Front Porch Theatricals—three words have become synonymous with musical theatre prestige in the city of Pittsburgh—has more than fulfilled its ambitious mission statement over the last six years. The company’s upcoming season, made up of two quirky musicals based on true stories, already seems poised to carry on its burgeoning legacy of excellence.
According to producer Leon Zionts, Front Porch “strive[s] primarily to present meaningful musicals”. What exactly is a “meaningful musical”?
Let’s take the shows that Front Porch has chosen to present this year: Grey Gardens and A New Brain. To the casual theatre goer, those shows might not mean much at all.
The former is based on a cult classic 1975 documentary while the latter is the autobiographical retelling of the writer’s fight for his life against an arteriovenous malformation. Still not ringing any bells?
Well, Zionts understands. While he and his producing team do feel some pressure to choose stage properties with name recognition, they always place the integrity and intelligence of the audience before that. Zionts classifies “meaningful musicals” as being both “fun” and “present[ing] deeper revelations and emotional drama”.
Personally, I feel that both Grey Gardens and A New Brain fit that criteria perfectly, but a musical theatre obsessive like me is not the kind of person that Front Porch needs to work to convince to buy a ticket.
For those not familiar with either show, Front Porch has a not-so-secret weapon to lure you into the New Hazlett Theater: spectacular production value. It’s the company’s promise of two beautifully sung, well acted, and stunningly realized productions that will elevate Grey Gardens and A New Brain to heights previously reached in your Spotify queue by two other musicals that, respectively, highlight the complicated bond between two women and the healing power of love and art for a queer person facing a devastating diagnosis, Wicked and Rent.
Currently, both of FPT’s productions are still in the casting process, but they already boast two top-notch directors.
Robyne Parrish will helm Grey Gardens, which runs from August 17-26. Grey Gardens the documentary came to be because its subjects “Big” Edie Ewing Bouvier Beale and “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale are aunt and cousin, respectively, to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As the basis for Act II of the musical, book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie use the events (and iconic quotes) from the documentary when time, divorce, and depression had left the Edies nearly penniless living in the decrepit remains of their East Hampton estate. Act I imagines a day in the life of the Edies and company in their financial and social heyday in the 1940s.
When it opened on Broadway in 2006, Grey Gardens won Tonys for its two original leading ladies. The relationship between mother and daughter is integral to the show because it is so complex. Because the women shared so much more than a name, they butted heads often.
The Edies were obviously a big part of making and promoting the original documentary, but Parrish thinks their reactions to the musical would have been another point of contention for them. She feels that both would “embrace the star she has finally become”, but that the first act might have been a difficult watch for Little Edie. It underscores the psychological scars left by her mother’s overbearing personality culminating in a “great tragedy [that] stings again and again”.
Grey Gardens, Parrish has never actually seen the show live. For A New Brain’s director Connor McCanlus, that show has been very meaningful to him.
He recalls that that show’s libretto was the first piece of theatre he’d ever bought himself. To this day, despite FPT’s offers to replace it, he still uses that original copy to prepare for this production. He recognized one of the names of the show’s creators, James Lapine. Librettist Lapine was a frequent collaborator with Stephen Sondheim as well as with A New Brain’s composer, William Finn.
With Lapine’s help, Finn turned a group of songs he’d written after his hospitalization into a complete show. A New Brain originally opened Off-Broadway in 1998, and a revised version of the show played most recently in 2015 starring Jonathan Groff.
The show artfully blurs the line between reality and hallucination as young composer Gordon Schwinn receives various medical treatments and visits from hospital personnel, a homeless woman, his own overbearing mother, and his doting boyfriend Roger. All the while, Gordon worries that he will die without completing the great work he feels is still inside him.
This show is notable for Finn’s signature witty and zany songwriting style as well as for the queer romance at its center. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community himself, McCanlus recognizes that many of the stories out there that feature characters like himself end with those characters dying and being “survived by the boring straight people”. With his production of A New Brain, he aims to raise up “queer heroes not defined by their sexuality but by their actions”. It’s a tall order, but success will no doubt make McCanlus himself a hero. A New Brain runs May 18-27.
Musicals are a great business for Front Porch because they often succeed for their uncanny ability to, as Leon Zionts puts it, “reach into us viscerally”. It’s not natural to randomly burst into song, but everyone knows what it’s like when your emotions bubble over and words aren’t enough. We may not all have life threatening brain conditions or be frozen in time psychologically and physically like the characters in A New Brain and Grey Gardens, but I think that both pieces get at the universal truth that persevering through pain is the quickest way to find yourself.
I know I’ll be there with Front Porch Theatricals come May. And, just like 1940s Big Edie, I have only one question: Will you?
For tickets and more information, click here.