Last night I read that the Broadway production of The Visit, Kander and Ebb’s last collaboration, will close. I’ve been following the progress of this musical for a long time, because it has been progressing for a long time. In fact, the first scheduled Broadway opening for The Visit, based on a play of the same name by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, was March 15, 2001. It might have been one of the first musicals I ever followed the Broadway opening of, part of my first ever watching of the Tonys. It would have been a really weird addition to that year’s musicals, it fits in this year’s group much more nicely, but fitting in was never the point. This was a passion project. All involved have been trying to get this musical to Broadway for fifteen years, and even though it is closing without Tonys and with only a few months of performances, the mark of its success is that no one gave up on it in all that time. Oh, to be part of a passion project.
I actually have been part of passion projects. Not on the scale of The Visit, no, and not on Broadway, or even off. I’m referring to the musicals I have been part of that started with the director saying, “I’ve always wanted to do this piece,” and really meaning it. Either it was never the right time, or there were never the right resources, or she didn’t feel ready, for whatever reason; people often put off what they most want to do, because it’s got to be special. I myself have such a show, two in fact, that I want to put on one day, but for me it’s a lack of resources, I’m not waiting for the right moment (though it might be along in the coming months, if I’m very lucky). There is something magical about knowing that you are making someone’s long-term goal come to fruition. It makes you want to do your best, not that you should ever do anything less.
My first experience in a passion project came about my junior year of college, when the fall musical was Pacific Overtures. The director loved Asian culture, taught several classes about it, and incorporated it into classes that were not specifically about it. She routinely put on Asian-themed plays, but, as has been recently observed with the coming of Allegiance to Broadway, there are not a lot of Asian-themed musicals, and even fewer written by Asians. Pacific Overtures, of course, was written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, but it was based on the story of the “opening” of Japan by the West, and, originally, was performed mostly in the style of Kabuki theatre. We used some Kabuki, some Noh, and I learned to use a bokken for an awesome fight scene, choreographed by a fellow student who made special trips to a dojo to learn the art. It was nothing like any of us who were involved had ever done before, so we were immersed in a way that being in more conventional musicals does not require.
The next one was my first professional show out of college, one that I actually got not from an open audition, but on a recommendation from a former professor. It’s always cool to get a gig on a recommendation. The musical was Zorba, and the director, himself of Greek descent, had always wanted to do it, and he chose it to be the inaugural production at a brand, spanking new theatrical space that was not even completed when we opened, which meant we were dancing on the concrete floor of a former bus station, but we didn’t care. The thrill of “will the show be ready” was amplified by “will the audience’s seats be ready,” and we bonded over the rush of it all. It was a special time for our leader, and that upped our game. There’s an actual stage in place, now, but my legs and I will always remember the concrete floor, which was perfectly appropriate for a musical about mine workers.
As exciting as these experiences were for me, though, I look forward to the day that I can truly understand how the directors felt to see their long germinating project finally appear, so they could share it with others. For a lot of people, that is their first Broadway production, but for some it is sharing their passions with generation after generation of theatre students who might not otherwise have looked into an obscure, foreign sounding musical, or christening a new theatre far from the hustle and bustle of New York City. Watching The Visit, I could tell that Chita Rivera was particularly proud to be performing this particular musical on Broadway, because of all of the years and work that went into it. So don’t wait too long for the perfect moment to make your passion project happen, but don’t despair if it takes a decade or two. They could have given up on The Visit dozens of times, but they made it to Broadway, and they did with persistence.
Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog: a new essay about a different musical every day through next May. It’s only just begun, so come on over and get caught up: http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com