When "A Little Princess" opens Saturday night at the Sacramento Theatre Company, an arduous though typical journey ends for the world premiere musical.
For the first time, an audience will see the fully staged musical with music by Eric Rockwell, lyrics by Margaret Rose and book by William J. Brooke. It's an adaptation of the 1905 children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
New York-based songwriters Rockwell and Rose have been working on the project off and on since 1996, though their creative association goes back to the late 1970s when the two met doing theater at California State University, Sacramento. Rockwell was a music major when he started drifting into the theater department and fell under the spell of the legendary Gerard Larson.
"He took me under his wing, and we would have long, long discussions about (theater) aesthetics and history," Rockwell said.
"He was such a sensitive artist who always wanted to look deeper and deeper into the meaning of things."
Larson mentored Rockwell as he became a dramatist whose medium is music.
One of the first songs Rockwell and Rose wrote for the musical, "I Know You by Heart," survived the development process and will be heard in the production. The show has had workshops over the years in Chicago and New York, but Rockwell knows putting the show in front of an audience is what truly matters.
"A reading is just that a radio play," Rockwell said. "The process of doing it here at STC, when it's on its feet, when the scripts are out of the actors' hands, that's when you really hear it, because you're also really seeing it."
Productions, of course, are expensive for a professional theater and readings not nearly as much.
"Musicals are now developed through these readings, and I think everyone's cheated because you don't get enough information from a reading," Rockwell said. "Ultimately your work has to be produced."
Getting new plays produced, particularly musicals, has never been easy. The safest bets for theater producers not banking on stars are titles that audiences are familiar with. While that's an understandable mantra for a company like California Musical Theatre, more adventurous Sacramento audiences benefit from theaters such as B Street and Capital Stage that actively pursue new works.
B Street has just finished a run of three straight world premiere productions, bringing the number to 56, not including its 125 original school tour shows, according to producing artistic director Buck Busfield. On Saturday the theater opens the world premiere of the Family Series production "The Three Musketeers."
Busfield agrees with Rockwell on how plays should be developed.
"Our preference for play development is just how we do it. We just produce them," Busfield said.
"Playwrights are present and fix them during and after production. It's risky but far better for the playwright. Actually, that's the great benefit we and other like theaters bring to playwrights, a chance to get their play done rather than read or workshopped," he said.
Busfield said B Street's play development is more straightforward.
"We don't do it through the traditional media of reading, feedback, rewrites, staged readings. We just don't do it because we don't find it helpful for us," Busfield said.
"I believe the most effective way to develop plays, the most effective use of play development dollars is to give them to theaters and let them do world premieres."
New plays are a significant part of theater's currency as a vital living art form. They carry the form forward.
"They're going to have the freshest voices of what's happening in the country at any given time," Busfield said. "Older plays just aren't as much fun to do."
STC executive producing director Michael Laun wanted to bring new plays back into the theater's sphere as they had been under former artistic director Peggy Shannon.
"We set a goal of one new play a season, but new work is not something you just pull out of a hat," Laun said.
He asked Rockwell what else the composer had after producing Rockwell's cabaret comedy "The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)" two years ago. Rockwell suggested "A Little Princess," and Laun thought it fit STC's mission and sensibility.
"I thought this piece was a good starting point even though it was very ambitious," Laun said.
He has been shepherding "A Little Princess" over the past year, working with the writers both here and in New York as the show has taken shape. Two new songs have been added, including one during the Sacramento rehearsal, which Laun said was both "exciting and frightening."
"It's our responsibility now as regional theaters. It used to be that you could develop new work in New York, but now you really can't," Laun said.
Capital Stage is involved in the National New Play Network, an alliance of professional nonprofit theaters that "champions the development, production and continued life of new plays."
"We're still in the early stages of our development as a new works company," said Capital Stage artistic director Stephanie Gularte.
She has received more than 200 submissions in a year, and the NNPN is helping funnel work to her that could find a match with Cap Stage.
The company organizes a weekend play-reading festival each fall, which Gularte had initially hoped would yield world premieres. Their 2008 production "Erratica" came out of the readings, but the forum has been more effective in introducing the company to artists.
"It takes a while to really form relationships and find artists, playwrights whose work you are aligned with and whose aesthetic is a match for what we do," Gularte said.
"It's exciting when you find an interesting new perspective or voice that tells a story in a way that makes you lean forward because it's so fresh."
The final crucial step remains getting the work in front of an audience.
"For a new musical to exist, it needs a theatergoing public who will go and support it," Rockwell said.
"STC has taken that step trusting that their audience will respond to something new."
A LITTLE PRINCESS
What: The world premiere, with music by Eric Rockwell, lyrics by Margaret Rose and book by William J. Brooke
Where: STC Main Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: Previews continue at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Saturday; opening at 8 p.m. Saturday. Continuing at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 12:30 p.m. Thursdays through May 19.
Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.
Information: (916) 443-6722, www.sactheatre.org