Supporting New Musicals — First Stage

Laura Josepher headshot
Laura Josepher

Producing musicals is a challenging enterprise for any theatre. Musicals are expensive. They often have large casts and inherently come with many more collaborators than plays (book writer, composer, lyricist, music director, orchestrator, choreographer), which means more people to pay and house. Plus musicals mean musicians! Even a small pit band can be very costly. To hedge their bets, many theatre companies choose to produce only tried and true musicals they can count on to bolster their budgets and support the rest of their season. It takes commitment and vision (not to mention strong intestinal fortitude) to search out and support new work. Only a small percentage of this country’s theatres even produced a new musical in the 2017-2018 season. And if you focus that light on theatres producing new musicals for children, that number gets even smaller.

One of the few American theaters that has consistently fostered new musicals for children is First Stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Founded in 1987, First Stage is the third largest theatre producing new work for children and has grown to become one of the country’s most acclaimed children’s theaters. In addition to their regular season, their Theater Academy teaches life skills through stage skills, and is the largest theater training program of its kind in the nation.
We first heard about First Stage because of a new musical they are producing this Fall. Nate the Great has music and lyrics by Brett Ryback, a writer on‘s roster. Since First Stage and both have a mission to support new writers and new work, we wanted to find out more about them.

We first sought out Artistic Director, Jeff Frank. Frank is known for his dedication to fostering new work in the TYA (Theater for Young Audiences) arena. He joined the theater in 1996 as its Education Director, and has been at its helm since 2003 so his passion for producing TYA runs deep. When asked why he thinks its important to produce new musicals for children, Frank said, “Equity Theater for Young Audiences generally need to be under 75 minutes in length, and we’ve found that musicals help the storytelling and emotional arc come to life most vividly in that shorter time frame.” He went on to say, “It is a common misconception that theatre for young people and their families needs to be different from “adult” theatre. We are simply producing excellent, professional theater that focuses on a young person’s point of view.” When asked what kind of shows he looks for, he said, “compelling, important, engaging, empowering stories that reflect our community.”

He was attracted to Nate The Great because the books “are modern classics and reveal the power of creative thinking and problem solving, while also being super funny and celebrating friendship and family relationships.”

Brett Ryback

Writer Brett Ryback grew up in Milwaukee and is an alumni of First Stage’s Theater Academy. We asked him how it felt to be bringing Nate The Great to First Stage. “I got my start as a young actor and artist at First Stage when I was five years old. I feel very fortunate, and extremely grateful to bring this show there. My whole family still lives in the Milwaukee area, and I have a young niece and nephew, so it’s great to be able to have them see something written especially for their age group.”

“I also have a huge amount of respect and admiration for First Stage.” Ryback said. “The quality of their productions is consistently excellent. Having gotten to be on the inside of their process, which is exceedingly creative and collaborative, it’s no great shock as to why that is. Finally, Milwaukee theatre-going audiences have always had very generous, yet sophisticated tastes no matter the age-level of the theatre being presented. It’s a taste that I know and love, so I’m very excited to get to share this with them.”

Frank says of Ryback, “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to work with alumni as adult professional artists. They bring not only their talent, but also a deep understanding of First Stage. It is an honor to be able to bring Brett back for this production. He was an amazing Academy student and young performer, and we are so proud of all he is accomplishing. He is building an amazing national reputation as a composer lyricist.”

Nate The Great
Nate The Great opens at First Stage in Milwaukee this Fall

Brett Ryback sent that love right back to Frank and First Stage: “It’s very full-circle for me that First Stage gave me my first opportunity as an actor, and then about four years ago gave me my first professional commission as a writer. That show was called Just a Little Critter Musical, and was also written with (Nate The Great co-creator) John Maclay. The fact that they’ve brought me back so soon afterwards, is very generous.”

It is very challenging to make a living as a musical theatre writer. Ryback has created a career that includes performing and writing. When asked how he finds time to develop and balance each and still support himself, he answered, “Balance is absolutely the right word. Early in my career (after college), I was a full-time actor. Even though I was constantly writing during that time, it was difficult to get my work produced, performed, or even read. Then in the last five years or so, the balance began to shift. Now most of my time is spent preparing for concerts, readings, workshops, or productions of my writing, and it’s difficult for me to be available for acting projects. I imagine that the scales will shift back again in fifteen years. Who knows?”

“The nice thing is that the two forms of storytelling constantly inform one another. Even when I’m writing, I’m thinking like an actor. And when I act, I have a more complete understanding of the needs of the writer. I also teach actors at USC, so I’m always exploring text and process. The important thing – for any artist, really – is to stay curious, stay engaged, and learn as much and as often as you can.”

“One of the biggest challenges of being an independent, free-lance composer is distributing your work. It takes a lot of time and effort to craft stories, shows, and songs, let alone put together concerts, sell sheet music, and spread the word about what you’re doing. has been an incredible resource because they take on a lot of that heavy lifting for writers. They have done a lot to feature me and my work in various different venues and through multiple sources. It’s been such a relief to know I have their support.”

Ryback goes on to say, “What I love about writing for First Stage is the amount of trust they’ve given me. I have never felt any requirements, or pressure to write something a specific way. They’ve allowed John and me to play, explore, try and fail, and eventually find our way to the best version of a show we can.”

* * *

Nate the Great will run at First Stage from October 12-November 11, 2018. For more information, visit First Stage’s website:

Check out our new book “Mastering College Musical Theatre Auditions: Sound Advice for the Student, Teacher, and Parent” now available on Amazon.

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