On Tuesday night, 14 actors filed into a row of chairs positioned behind seven microphones next to a pianist with a MacBook queued up beside her. Half of the cast rose and gathered around two of the microphones and began to sing a song in the manner of an Amish hymn, “Gelassenheit.”
Then one of the characters, an Amish teen named Rebecca (Kellyn Wooten), broke free from the chorus and moved across the sparse stage at the Johnny Carson Theater. There, she sang of cars and blaring music and of a seed growing and finding its own way as a percussive track on the MacBook rose and blended in with the swelling chorus.
“Crossing Over,” an Amish hip-hop musical, had begun. Or rather, the beginning of it had begun.
For all of the applause it drew Tuesday, “Crossing Over” is by no means a finished product. There were no costumes, no set pieces. The duo who created it, New York-based Deborah Brevoort and Stephanie Salzman, tinkered with two songs and wrote another on Monday afternoon. The Lincoln actors who performed it received their scripts and music on Aug. 18, which included notes in the margins letting them know that songs might change completely or be cut altogether. Right after performing, the “Crossing Over” cast headed to the theater basement to rehearse it.
The audience on Tuesday only saw the first 25 minutes of it and two other in-the-making musicals selected from more than 100 applicants for “Grow a Show,” a first-of-its-kind event in Lincoln -- or any place not named New York, L.A. or Chicago.
“Grow a Show” is a musical theater workshop hosted by ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) in conjunction with the Lied Center for Performing Arts. The week-long workshop provides the writers of selected shows the opportunity to preview their material before a panel of Broadway vets far away from prying eyes.
“When you are developing stuff in New York City, there’s like instant buzz," Brevoort said. "Everybody’s in it. There’s talk about it. When you are really trying to figure out some important stuff about a piece, it’s really good to get away from that. It can hurt, and it has hurt pieces developed under that type of glare.”
And it provides Lincoln audiences the chance to see shows deep into the developmental stage.
Brevoort and Salzman are two drafts in. Michael McLean, the composer and writer of “Threads,” has already released a soundtrack sung by actress McKenzie Turley, who performs all nine female roles in the musical. “Cross That River,” a musical about the Black Wild West, includes 20-plus original compositions.
But crafting a touring- or, ideally, a Broadway-worthy musical can take well over five years even for the most accomplished writers and composers, said Michael Kerker, director of musical theater for ASCAP. The goal of the workshop performances is to propel the writers to a finished product.
“The first 25 minutes of a musical, the audience will give you about that much time to get comfortable with the piece,” Kerker said. “What is this piece about? Who are the leading characters? ... What is the style of music? What is the style of the musical? Are we going to break the fourth wall? What is the tone of the piece? Usually the audience will give you about that much time to figure out, and after that, it’s really hard to get them back. So to present the first 25 minutes can really be valuable for writers.”
On Tuesday night, the three panelists who shared their notes in between the 25-minute performances talked to the writers about establishing what the characters want early, of moving expository paragraphs into a song, and making the lyrics rhyme perfectly.
“In pop music, ‘girl’ rhymes with ‘world,’ and in musical theater, ‘girl’ rhymes with ‘pearl,’” said Chad Beguelin, lyricist of the Broadway hits “The Wedding Singer” and “Elf.”
Beguelin, his writing and composition partner Matthew Sklar and Broadway actress Karen Morrow took turns noting a few lyrics that were oh-so-close to nailing that perfect rhyme in each show, but spent more time praising the works and the casts that performed them.
Morrow said that when an actor walks onstage, he brings a promise with him.
“Oh, what a promise that was,” she said of the opening monologue by the character Blue (Stan Brown) in “Cross That River.”
“Don’t tinker with it too much, because I really think it’s really great,” Sklar told McLean when discussing “From God’s Arms to My Arms to Yours,” a song from “Threads.”
And Kerker, after the Amish hip-hop musical concluded, approached Brevoort and Salzman and said something that could barely be heard over the applause, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Lincoln residents have a second chance Thursday to see the musicals in progress. Each will be performed for 50-minute segments at the Johnny Carson Theater, and the shows are free and open to the public.