Two years ago, when we wrote about Lake Oswego–native turned bigtime Broadway producer Brisa Trinchero, she had just won her first Tony award for the revival The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and was in the early days of developing a new musical about the infamous ax-murderer Lizzie Borden. Now she’s waiting to see if she’s won her third or even fourth Tony for her newest productions, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Terrence McNalley's Mothers & Sons (Pippin won best revival last year), and will have the chance see the west coast premiere of Lizzie: The Musical open in her hometown this weekend at Portland Center Stage.
Lizzie: The Musical
Portland Center Stage
Thru June 29In other words, right now she’s the biggest name in Portland theater who you’ve never heard about. So for a little introduction, we’ve updated our story by Michael McGregor about her and her musical theater lab on the side of Mt. Adams.
WITH THE TEMPERATURE climbing toward 90, a sextet of 30-something New Yorkers circle like sharks in the cool water of a fir-ringed pond. They’ve been sitting inside the nearby lodge with a view of Mount Adams all morning, sweating out the plot of what they hope will become a hit musical based on anonymous letters and photographs sent in to Found Magazine. It’s still a work in progress, much like the newly built pond and the property’s half-finished theater. But now, climbing onto each other’s shoulders, it’s time for chicken fights.
Watching on with delight from the shade of a flowered umbrella, Brisa Trinchero, barely out of her twenties herself, has every reason to be pleased on this sunny afternoon. Three days ago, she became an investor in her sixth Broadway show, this fall’s much-anticipated revival of Annie. A week ago, she cheered from her seat in the Beacon Theatre as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess won her her first producing Tony. And over the past two years, she has watched her Running Deer Musical Theatre Lab—the 84-acre spread at the foot of Mount Adams where the six New Yorkers have come for a weeklong retreat—make her a speed-dial contact in a growing number of Broadway smart phones.
Facing the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, with an unobstructed view of Adams from its large wooden lodge, Running Deer was once just a family getaway. Now it hosts writing teams from around the country, and Trinchero fields calls weekly from other teams who want to come. Shows developed here have gone on to enthusiastic stagings in San Diego, Chicago, and New York—all with eyes set on Broadway. The teams would be willing to pay for the time and space the retreat affords, but Trinchero refuses to charge or even require a public presentation.
“This is my philanthropy to musical theater, my way of investing in these artists early on,” says Trinchero, who now splits her time between New York and Portland. “It’s a no-strings-attached deal. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
The “we” includes her parents and husband, who offer their guests hikes in the woods, sumptuous meals, and premium wines. The full-service solace is a boon for writers coming from the relentless, impersonal struggle of New York or L.A. “In New York it’s stressful just to decide what you’re going to have for lunch,” jokes Drew Callander, sunning himself with the others—mostly members of the sketch comedy team Story Pirates—after the morning session. “Everything here has been taken care of. My question is: How do you get people to leave?”
The rise to national player has come vertiginously fast for Trinchero, who was still counting box office receipts as executive director of Tigard’s Broadway Rose Theatre two years ago. Since last March, she and her business partner, local actor and director Corey Brunish, have raised close to $2 million for four Broadway shows, including multiple-Tony-winner Peter and the Starcatcher, and Trinchero is now a lead producer on what could be another hit, a macabre rock musical about the ax-wielding Lizzie Borden, running in Seattle in August before opening in New York next spring. [Update: While Lizzie hasn't yet made it to New York, it has run in Houston and Denmark. Trinchero, meanwhile, has since produced or invested in Lucky Guy with Tom Hanks, Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Neil Patrick Harris, Matilda, Pippin, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, A Night with Janis Joplin, Mothers and Sons, and more.]
The trajectory of Trinchero’s career has been a little like a musical theater plot itself. She loved movie musicals as a child and, from age 8, hopped on stage every chance she had, before realizing in her early 20s that she’d never be a big star. She earned an MBA from the University of Portland, went to work for local musical theater stalwart Broadway Rose, and, after soaring through a $2 million capital campaign, landed in the executive director’s seat. After hobnobbing with Broadway producers at several New York conferences, she realized producing Broadway shows isn’t terribly different from running and financing a local theater—only the dream and the budget are bigger.
Just the usual Broadway story of desire, grit, and hard work (with a dash of access to money thrown in), right? Not entirely, Trinchero says. She also needed the right relationships—and something rare and valuable to offer.
At a National Alliance for Musical Theatre conference in Seattle in 2010, Trinchero heard writers lamenting the difficulty of finding time and space for a team to develop a new show—a place where a lyricist, composer, book writer, and producer, all with busy lives, often in different cities, could build a deeper level of trust and relationship.
“It’s hard to develop that kind of rapport without being locked in a room in the woods together,” she says. “So I turned to the producer sitting beside me and said, ‘You know, my family has this property …’”
The producer was Greg Schaffert, who brought the first writing group to the Running Deer Lab two months later. The show they worked on, Painted Alice, hasn’t made it to Broadway, but it was staged in Chicago, and Schaffert went on to produce Peter and the Starcatcher, bringing the Brunish/Trinchero team along with him.
Soon the Running Deer guest book began to fill with praise from Schaffert and others for Trinchero’s generosity. Her lab, one entry says, “is now the biggest thing in musical theater.”
“IT WASN’T A CHOICE. I WAS JUST DRAWN TO MUSICALS—SEEING MUSICALS, SINGING SHOW TUNES. IT WAS LIKE CATNIP TO ME.”—BRISA TRINCHERO, FOUNDER OF RUNNING DEER MUSICAL THEATRE LAB
Which isn’t to say that everything has been easy for Trinchero and Brunish. The first show they produced, Bonnie & Clyde, closed after only a month on Broadway. “Even though that first show didn’t work out financially, it was an amazing experience for us as producers,” Trinchero says. “We made so many friends. There’s no better education.”
Relationships made through their work on Bonnie & Clyde and the Lab have allowed them to produce a string of successful shows since then: Evita; this year’s two Tony winners, Porgy and Bess and Peter and the Starcatcher; and possibly now Annie.
She may be conquering New York, but Trinchero remains committed to another work in progress: Portland. She has used local actors at the Lab, put the city’s theaters in touch with national producers, and invited Portland producer Debi Coleman and writer Marc Acito to develop a musical version of the E.M. Forster novel A Room with a View at the Lab. While they were working on the show, she posted a blurb about it on Playbill.com. Five minutes later, San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre called with an offer that grew into a multi-million-dollar production.
“You get exceptional people in the room together,” Trinchero says, “and exceptional things happen.”