Over the upcoming 10 days, we’re thrilled to introduce to you the 9 writing teams in the 2017 Musical Theater Lab!  Each team will be presenting a new mini-musical in culminating lab concert performance, World Views, on July 8th (link here for details!).  These writers were selected through a competitive application process, and in these brief Q&As you’ll get some behind the scenes insight into their process and work.  Our first profile is the writing team of Seth Christenfeld & James Ballard.

The theme of the lab was to create a musical inspired by artwork found throughout multiple New York City museums.


Artwork: Patio with Cloud by Georgia O’Keeffe

Title of your Mini-Musical: “A Door”

1. Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?
JB: I was relatively familiar with the work Georgia O’Keeffe before this project. I can’t say that I ever necessarily thought about her work as potential source material for a musical, but I always found it intriguing, especially considering that a good portion my family comes from the American southwest.
SC: Enough of a familiarity that I was surprised to see an O’Keeffe that contained neither a cow’s skull nor a suspiciously vaginal flower.

2. What drew you to the painting? Were your impulses more abstract, or did the image evoke any specific personal experiences or responses for your team?
SC: Looking at this painting, an entire story came to me almost instantly: the weird shadow-thingy was a door, and there were two people, and one would want to walk through and the other wouldn’t.
B: I kept coming back to this painting, even though I didn’t initially have any specific ideas, so when Seth pitched his idea I was happy to jump on board.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group? Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?
JB: I would say the writing process so far has been similar to how we’ve written before. After hashing out an idea and getting a sense of what the overall arc of the piece was, we discussed which ideas would be best approached with text first, and which would be best approached with music first. We then went off to our respective Writer Hermit Caves to spin out some material, and once we had enough to work with we started meeting up again to make it into some kind of a cohesive thing. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have – our musical.
SC: And by “writer hermit caves,” he means our apartments. We kicked things off by outlining the piece in a miniature version of a three-act structure, wrote most of “Act I” pretty quickly, and then seesawed back and forth for the rest. The conversational recit stuff was mostly words first; the more formal material was music first, based on dialogue I sketched in the outline.

4. How does your piece in the lab relate to the rest of your body of work? Is it a new direction or collaboration, or a continuation / deepening of styles or themes you have explored previously?
JB: I think this is a new and different kind of a piece for us, which is pretty exciting. Musically, it ventures into a more harmonically complex and technically challenging place than we’ve been before as a writing team. While it’s not an opera, it has this sort of heightened, otherworldly aura about it that doesn’t quite fit into the traditional “musical theatre” milieu.
SC: As a team, this is definitely different for us, both formally and tonally–much of what we’ve written has been strongly formal and highly comedic. However, I think we’re both drawing on themes and styles we’ve used in work with other collaborators.

5. Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?
JB: If you’re looking for fun and excitement this experimental theatre season, look no further. New York’s hottest 10-minute musical is “Trash Beach”. This show has everything: Garbage bins, old people, a chorus of anthropomorphic sea creatures, a notated score maybe, and New Jersey; it’s that state where New York puts all of the gross stuff that it doesn’t want, like Chris Christie.
SC: Answering this question incorrectly–or at all–seems like an excellent way to make enemies. But I’d be lying if I weren’t to say that I, too, am terribly excited for “Trash Beach.” Which isn’t to say that I’m looking any less forward to seeing everything else–I’m at least mildly familiar with everyone else’s work, and this is a stacked deck of talented people.

James Ballard is a composer, lyricist, and writer whose varied works include compositions for choir, concert band, orchestra, chamber/pop/rock/jazz ensembles, and musical theatre. He is the composer of the full-length musical The Oxford Epidemic and the one-act musical The Jerk Next Door, both co-written with lyricist and bookwriter Seth Christenfeld. His work has been performed at many venues across the country including The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., Rockwell Table & Stage in Los Angeles, and Joe’s Pub, Feinstein’s/54 Below, and the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City.

Seth Christenfeld is a lyricist, librettist, and dramaturg. With James Ballard, he has written the full-length musical The Oxford Epidemic and the one-act musical The Jerk Next Door, as well as various other things. Other musicals: Wait Forever (music by Sean Havrilla) and The Bad Ideas of Jack Andrews (music by Joseph Trefler; Finalist, 2014 Davenport Ten-Minute Play Festival). MFA in Musical Theatre Writing, NYU; BA in Drama Studies, SUNY Purchase. Raised in the lawless wilds of Westchester County, Seth now lives in Manhattan, where he spends his days as the Literary Coordinator at the York Theatre Company. www.sethdoesthings.com