The First Notes of the Last Diva

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by Steve Desroches

The famed theaters of Broadway remain closed until at least January 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic. And much like New York, the theaters and cabarets of Provincetown are also shuttered for an indeterminate amount of time. While a global calamity may keep stages both big and small dark, it cannot cancel creativity. In fact, it may just encourage a rebirth of our country’s theatrical heritage. And it seems fitting that in Provincetown, the birthplace of American theater, an exciting theatrical lab announces its first commissioned work of a brand new musical with the goal of bringing it to Broadway.

New Works Provincetown, a developmental theater lab created by producer and the Art House artistic director Mark Cortale, has commissioned its first full-length musical titled The Last Diva, the fictional story of Victoria Merritt, a gorgeous, superstar soprano facing conflict at a major opera house in the wild world of classical music in the 1990s. New Works Provincetown will bring to town this summer the creative team of Jonathan Tolins, writer of Buyer & Cellar, to write the book and Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, the duo behind Grey Gardens and War Paint, to write the music and lyrics, respectively. Cortale has partnered with Jonathan Murray and Harvey Reese of Wild Oak Media, who, for about two decades, have spent summers in Provincetown. Murray is half of television’s legendary Bunim/Murray Productions, widely credited for inventing the modern reality television genre, including shows The Real World, Project Runway, and the Emmy-award-winning Born This Way. At some point in 2020, or perhaps in 2021, depending on when indoor performances will be allowed, workshops and readings of The Last Diva will take place at the Art House.

This was supposed to be the Art House’s tenth anniversary season since Cortale took over as artistic director,  but all the shows and concerts have been postponed until next summer, putting any celebrations on ice. Cortale began his professional relationship with Provincetown as manager for drag superstar Varla Jean Merman. His clients expanded rapidly as he simultaneously began producing shows in Provincetown. The genesis of New Works Provincetown came from a frustration with Broadway’s heavy reliance on revivals and the dearth of anyone investing time and resources into brand new works. Cortale is the producing mind behind Well-Strung, the popular string quartet that got their start in Provincetown. And it was last fall that Cortale announced the solo show He Plays the Violin, starring Well-Strung member Edmund Bagnell, which premiered at the Art House last autumn as the first official show of New Works Provincetown. That’s when Cortale decided to pull the stars and creative forces of Broadway that come to Provincetown even closer into the town’s creative fold. The global outbreak of the coronavirus put New Works Provincetown on the fast track to fill the artistic vacuum caused by the pandemic and the public health initiatives needed to slow its spread.

“Over the past ten years of producing shows at the Art House and Town Hall it really became apparent to me how much artists love coming to Provincetown,” says Cortale. “They’re always looking to come back. It’s their favorite booking of the year. That’s also what makes Provincetown so appealing to composers, lyricists, and writers. The town isn’t just beautiful and fun; it’s a place where people create.”

Cortale became acquainted with Frankel and Korie when he became Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole’s manager two years ago. Ebersole, of course, starred as Little Edie in Grey Gardens and then co-starred with Patti LuPone in War Paint, portraying the cosmetics business titan Elizabeth Arden. Ebersole is also a frequent performer at the Art House (and is known to make an appearance at Showgirls, too!) Conversations between Cortale and Ebersole about the musical Grey Gardens, based on the cult classic 1975 documentary of the same name, illuminated the idea for New Works Provincetown. Any road to Broadway for a musical or a play is a long one, and in the case of Grey Gardens that path included the Sundance Institute Theatre Laboratory at White Oak in Yulee, Florida. White Oak is 700 acres of conservation lands with accommodations that allow for small conferences and gatherings, which include the Sundance Institute, providing an idyllic location for artists to workshop ongoing projects. It’s Sundance’s model that Cortale is using for New Works Provincetown, where artists will stay at the Anchor Inn and use space at The Commons to work. New Works Provincetown joins a theatrical legacy in Provincetown that began with the Provincetown Players and Eugene O’Neill and went on to include others like Tennessee Williams, Beverly Bentley’s Act IV which hired a then unknown Al Pacino, Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and playwright Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans. The theatrical DNA of Provincetown can’t help but to continually replicate its inspirational impulses.

“The technology exists for creative teams to work apart, but there really isn’t any substitute for working together in person,” says Frankel. “And to have the immediate feedback from an audience to a work in progress is invaluable. Especially Provincetown audiences as the town is so supportive of live performance and theater. It’s a magical place. That kind of energy inevitably finds its way into the work.”

For more information on New Works Provincetown visit newworksprovincetown.com.