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Bucks County Playhouse devotes year to budding lyricists

| Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, 2:09 a.m.

NEW YORK — All too often, it's the melodies in musicals that get all the attention. But what about the lyrics?

The new leaders of the Bucks County Playhouse are hoping to try to redress the imbalance by focusing on a musical's lyrics as part of a push to incubate new shows and mentor fledgling lyricists.

“There are many talented young people, but I've always felt the one area that had lost something was the writing of lyrics. The poetry and metaphor that it started out with has turned into Twitter and texting,” said Robyn Goodman, executive producer of the Playhouse.

The Playhouse, in the Philadelphia suburb of New Hope, will next month start a one-year program to nurture lyricists. The program will kick off with a weekend festival honoring one of the greatest writers in American musicals — Oscar Hammerstein II.

“Our idea is to find talented writers who are working on a specific piece of work, pair them with a mentor and then help guide each particular project,” Playhouse producing director Alex Fraser said. “There won't be a cookie-cutter approach. Each project will take on its own life as to what it needs.”

The move is an attempt by the new Playhouse leadership to return it to its original mission as an incubator for new work, which bore fruit when Terrence McNally's play “Mothers and Sons” moved from the Playhouse to Broadway in the spring. The Playhouse has picked its first two fledgling musicals to help as part of its lyric push.

The initiative will get a starry send-off Sept. 26-28 at the inaugural Oscar Hammerstein Festival, which will feature special events open to the public, a seminar headlined by Michael Korie, the Tony-nominated lyricist of “Grey Gardens,” and a benefit performance by Broadway stars Laura Osnes and Santino Fonana, who earned Tony nominations in “Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella.”

The 450-seat Playhouse on the Delaware River, originally built as a grist mill in the 1790s, is 40 miles north of Philadelphia and 90 miles south of New York City. It opened in 1939, after playwright Moss Hart and local residents rallied to save the old mill from demolition and convert it into a theater.

Helen Hayes, Grace Kelly, Robert Redford, Bernadette Peters and Walter Matthau are among the actors who appeared at the Playhouse, which in its 1960s heyday was a place for Broadway and Hollywood actors to perform in summer stock. Hammerstein had a farm nearby, where he mentored a young Stephen Sondheim.

Goodman, a Tony-winning producer of shows such as “American Idiot,” “In the Heights” and “Avenue Q,” said lyric writing is a difficult art form because it must keep the action going without being overly explanatory.

“It's a particular thing because a song needs to progress the story or illuminate characters in some deeper ways. It always has an assignment,” she said. “Stephen Sondheim didn't write, ‘Look where we are at this point in our lives.' He wrote, ‘Send in the clowns.'”

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