WARM Backer's Showing

Wow! What a treat! I’ve been living, working, and attending shows of all kinds in Richmond for more than 20 years, but this was the first time ever attending a backer’s showing – a production held for the purpose of attracting investors. (I can’t really count the Quill Theatre’s fall 2018 production of GUTENBERG! THE MUSICAL! which is presented in the format of a backer’s showing.) The taste of JC Gonzalez’ new pop-rock opera, WARM, makes me eager to see and hear the finished production.

The premise certainly isn’t entirely original: three teenaged runaways find each other and create their own community on the streets of Los Angeles. It reeks of RENT, the 1996 pop-rock musical about impoverished young artists surviving on the streets of New York, under the shadow of the rising AIDS epidemic. It should come as no surprise that WARM’s creator, Gonzalez, has lived in both New York City and Los Angeles, and has played the role of Angel, the young drag queen in RENT. For some, WARM may also stir up recollections of HAIR, the 1967 anti-Vietnam tribal rock musical, and the angst and neglect of the children of SPRING AWAKENING (2006). Yeah, all of that, and more. Even the dark issues of HEATHERS (2014).

But a backer’s showing is a raw and unadorned performance, without benefit of a stage set or lighting or costumes. There isn’t even a complete script – just twelve actors with music stands and boxes or stools and a 5-piece band with enough sound and light to see and hear. Gonzalez, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book himself, after a collaboration with a friend didn’t work out, played the keyboard and narrated the showing, which included a brief synopsis and a selection of eleven songs. And it was stunningly beautiful.

The showing opened with the urgency of “Gotta Get Out,” then moved on to the soaring, heartfelt “Baby Flowers” sung by Rachel Rose Gilmour. “XTC” is the group’s obligatory siren song to drugs, along with the philosophical “Inferno,” in which rapper Moses Barrymore declares, “You can’t trust anyone even the devil was an angel.” Joseph Clark (who used to direct the youth choir at my church) brought some to tears with his rendition of the prayer, “Dear God” and I loved Michaela Nicole’s voice in the introspective “I Feel,” while Karla Brown sang a gentle ballad, “Warm.”

Gonzalez assembled an outstanding cast of local talent for this showing. In addition to Gilmour, Nicole, Barrymore, and Brown there were Joel Everett, Drewe Goldstein, Brandon Johns, Rachel Marrs, Kat McMahan, Todd Patterson, and Princess Warlington. In addition to Gonzalez on the keyboard, there was Tod Ellsworth on bass, Aidan Epply-Schmidt on lead guitar, Bubba Farmer on drums, and Joseph Przybyszewski on rhythm guitar.

Gonzalez’ music is dynamic; the cast is diverse in ethnicity, age, gender, size, just to name the obvious; and the energy was contagious. I really hope Gonzalez gets the financial backing he needs to workshop this show and then move on to a full production – I want to see how it turns out.

So, what does it take to develop a musical, a pop-rock opera? Well, Firehouse has budgeted about $100,000 all told. That includes funding to pay the director, musical director, choreographer, designers of set, lights, costumes, sound, and video, 14 performers, 5 musicians, 2 stage crew, production materials such as set, costumes, lights, sound and video equipment, marketing, documentation royalties, administrative overhead and “contingencies.” Of the total amount, it takes about $37,000 for 3 weeks of rehearsal and 1 week of workshop performances, plus another $63,000 for 4 weeks of rehearsals plus 4 weeks of full production. And this $100,000 is just to develop the show at Firehouse. If it goes to Broadway there will be a few more zeros added to that number. To give some context, investors put in about $12.5 million to get HAMILTON open on Broadway.

Being a theatrical backer is a high risk investment. WARM is offering two ways to invest: as a shareholder, or a donor. The production is offering 25 shares at $3,000 per share. Smaller contributions may be given as tax deductible contributions, for which donors will receive free tickets “anytime the show is produced.” More than 40 years of being involved in theater, and there’s still something new to learn. We may explore in greater detail some of these behind the scenes elements in future Firehouse Blogs.

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