Letter to the Editor: American Music Theatre Project’s operations, selection processes raise concerns

New musicals chosen for Northwestern University’s American Music Theatre Project workshops are presumably selected from America’s developing theatre world. However, under current artistic director David Bell — who has led AMTP’s 2009-2018 seasons — for a third consecutive year, after accepting applications from book writers, composers and lyricists throughout the U.S., at least one-third of the last three seasons’ musicals have been co-authored by Mr. Bell, associate artistic director Ryan Cunningham or their colleagues. AMTP’s recent records also demonstrate the former two selected themselves as co-authors for two of AMTP’s 2016-2017 season of new musicals.

To me, this could be an apparent conflict of interest. To compare this with co-Founder Dominic Missimi’s exemplary tenure, during his entire 2005-2009 seasons, as far as I can tell, no AMTP faculty or staff were selected for — or became beneficiaries of — a program broadly and plainly addressed to American artists nationwide, and not a single non-AMTP writer made a repeated appearance with AMTP. With presumably a large number of scripts submitted for 2016-2017 alone, the stark contrast between Mr. Missimi’s and Mr. Bell’s stewardships could not be more apparent.

Under AMTP’s current management, there are a number of work expenses, representing benefits by which Mr. Bell and Mr. Cunningham may obtain financial advantage when they author, and then select, their own musicals as subjects of “research.” These likely include directors, actors, music directors, theatre performance space rental, sound tech and equipment rental, advertising and internet publicity.

When the director’s research is skewed toward his own creative projects in this manner, the focus subtly changes. It moves from a creative examination of an outside subject of research — new American musicals — to an inside object created explicitly for that research, here, Mr. Bell’s own musicals. A thing transformed, beneath an academic veneer, from subject to object, yet nevertheless posing as academic “research” of subject.

For complete disclosure, I sent my own entry for the 2017-2018 season last year on AMTP’s “Submit a Show” page, although my submission was not chosen. But I wish to draw a bright line between my own entry not being selected, and the selection process itself, making a careful distinction between advocating for my entry, now past, and alerting NU to a questionable policy in the future. Nor is this a personal matter, since I have never met Bell or Cunningham.

Still probing further, AMTP’s web pages do not explicitly clarify its purpose is actually a research program so overt, and yet so subtle, as to recently include a large number of its directors’ shows as objects of that research. Applicants from across the United States, who are, after all, the true subjects of AMTP’s purported research, continue to apply each year, not realizing the leadership of AMTP is more often choosing their own musicals.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any publications in the University Library database myself — using a wide-range of search terms — that describe any research at AMTP. This includes NU’s own AMTP publication, Crescendo, which was subtitled “The Journal of the American Music Theatre Project.” Examining the two surviving issues I could find — Fall 2005 and Fall 2006 — the articles contain content unpromising of scholarly research, with little discussion of actual research outcomes, developments or implications.

Presented with this gap in evidence for “research,” we are forced to fall back on Dean O’Keefe’s attempts to justify Mr. Bell’s activities: that AMTP takes projects “based on whether they fit with our educational and research mission” and “developing the work of our faculty and students” is consistent with that mission. She added that Mr. Bell and those involved in the project “work as a community to select works they feel will benefit from conversation with them and provide useful knowledge and experiences for everyone.”

Still, whether Mr. Bell’s research is yet to be discovered or not, choosing one’s own musicals does not seem a necessary step in conducting research into the American musical. It appears the best way to alleviate the problem of AMTP’s optics with its display of an affinity for associates, while at the same time fulfilling 100 percent of Mr. Bell’s research needs, is to return to Mr. Missimi’s founding principles. AMTP’s research telescope should be directed, with a clear eye, toward the American theatre’s galaxy of new authors. It should not be aimed at associates and staff under a tenured professor, a scholarly quicksand strictly avoided by Mr. Missimi.

NU’s replies to my inquiries have often ranged from misplaced sympathy for my entry not having been chosen, to receiving a censure for using my NU email address to pursue these questions. While various NU officials have shot down my inquiry’s merit, none have disputed the facts cited.

It is not only the optics, but the ethics, of the American Music Theatre Project that may be at risk. If there are no visible, clearly apparent results of research, should Mr. Bell be the recipient of research funds to produce his own musicals? And still pending before the NU community: do these examples represent ethical and scholarly — as well as financial — conflicts of interest in AMTP?

Paul Wolf
Orders Assistant/Bibliographic Editor at University Libraries