It’s not every day that John Chalsty, the former chief executive officer of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, and Stephen Sondheim both take in a new composer-lyricist’s first musical at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.
“A Second Chance,” unveiled Monday night at the East Village spot, was written by their mutual friend Ted Shen, a musical-theater patron and former DLJ executive. The title refers to a second chance at love, but could apply to artistic fulfillment.
Shen, 65, played bass in a professional jazz quintet while an undergraduate at Yale University, but didn’t try his hand at writing for the musical theater until after he retired from DLJ in 1999. (In 2000, Credit Suisse Group bought the company.)
“Ted’s first love is music,” said his wife, Mary Jo Shen. “This is his dream.”
The two-character, 75-minute show will have a second, final performance tonight. It depicts the romance of a wealthy, grieving widower and a divorced woman unlucky in love. Shen, a widower, dedicated it to Mary Jo, who’d been divorced before their 2006 wedding. He said it’s “informed by personal experience.”
“I wasn’t writing it autobiographically,” he said. “Since I’m a novice writer, however, I needed to use my personal experience to color those characters.”
Shen said Sondheim suggested he write about his first year after meeting Mary Jo. Another friend, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, gave dramaturgical advice and offered Joe’s Pub for two performances.
The Shen Family Foundation subsidizes musical-theater development at the Public and other nonprofit theaters.
Shen wouldn’t say how much he spent to mount the show. The score fuses jazz and musical-theater styles and is sung-through, containing minimal dialogue. It was directed by Jonathan Butterell (who did musical staging for Lincoln Center Theater’s “The Light in the Piazza”) and was orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin (”Grey Gardens”), with a five-piece band.
The post-show reception Monday night, also courtesy of the Shens, featured bite-size morsels of sesame chicken, crab cakes and peanut-butter cookies.
In “A Second Chance,” the man and woman, played by married performers Brian and Diane Sutherland, hit it off at a dinner party. But he sings that he’s “damaged goods” following the death of his wife. She frets he’s emotionally unavailable.
“Each time we’re together, I feel I’ve come alive, in museums or at the movies or just seeing you smile,” the male character sings. “But once I’m back alone then my demons arrive and they fill me with guilt and remorse, for pursuing my own selfish course.”
“All I have to offer is damaged goods.”
“I love how personal it is,” said Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, which has a commissioning program funded by the Shens.
Adam Guettel, who wrote “Light in the Piazza,” said the show has “value on every level.”
“It’s very beautiful,” he added.
Shen alerted friends to the performance but didn’t offer complimentary tickets (not even to Sondheim). Joe’s Pub, he said, will make money on the shows. Were a non-profit to produce another incarnation, he’s not concerned about perceptions of favoritism because he’s a patron.
“No legitimate theater will book the show if it’s going to be detrimental to its standing,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want that if that’s the case.”
“A Second Chance” will be performed tonight at 425 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-967-7555. http://www.joespub.com