A theater with a different approach grows in Asbury Park

Boardwalk Theatre Company expects to offer its first production, the world premiere of the musical 'Rosa Parks' in October 2019. Founder Jeff Hughes says this isn't your grandmother's theater company.

Jeff Hughes promises Boardwalk Theatre Company will upend the status quo. He detailed how in the list of “rules” that make up the company’s mission statement, the tone of which has led more than one person to ask, “How angry were you when you wrote it?”

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Thus, there will be no readings; no public “workshop productions”; no seasons; ununsolicited scripts can be accepted; and every show will have to be a “yes” to the question, “Will this bring in a new audience?”




“Everyone who has read it has said ‘Wow. That’s really aggressive,’ ” said Hughes, the company’s founding producer. “But I love to think we can shake up theater. It has to be done differently and we have to approach it differently.”

Hughes believes his past experience on stage — and behind the scenes — has prepared him for this project. A native of Kearny, he began working in theater while a student at New York University. He was assistant artistic director at the now defunct Musical Theatre Works; on the first staff of the New York Musical Theatre Festival and associate general manager of Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. 

“Those three gigs gave me a view of the theater on both the nonprofit and commercial side,” Hughes said.

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The company has no office space — low overhead is another part of the theater group’s promise — and only recently was incorporated and granted tax-exempt status. Hughes also reiterates that there won’t be readings or workshops (because, he says, he considers them uninteresting). 

“Our company is going to be about the shows,” he said. “If the shows are good and audiences like them, we’ll be successful. And I trust my abilities to identify good stuff that people will like.”

The company is expected to debut its first production– the world premiere of the musical “Rosa Parks” — in October 2019 at Asbury Park’s House of Independents. (The long wait, Hughes said, is because some of the actors who are tentatively committed to the production have other obligations until then.)

The work-in-progress features music by Scott Ethie,r and book and lyrics by Hughes. It earned Hughes a 2009 Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, an honor society that, among other arts work, funds performances of new works of musical theater. 

While “Rosa Parks” has been workshopped and had staged readings at other theaters, the Boardwalk Theatre Company’s effort will be its first fully staged production. The show focuses not on Parks’ decision to keep her seat on an Alabama bus or the movement that it spurred (the Montgomery Bus Boycott), but looks at what lead the activist to that moment.

“This is not the Rosa Parks you heard about in school, the old lady with the tired feet,” Hughes said. “The real Rosa Parks was a surprising and dramatic figure.” (She was just 42 years old at the time, and an established organizer and leader in the civil rights movement.) 

First steps for the new company: Finding funders, volunteers and advisers, both official and not. Hughes has set a goal of raising $500,000 for use in the theater’s first year. He said he’s collected about half of the sum so far.

“Most of the money is coming from individuals who have never considered giving to theater previously,” Hughes said. “This is charitable giving, with added benefits … when you give substantially to a theater company, you have things you can attend and bring your friends and colleagues to, and feel pride in that achievement. I think that matters.”

His support network is also falling into place. It includes a former Sony music lawyer, a documentary producer, the former general manager of the Helen Hayes Theatre and a classical music composer.

Arthur Gurwitz, longtime chief operating officer of the New York law firm Proskauer Rose LLP, is one of the company’s primary donors and is leading the fundraising efforts. The ardent theater fan said he fears Broadway has become cost prohibitive for many. He said he’s impressed by Hughes’ drive and ideas.

“It’s pretty rare for someone to do something different. It’s gusty. (Hughes) is really committed and that’s the kind of person you want,” Gurwitz said. “And it seems to me if you’ve got the right kind of shows, people will come.”

Hughes believes there’s already a large theater-loving population along the Jersey Shore — he said local residents in Sea Girt and Spring Lake have been particularly helpful — and he wants to build a new generation of theater fans. 

On Saturday, Sept. 8, the theater company will host a “Welcome to Asbury Park” cocktail reception at Parlor Gallery at 717 Cookman Ave. The free event, which runs from 2 to 4 p.m., will feature snacks and drinks, plus performance snippets from “Rosa Parks.” (RSVP to Hughes at jeff@boardwalktheatre.com.)

The reception is meant to introduce the company to the community, Hughes said.

“We’re going to try to do really good work … That’s going to be our calling card,” Hughes said. “I’ve been going down to Asbury Park my whole life and people were always saying, ‘Asbury Park’s coming. Asbury Park’s coming.’ Now it really is.”

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at nataliepompilio@yahoo.com. Find her on Twitter @nataliepompilio. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.  

This article was originally published by Nj.com. Read the original article here.

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