combined 125 years of theater experience, including 12 Broadway shows, two London productions, eight tours, two Las Vegas shows, more than 150 regional productions, multiple Jeff Award nominations and more than 70 productions as directors, choreographers, music directors, producers and writers. Members of Actor’s Equity Association, the Society of Directors and Composers, SAG, AFTRA, ASCAP and the Dramatists Guild, the group boasts graduates of Northwestern University, Syracuse University, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia College, San Diego State, Harvard, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, the Boston Conservatory, the University of Illinois and Juilliard.
For more information on FWD Theatre Project and its artists, visit http://www.fwdtheatre.org.