My Library: An Interview with Ben West of UnsungMusicalsCo., Inc
In the heart of Lincoln Center, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, nestled between the Metropolitan Opera and the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, thrives in its role as a vibrant circuit between historical research and cutting-edge performance. And few researchers illustrate the Library's unique vitality for the performing arts community better than Ben West.
Ben West is a regular at LPA, where theatre professionals who shape the performing arts scene come for inspiration through their research in the LPA’s vast archives. Ben is the artistic director of UnsungMusicalsCo. Inc., and in that capacity he searches for lost musicals from Broadway’s golden age, re-envisioning them for today's theatre audiences.
Ben, what brings you to the Library today?
I am looking at a score from the 1920s musical Wildflower and a script from Fig Leaves are Falling in the Dorothy Loudon Papers. I am also looking at the Theatre Division’s clippings files for I Had a Ball and Hold Onto Your Hats, both of which are old musicals I’m in the process of restoring for UMC.
What does your company do?
UnsungMusicalsCo. Inc. is a not-for-profit production company dedicated to the preservation of musical theatre through the presentation of infrequently performed works. Focusing primarily on overlooked projects from the Golden Age, both hits and substantive misses, UMC treats each property as a new musical thereby providing a unique collaboration between the artists of today and those of the past.
Why do shows become lost?
There are a lot of shows, particularly pre-1960s revues, that were huge hits but nevertheless became forgotten. For example, At Home Abroad was never published so it has practically disappeared. Certain historical trends in musical theatre also contributed to their being forgotten.
Whatever happened to the revue?
The era of musical comedy and burlesque revues like Follow the Girls made way for the drama and realism found in the Rodgers & Hammerstein and Sondheim era. By the 1960s, the original revue format (a sketch, a song, another sketch, another song, featured performer, etc.) which was smart, entertaining, but not too heavy, —is completely gone.
Will you be producing a full-scale production in the future?
UnsungMusicalsCo. Inc. is devoted to doing full productions on whatever scale. We also do exploratory readings that investigate a show's potential. Barefoot Boy With Cheek was the most recent one. Some other readings scheduled are Arms and the Girl, At Home Abroad, and Make Mine Manhattan. Shows that we’ve completed include How Now Dow Jones and Platinum (both done at the Fringe Festival). Our first full production will be in 2012. And then there's UMC’s Archival Project.
What is the Archival Project?
The Archival Project portion of UMC is specifically geared toward researching, assembling and restoring the complete material from unpublished and out-of-print musical shows, always with an eye on the integrity of the original work. While the Project restores the material's original intent, some of these shows may form part of our exploratory readings and productions, where they may be re-worked and re-envisioned in new ways.
How do you find materials in the Library?
The Theatre Division’s card catalog is my favorite thing because it tends to have more of the old clipping files, playbills, photographs, reviews and other vital theatre ephemera that's not available online.
What are clippings good for?
Well, for one thing, finding out that Burton Lane was the original composer for Arms and the Girl, until he quit (laughs)! There’s also NYPL’s online catalog and its Archival Materials database of course. The historical newspapers you have in the Articles & Databases page are also good for finding old reviews of shows.
What other information resources do you use?
Word of mouth is still a major source of information! As a student, I found out about the Billy Rose Theatre Division and the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive in class. Sometimes Google is the starting point. It led me to the finding aid for the John Van Druten Papers and from there I found other material in NYPL’s catalog.
We’ll let you get back to it, Ben. Thank you so much for your time!
You’re very welcome.