'BookFace' a rare original musical for Colorado audiences

BookFace Quote.
Writing partners Bruce Perry, left, and Melissa Faith Hart. Photo by John Moore.

It takes more than an artist to make commercially viable art. In today’s economic reality, it takes an artist who also happens to moonlight as Vice President of Strategic Business Development at the Xerox Corporation.

That’s the day job that makes it possible for Melissa Faith Hart to enjoy a double-life as a rare writer and producer of her own original musicals in the Denver area.

It is not uncommon for startup theatre companies to stage small plays with Kickstarter and crossed fingers. But with Hart, it’s go large or go home. She approaches her projects with the same business sense as a Broadway producer. She believes in the development process, which can take years, and she believes in compensating her creative teams with professional wages. All of which costs the kind of money that even some established theatre companies couldn’t ever hope to raise.

Hart, founder of Slingshot Artist Productions, has developed an epic musical version of The Scarlet Letter over the past few years at a cost of a cool $100,000 … to date. That’s a figure that would make many local producers’ jaws drop. But Hart doesn’t flinch. She still believes she can raise the $15 million it would take to send The Scarlet Letter to Broadway someday.

But for now, her focus is on BookFace … The Musical, a lighthearted new comedy that follows three generations of one family as they connect, disconnect and reconnect through modern technology. Hart wrote BookFace with artistic partner Bruce Perry, and she is producing it with business partner Rabs Hughey.

Slingshot will introduce BookFace for three days only this weekend (Oct. 16-18) on the Aurora Fox mainstage. And Director Robert Michael Sanders is not messing around with a cast that includes Megan Van De Hey, Rachel Turner, David Payne, Jan Geise, Kevin Schwarz, Andrew Keeler and Chanel Karimkhani. The Music Director is Michael Lavine, and multiple award-winner Donna Debreceni is providing the musical arrangements.

Slingshot has invested about $50,000 in this three-day developmental run. Hart has the means to do it because she is a vice president for a Fortune 200 company. But she does it, she says, “because we believe in helping others achieve their dreams.”

Slingshot has also provided funding for local musicians to create music videos, and the company has invested in another new musical by a Colorado composer. “I would like to be able to continue investing and producing theater in Colorado,” said Hart.

Here are more excerpts from Hart’s conversation with DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore:

John Moore: We are a fairly fertile local theatre community when it comes to developing and staging new plays. But self-producing new musicals is extremely rare here. Why is that?  

Melissa Faith Hart: It takes more time, and it is more expensive. I self-produce my own musicals from the beginning and through my own investment to allow the new piece to mature over time, and through multiple iterations. Scarlet Letter went through seven rewrites before I felt at peace that it was ready for professional investment. There comes a day when each new piece will need to move on to regional and national stages. But adopting a grassroots approach gives the new work a safe space and allows it to grow and build momentum.

John Moore: You obviously have a sweet professional job. Why do you choose to spend your own money on theatre?

Melissa Faith Hart: Most of my professional colleagues have large, beautiful homes and take lavish vacations. My personal choice is to take my money and invest it in musicals. Seeing Les Misérables when I was 14 changed my life for the better. I will always be grateful for what that show did for me. Theatre has the power to heal, and to allow laughter when one’s soul is in desperate need for it. Because I love theatre, I will forever invest in both the financial and the creative aspects of that world. Whenever I hear that I have in some small way helped make a difference in someone’s heart because of something I wrote, or because of a financial opportunity that my company has provided, that makes my entire day.

John Moore: Local theatre companies like the DCPA, Edge, Creede, Athena and others host successful annual new-play festivals. What would it take to get that kind of infrastructure going for developing new musicals?

Melissa Faith Hart: There is nothing out there to teach a composer how to get to Broadway, and there is nothing out there to mentor aspiring writers through the process. I hope we can help close that gap.

John Moore: You are only one woman. Is there a way the community can band together to make the development of new American musicals more financially viable?

Melissa Faith Hart: Audiences are used to paying only about $25-$30 a ticket at local theaters outside of the Denver Center, Arvada Center and dinner theaters. That’s why small theaters can usually only afford to pay actors very low wages. Musicals cost more to make, and so tickets cost more. I have never heard anyone complain about my $30-$50 ticket prices, but I think education and awareness are all a work in progress. Perhaps if we created an actual new-musical development program and audiences began to allow for higher ticket prices to pay for them, we might see the culture adapt to paying more for musicals. 

John Moore: So what kind of musical is BookFace?  

Melissa Faith Hart: BookFace … The Musical was born from the phrase, “I’ve been hacked by Al Qaeda!” Seriously, over a happy hour, Bruce Perry informed me that someone had taken over his social media account and was using it to send out Islamic and Pakistani flags. After a few glasses of wine, we both agreed that the subject of social media would make for a funny musical. The songs began pouring out. The story has developed now through four iterations and multiple rewrites, and now we consider it a sitcom musical that everyone will relate to. We added a generational element with the grandparents. The characters will remind you of people you know. There are lots of laughs – but of course reality does set in, and challenges will need to be overcome.

John Moore: What does BookFace say about the way social media has changed the way we communicate these days?

Melissa Faith Hart: Well, Mia falls in love over BookFace without ever having met the man. The grandfather joins a “Jews for Jesus” group. Everyone is on their devices at the dinner table. But at the end of the day, we are saying that BookFace can be another way to bring us together to communicate.  

Cast of BookFace ... The MusicalJohn Moore: What do you want to say about your cast?

Melissa Faith Hart: Quite frankly, the entire cast is amazing. Megan Van De Hay had me tearing up at the first rehearsal the first time she sang “Familiar Strangers.”  Her talent just blows me away. Jan Giese is absolutely hilarious and will be an audience delight. Chanel Karimkhani and Rachel Turner are brilliant together. Andrew Keeler is a rising star. His tenor voice can really soar. David Payne is wonderful as the older Jewish grandfather, and Kevin Schwarz is constantly bringing new nuances to the role of Jerry.

John Moore: So why is it important to you that they be paid a professional wage?

Melissa Faith Hart: My business partner and I believe that when you are working for Slingshot, salaries need to be at a level that can provide an artist with the basic ability to pay the bills so that they can focus on the work. That’s our standard.

BookFace … the Musical
: Ticket information

Presented by Slingshot Theatre Productions at the Aurora Fox
9900 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora
Performances 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18
Tickets $30-$50
Call 303-739-1970 or go to aurorafoxartscenter.org

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