Ted Shen, a New York investment banker turned Medici of experimental musicals, took a midday Delta Air Lines shuttle last week to Washington for the opening of “Sycamore Trees” at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.
“We just have two functions, money and cheerleading,” Shen said in his window seat, referring to himself and his wife, Mary Jo Shen (temporarily sidelined at home in Brooklyn Heights with a hip injury). “When something is electrifying and inspiring, which happens sometimes, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Most theater backers seek a windfall or at least some financial return. The Shens instead fund non-commercial musicals that they believe advance the art form, usually through non-profit theater companies such as the Signature or New York’s Roundabout and Public Theater.
Shen was wearing a navy-and-white striped polo shirt, chinos and black Ecco walking shoes. Now 65, he retired from Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 1999. He was there for three decades, most recently as head of capital markets and a board member.
He estimates that the Shen Family Foundation has donated $6 million over the last eight years to subsidize some 50 productions, plus various cast recordings. His first foray was aiding the Kennedy Center’s summer-long Stephen Sondheim celebration in 2002. Later, Sondheim wrote Shen asking for help with Roundabout’s revival of “Assassins,” which Shen happily did, and it was produced to acclaim in 2004.
“We were shocked by the large amount of money they needed,” Shen said. “That’s when we realized there was something going on in musical theater that wasn’t right. The show was a go or no-go based on a handful of donors. That’s the pattern over and over again.”
The $600,000 “Sycamore Trees” is the second major production of Signature’s American Musical Voices Project. Funded by the Shens, it pays composers $100,000 each over four years, plus health insurance, to write or complete a musical of their choice. Less established writers get a $25,000 total grant.
Ricky Ian Gordon, the 54-year-old composer, lyricist and co-book writer of “Sycamore,” said that writing his autobiographical show was the hardest task of his life.
“That’s why it took 33 years,” he said at his opening, wearing a pin-stripe suit and mini-fedora. He worked on the show sporadically until he received the Shen grant, “the grand kahuna of awards I’ve received.”
“And now that it is about to end I am mostly just scared,” he said. “I wish I could change my name and get an award again.”
Based on Gordon’s own family, “Sycamore Trees” dramatizes six decades in the life of a brainy Jewish Long Island clan. A Bronx-born, bigoted father (Marc Kudisch) returns from World War II scarred and unprepared for domesticity. He makes an odd couple with his wife, a former Catskills singer, and clashes with his three independent-minded daughters and musically gifted homosexual son (Tony Yazbeck) -- Gordon’s stand-in.
Directed by Tina Landau and inspired in part by Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” the musical even has its seven characters squabble over who narrates. (They trade off.)
Donald Katz chronicled the Gordon family in a 1992 600-page nonfiction tome called “Home Fires.” Likewise, “Sycamore Trees” squeezes a lot of story and tragedy into two and a half hours. As for the music, Washington Post critic Peter Marks called it “quite lovely.”
“It’s a hybrid of all American music,” said Jessica Molaskey, who plays a brilliant and troubled Vassar-educated daughter, based on the late feminist author Susan Gordon Lydon. “You have Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Joni Mitchell. This piece is profoundly dense and he doesn’t pander.”
Molaskey said she loves collaborating on new work.
“It’s like a tree falling in the forest. It only exists in the composer’s head until you sing it out loud.”
Gordon said he’s hopeful the show will transfer to New York but has “no idea what’s next.” Other boundary-busting musicals are in the pipeline, Shen said, thanks to the Signature’s commissioning program and another one he subsidizes at the Public. Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Piazza”) has a slot in the Signature’s 2011-12 season.
Shen, who played in jazz bands as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, said the commission recipients treasure the artistic freedom even more than the money.
“They’re excited to be asked to create something of their own choosing from a blank slate,” he said.
(“Sycamore Trees” runs through Sunday. Information: +1-703-820-9771; http://www.sig-online.org/sycamore-trees.htm.)