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Paulette Haupt (Photo courtesy of Eugene O’Neilll Theater Center )
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It started in 1978. Paulette Haupt received a phone call from George C. White, who had established the National Playwrights Conference more than decade earlier at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.
White told her he envisioned developing operas and musicals just as the center nourished new plays.
“I had not known about [the playwrights conference] because my area was in opera,” says Haupt. “But George told me how the playwright’s conference had been run under Lloyd Richards and what the structure was.”
It sounded promising and Haupt said, “Yes,” not even meeting White until she arrived on the Waterford campus four months later.
Since they didn’t have time for a submission process that first summer, she reached out to music associates she knew and received five or six projects “ready to be performed, but which still needed development.”
Haupt chose, fittingly, an opera version of O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and the new conference was launched.
But the conference was so new, running simultaneously with the playwrights gathering, that it couldn’t even be housed at the center. That first summer the new conference was held at New London’s Connecticut College.
Now after 40 summers and scores of musical shows, Haupt is leaving the conference she helped make into a unique national theatrical treasure.
After that inaugural summer, the conference selected a new Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit show based in Federico Fellini’s film 8 ½. The show was called Nights with Guido, but later changed its name to Nine. The musical went on to be a Tony Award-winning hit (and revival). It also put the conference on the national map.
The conference was also the first professional theater company to support the development of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s In the Heights (finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for that show; they would both go on to win Pulitzers separately: he for Hamilton, and she for the play Water by the Spoonful, which premiered at Hartford Stage).
Other talents nurtured at the conference included Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty, who developed Avenue Q; Jeanine Tesori for Violet; along with Steven Sater, Tom Kitt, Duncan Sheik, Andrew Lippa, and Kirsten Childs. It also was fine for some established musical creators such as Sheldon Harnick, Bob Merrill, and Jonathan Tunick.
The a cappella musical In Transit, which opened on Broadway this last season, also started at the O’Neill.
The conference now selects three musicals for a two-week residency each summer at the center, which also hosts the National Playwrights Conference, the National Puppetry Conference, the Cabaret and Performance Conference, the National Critics Institute, and other theater initiatives.
Haupt’s final season will run Friday, June 24 to Friday, July 14 and will feature the new musicals Home Street Home, Superhero, and Illa! The Hip Hop Musical.
The emergence of the conference in the late ‘70s began just as the out-of-town try-out circuit for new shows was all but dead. Since its establishment, the O’Neill has been the model for other places that seek to nurture new plays and musicals, including the Sundance Institute.
“The more the better,” says Haupt.
But she says the O’Neill’s protective environment is key to its success.
“Lloyd and I worked every hard in keeping the [commercial] professionals away,” says Haupt.
Over the decades, submissions grew to more than 200 shows for the three slots every summer.
Haupt says some years, trends emerged in submissions, sometimes echoing the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber; other times Stephen Sondheim. Now, she says, there are more single creators who do book, lyrics, and music.
Haupt remembers those goose-bump moments on hearing the scores for the first time of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet, or Kirsten Child’s The Bubbly Black Sheds Her Chameleon Skin.
There were also shows that everyone was sure would go on to greatness—such as Jack Eric Williams’ Swamp Gas and Shallow Feelings—and didn’t.
Alexander Gemignani will succeed Haupt and will head the conference starting in 2018.
Haupt said she is leaving to focus more on her New York-based musical theater development laboratory Premieres and its “Inner Voices.”
“The right time to leave is when you still live it,” says Haupt on her decision to exit the post.
On Monday, June 26, Haupt will receive the Tom Killen Award at the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards. The ceremony, which begins at 7:30 p.m. at Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, is free and open to the public. Three-time Tony Award nominee Terrence Mann will be master of ceremonies.
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.
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