O'Neill Theater Center Helps Launch Careers of Meryl Streetp, Jennifer Garner, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Note: this article was originally published by Forbes Magazine on April 30, 2019.  

In 2004 a composer/lyricist/writer/performer/substitute teacher and his writer-collaborator submitted their musical to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. They were a scrappy bunch with no professional credits. But they knew this hallowed ground was the ultimate locale to incubate their musical.

Since it was founded in 1964, the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center has been a theater mecca devoted to nurturing new works and emerging theater artists. Considered a launchpad of the American theater, Avenue Q began there. So did Uncommon Women and Others, Violet and The House of Blue Leaves.

In fact, almost all of August Wilson's work, including Fences, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and The Piano Lesson was developed at the O'Neill. They helped launch playwrights David Henry Hwang and Lanford Wilson. Meryl Streep, Danny DeVito, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jennifer Garner and many others began their careers there. The O’Neill even received two Tony Awards.

Set on a 90 acre estate in Waterford Connecticut overlooking the ocean, the O’Neill offers a singular focus and the time to work without distractions. Artists are immersed in a creative nirvana, surrounded by others who are making theater. “The contribution between the playwright and director there is so enormous,” explains Tony-winning actor Reed Birney who first came to work at the O’Neill in 1984 and has been back several times. “Because the piece is brand new, it’s like you are excavating the play, all working together to find it. Every actor should have the opportunity to work at this magical place.”

So back to the unknown artists who submitted their musical. They knew that if their piece was accepted it would mean that they could develop it in a major way. “For actors, writers, directors — artists of every stripe — the O’Neill is often the first institution to say “yes” to their art,” explains O’Neill Executive Director Preston Whiteway. “We develop and discover these writers and launch them into American culture.”

These unknown hopeful artists were Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Their musical was In The Heights. And they weren’t accepted.

Miranda and Hudes were in good company. Very good company. Countless playwrights have had their work rejected from the O’Neill. August Wilson was not accepted at the O’Neill until his fifth try submitting his play. It took Christopher Durang three times until he got in.

At that point In The Heights was in its very early stages. Up until then they had done some readings and a production at Wesleyan University where Miranda went to school. But the piece was still evolving. “It was so early in its embryonic development, we asked them to keep working on it,” shares Whiteway who still remembers the big box of script pages and cassette tapes that Miranda submitted. “We suggested some deepening of character and structure.”

Instead of allowing the rejection deter him, Miranda became even more unstoppable. “It was the best rejection letter I ever got,” explains Miranda. “Most of them are form letters. But they took the time and said “please keep us posted on this. And submit again.” That is the kind of rejection letter you hang on to.”

Miranda and Hudes took the feedback to heart. They re-submitted the following year and were accepted to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Music Theater Conference. “To their credit, they came back with a stronger show,” observes Whiteway. The duo and their dream team — including director Thomas Kail, music director Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler — were given the space they needed to work on the musical.

In the Heights ultimately got to Broadway, was nominated for 13 Tony nominations and won four Tonys including Best Musical. The show was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Coming full circle, last year it was announced that the Miranda Family Fund is providing scholarships for artists of color to attend O'Neill's National Theater Institute.

Each year for the past 19 years The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center has presented The Monte Cristo Award to a prominent theater artist for artistic excellence and commitment to the arts. Prior recipients have included Judith Light, Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, Wendy Wasserstein, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Harold Prince, George C. Wolfe and Lin Manuel Miranda, who was honored last year.

Just last week John Logan was was honored with 19th Monte Cristo Award at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s gala at the Edison Ballroom. The prolific playwright and screenwriter won a Tony for his play Red. Logan is also, a three-time Oscar nominee and wrote the screenplays for Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator, Skyfall, Alien, The Last Samurai and many other films. This summer his new musical Moulin Rouge will open on Broadway.

In 2017 Logan went to the O’Neill to develop the musical Superhero with Tom Kitt. The show just ran off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. The O’Neill deeply resonates with him. “I was a starving playwright in Chicago for ten years. I know how important it is to have support,” said Logan at the gala. “And the O’Neill provides support to emerging artists which is invaluable.”

Plus to be given an award inspired by genius playwright Eugene O’Neill is particularly poignant to Logan. As he explains, people often ask writers about their favorite American playwright. “I always say Eugene O'Neill for very particular reasons,” shares Logan. “This man wrote Ah Wilderness AND The Hairy Ape AND The Ice Man’s Cometh AND Long Day's Journey into Night. Look at the depth of this man's work.”

In his estimable career O'Neill thrived in so many genres: social satire, hard political drama and intense family drama. It's clear why Logan, a virtuoso scribe himself, would see parallels. “He worked in all those forms and that is what I've tried to do with my career,” says Logan.  “I have always had a particular affinity and understanding to want to do different things.