Still ‘Searching’: Sutton’s musical makes New York pro festival stage

sutton-400When UW-Green Bay Associate Prof. Brian Sutton got the idea for his original musical, “Searching for Romeo,” he knew his chances of making it big — Broadway or major off-Broadway — weren’t great.

He was confident in his idea, the re-telling of Shakespeare’s classic from the perspective of the “losers,” Rosaline and Paris. And yet Sutton pegged his chances of serious success as somewhere between one in a thousand and one in a million.

These days? Maybe one in 50, he says.

That’s because Sutton, Humanistic Studies (English), has secured a return engagement at the prestigious New York Musical Theatre Festival in July. After “Searching for Romeo” was done as a staged reading during last year’s festival — dubbed the “Sundance of musical theatre” — the play will be staged as a full production in five shows July 8-13.

“The odds are still way against me, but I’ve brought them way down,” said Sutton, who left for New York June 5. “I felt good about the idea right from the start.”

Search for Romeo cast

Associate Prof. Brian Sutton, far left, and the cast of “Searching for Romeo”

Since its inception in 2004, three New York Musical Theatre Festival shows have opened on Broadway, 24 have made it to off-Broadway and the productions have racked up numerous nominations and awards (including winning a Pulitzer Prize for drama and three Tonys). Sutton is coming off his busiest semester in two decades — even without the additional work on “Romeo” — but says no matter what, all the hard work is worth it.

“How many people in Green Bay, Wisconsin can say ‘I wrote the book and the music and the lyrics … for a show (that) had a professional production on 42nd Street’?” Sutton said. “But beyond that, if it doesn’t go anywhere from there, I can say I gave it every shot I could.”

Sutton’s investment in the production has been both personal and financial, although he is receiving some support in both areas as one of the festival’s Next Link Project entries. As the festival’s primary writer service program, Next Link “empowers emerging musical theatre writing teams by providing entrepreneurial training, career networking opportunities, dramaturgical support, and other services, culminating in a subsidized production in the festival,” according to the NYMTF website. But even with that support, Sutton says, “Searching for Romeo” has an additional budget of nearly $75,000 — so fundraising also has been part of his preparation for the show.

It’s been an interesting journey for a guy who isn’t a member of UW-Green Bay’s Theatre or Music faculty, and who teaches English — but not creative writing. The idea for “Romeo” came to him during a long car trip and was developed over time and in between long hours spent at his day job. The musical sold out all four of its summer 2012 on-campus shows — including a last-minute matinee — and was widely acclaimed at the University and in the community.

The best thing about “Searching for Romeo,” Sutton says, is the twist it provides on Shakespeare’s famous tale. The play starts and ends in a contemporary high school setting, with Rosaline stumbling into the most famous love scene in literature — the balcony scene — while, you guessed it, searching for Romeo.

“That’s how she finds out she’s been dumped,” Sutton said. “I kind of like that sort of thing — one, it allows you to look at another perspective on this famous love story. Sure, Romeo and Juliet, they’re famous lovers, but some of what they do is really unhealthy.

“And also, it allows me to look at the world’s most famous love story from the point of view of the losers in the story … and it’s kind of nice to give a happy ending to these losers.”

In addition to “Romeo and Juliet,” Sutton’s musical alludes to about a dozen other Shakespeare plays — so adapting it for an educational audience, perhaps high school or college, could be an option in the future. He’s cleaned it up some with that in mind, modifying what originally was a more risqué production.

But for now, Sutton is focused on the festival — and the process of intense preparation that will get “Romeo” to opening night.

“On the one hand, it’s approximately as traumatic as going down the birth canal and getting born,” Sutton said. “But on the other hand, it’s very exhilarating.”

For more information, visit the ‘Searching for Romeo’ and New York Musical Theatre Festival websites.