PHILADELPHIA: “I hate small talk; I’d rather instantly converse with the intimacy of lovers,” says Ryan, a character in the musical Sometimes in Prague, one of four new musicals that received an in-progress staging at the 2016 Polyphone Festival at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (UArts) in late March. With singers belting into handheld microphones, bands onstage, and creators staging works the same week as the performances, “intimacy” is a good word for Polyphone in its second year.
The festival’s 2016 shows premiered at the historic Merriam Theater and the Arts Bank Theater March 20–27. The partnership with UArts took away some of the financial constraints of developing new musicals, allowing the creators to take an informal, flexible, and diversified approach to creating their shows.
“Joanna [Settle] and I both feel that what something becomes is so linked to how it gets built, and what we want to are musicals that are being built according to the most fundamental desires of the artists that are building them,” said Polyphone cofounder and artistic director César Alvarez. “It’s really exciting to see a whole new way of making [musicals] emerge, and this year we’ve gotten to really bring a slate of musicals that are the whole spectrum of what musicals can be, sonically and storywise.”
“The American theatre was beating down my door,” added festival cofounder Settle. In just its second, Polyphone “has become a destination for artistic directors and artistic leaders. People are coming to find a new kind of musical theatre in this festival, and they’re going to find it.”
There is not a music stand to be found at Polyphone. Instead, the four new musicals are presented in off-book, staged concert performances. “If you don’t know what to do, get your face to a mic and sing,” Settle said, adding that this is a different mode for workshop performances. “[It’s] time to live the story out in front of all these people.”
Last year’s Polyphone lineup included The Total Bent by Stew and Heidi Rodewald and Pied! by Gordon Leary and Julia Meinwald. This year boasted a similar mix of well-known artists, like Heather Christian and Rachel Chavkin, and newer names, like Stephanie Johnstone and Joshua Gelb, who wrote Sometimes in Prague. The show is a rock concert/drama about love, lust, and life that unfolds between three Americans in a Czech pub.
For Johnstone, Prague is “about the aliveness and the space between who we are together, and who we might be together.” It’s “a conversation about love and sex and a rock concert” that culminates in the audience coming onstage for a dance party with the cast, she explained.
Johnstone is a theatre artist as well as a sex educator—her “Sex for Smart People* (*that means you)” podcast boasts thousands of downloads—so for Prague, she cared “way more about holding space for meaningful encounters than I do about any technical musical choice.” Prague even stops in the middle for a lights-up discussion between the audience and band leader, who asks questions about whether anyone has ever been in a threesome (or a foursome), who’s never had sex, who’s married, or if anyone’s just “not that into sex.”
Johnstone and Gelb began work on the show several years ago, and it had an early staging at Joe’s Pub. In 2011, she dropped her work on it to focus on the Occupy Wall Street movement. That decision turned into an important point in her artistic development: “Since 2011, I’ve been more fully integrating what I care about most as an activist and as an artist to become more one and the same.”
For her, Polyphone was the perfect venue to mount the latest iteration of Prague: “Joanna and César set a tone of such generosity and vitality, and the whole festival resonates with all that I care about most: asking that question of who might we be together as a theatre community.”
The other shows at this year’s Polyphone were an eclectic mix, ranging from the Americana folk musical about wrestling a Florida gator to a sojourn in outer space.
Finn the Fearless, with music and lyrics from Andrew Butler, book by Andrew Farmer, and direction by Kent Nicholson, follows an adventure-seeking “weird little fella” who moves to Florida.
Annie Salem: An American Tale, which Alvarez called the festival’s most in-progress work, features music by Christian and a book by Chavkin. Based on a 1996 novel by Mac Wellman—and fresh from a residency at Sundance Theater Lab—the show blends social commentary, sci-fi, and romance with a trip to Mars.
And finally, Dan Fishback’s The Material World, directed by Stephen Brackett, is described as “a multigenerational family epic about capitalism, Judaism, and Madonna.”
In addition to musicals, the festival also presented a new staging of A Chorus Line, directed by UArts alum Kati Donovan with musical direction from Alvarez. In total, more than 100 UArts students participated—onstage and behind the scenes—alongside about 50 theatre professionals.
Each musical received three performances, whereas last year each show—there were three—only received one. As Alvarez put it, “Part of what happened was we figured out what we were doing, and then we bit off an even bigger bite.”
According to Settle, this year’s festival drew representatives from the Public Theater, the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and more, with a house count of 2,300.
Alvarez attributed the success of the festival to its status as an “oasis,” situated between initial music-stand readings and future full productions. Settle and Alvarez considered about 20 shows for 2016, and although they declined to disclose how they chose this year’s lineup, Alvarez did give one hint: “The most important thing about the pieces that are in Polyphone is that they all really need Polyphone.”