The Hello Girls of World War I have piqued the interest of Prospect’s resident writer, composer / lyricist Peter Mills, as inspiration for a new musical. Many thanks to the National Endowment of the Arts for granting Prospect Theater Company funds to commission and develop this new piece. The interview below features some of Mills’ ideas and background for his approach to the show.

prepared-to-sail-nyc

1. How did you find out about the story of the Hello Girls?

My artistic collaborator, Prospect’s Artistic Director Cara Reichel told me about it after she heard the story on a PBS documentary a couple years ago.  At the time, we were applying to be artists in residence at a particular college musical theater program.  The idea was that we would develop a new musical of ours using performers in the program.  So we were looking for a story idea that would offer a lot of roles for younger performers, and THE HELLO GIRLS seemed like a perfect fit.  The “girls” in question were young women, mostly in their 20s, who worked as telephone operators in the Signal Corps during World War 1; they were the first women officially to serve in the US Army.  And naturally, many of the male roles — the soldiers and officers — would be appropriate for college-age performers as well.
Anyway, as luck would have it, we didn’t get the residency.  But based on the research we’d done to put together that proposal, we were convinced that it was a great story — and one that not a lot of people knew.  Of course, in the last couple years, during the centennial of America’s involvement in World War 1, there has been more and more attention given to the Hello Girls.  Earlier this year, a new book on the subject was published, and the author has been making the rounds, talking about it on NPR and elsewhere.  Cara laughs at me because whenever I hear one of those interviews I fret a bit and say, “too many people are going to find out about the story!”


2. You’ve written several shows inspired by historical research.  How do you approach the process?  What are the challenges?

The process begins with the research, learning as much about the history, the people, and the circumstances as possible.  In the case of THE HELLO GIRLS, some of that research has been into switchboards and telephone operator work — just trying to understand the work these women were doing — since it’s all a bit alien to us in the age of cell phones!  After all of this fact-finding, then the real work begins, which is deciding what the particular story is that will be told.  Who are the characters that we will follow?  What is the arc of the plot?  How will it be broken down into scenes?I think one of the major challenges in writing a show based on history is finding a story that is both dramatically satisfying but also reasonably faithful to the facts.  It’s always a bit of a negotiation between those two priorities.  When your characters are real people, you want to be respectful and accurate.  But at the same time, you want to tell their story in a way that will be the most engaging for an audience — and history has a way of not always playing out in as dramaturgically pleasing a way as one might wish for the sake of storytelling.  Still, it’s usually possible to tell a good story without having to play too fast and loose with the facts.  It’s often a question of what you choose to focus on — the lens through which you view the material.

At war, on duty

3. What do you imagine the music of this world sounds like?

Part of the research involves listening to period music, and also other musicals set in a similar time period, all with an ear toward finding the right sound world for the show.  For instance, Sousa-style marches seem like an almost inevitable ingredient for a story of this time period, set in the world of the military.  But also, a lot of the story takes place in France and the girls themselves were recruited in part for their French-speaking abilities, so it seems appropriate that there might be a French flavor to some songs, especially those informed by a sense of place.  And then again, it is also a story about daring, pioneering women who were breaking down social barriers — and in that respect, there’s a bit of the spirit of the Jazz Age… which was just around the corner.

Above all, I decided early on that I wanted the score to be more musical theater than a faithful period pastiche.  And what I mean by that is that I want the music to serve the story and the characters above all, even if it means that there may be some anachronistic musical elements in the show.  That’s why I wanted to listen not only to source music from the actual time period, but also musicals set in a similar time period — to see how they made use of the period style in their scores.  Ahrens and Flaherty’s RAGTIME is an example of the kind of thing to which I aspire:  the musical style throughout is strongly evocative of the time period in which the show is set.  (A decade or so before THE HELLO GIRLS.)  But the way those sounds are used is more sophisticated than the ragtime, blues and vaudeville forms from which the score is drawing.
The Chief Operator

Grace Banker


4. Do you have a favorite character so far?

One of the great things about THE HELLO GIRLS is that there are six women at the center of the story, and they’re all fun characters.  In some ways, I think this is an ensemble piece about a particular squad — who were sent to serve at the front during the pivotal Battle of the Argonne Forest.  But if I had to pick a main character (and also a favorite character), it would be Grace Banker, who was the leader of that squad.  Of course, I know Grace a little better than some of the others because she kept a diary about her war-time experiences — in defiance of Army regulations!  That defiant streak is one of the things I love about her.  Because it was also Grace who refused to abandon her post at the front when the building housing the telephone exchange caught fire… And then after her squad finally left the post (under threat of court-martial), it was Grace who led her operators back to the switchboards as soon as the fire had been put out, to continue connecting calls with those lines that hadn’t been destroyed in the fire.  For this, she was given the Distinguished Service Medal after the war.  In the years prior to World War 1, one of the arguments against women’s suffrage had been that women were not expected to risk their lives in service of the nation, as men were.  So it could be argued that the role played by women like Grace during World War 1 was a strong contributing factor to the United States granting women the right to vote in 1920.

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A Goodbye

July 14, 2017

Today, Prospect Theater Company is giving a warm farewell to our Management Intern and Global Musical Theater Initiative Associate, Julia Bardinon, as she returns to France after working with us for the past six months. We asked her some questions about her New York experience in the interview below:

Julia B

Julia Bardinon with Prospect’s Producing Associate, Brandon Zamudio, at the company’s 2017 Gala.

1. How was your overall experience in the New York theater world?

Usually when I get excited I switch to French. If I were to answer this question orally I would say: “absolument incroyable et très probablement la meilleure expérience professionnelle et personnelle que je pouvais espérer”. (translation: absolutely amazing and probably the best professional and personal experience I could dream of).

2. How is your time with Prospect Theater Company going to help you when you return home?

My experience here has inspired me to create a Musical Theater Lab in Paris, the first French Lab exclusively dedicated to Musical Theater. While working with Prospect Theater Company, you just get to think of everything you think of as being possible. And as a huge fan of Musical Theater, I want to help artists from my country develop new musical theater works while finding their own French way of gathering diverse performing arts on a stage. The Lab will have its first season next year and I’m so excited to try to adapt all the things I’ve seen and learned here to the French performing arts scene.

3. What has been your favorite part of your work experience?

Getting to meet the most inspiring and talented people I have seen in my whole life. Both on stage and off, Prospect Theater Company manages to gather a community of smart, hard-working AND passionate people. And the most amazing part was that even if I’m from a different country and so young in the industry, I now feel like a part of this very special community.

4. What was the one thing that surprised you most about your job AND New York?

Stage Managers. The position does not exist in France and honestly I was so surprised to find one in every single production. That was before I understood how valuable they were to the good conduct of rehearsals and shows. Later, I found out that stage managers are just the tip of the iceberg of the organization of theater in NYC. They are the living proof of how industrious and well organized theater is in this city.

5. What are you going to miss about your time here?

The excitement of discovering new things every single day – in the arts but also in general. Being an expat, it’s experiencing different habits, ways of seeing life, cultures… and it’s so enriching! and entertaining. And of course – I can’t tell how much I’m going to miss all the people I’ve met here…

The countdown ends as we meet the last of 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 next profile is the writing team of Janet Allard and Niko Tsakalakos.

This year’s lab assignment was to create a musical inspired by a work of visual art found in an NYC museum.

the kite.jpg

Artwork: The Kite by Gazbia Sirry

Title of your Mini-Musical: “Hello My Name Is Laura Buxton”

1. Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?

[JA] No. But after I saw “The Kite” I ended up reading a lot about the artist and discovering her other paintings.

[NT] I had never seen the painting before. It was my favorite because somehow I connected with how the girl and the kite seemed to be moving together, as if she were being pulled up to the sky…

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?

[JA] The motion inherent in the painting. The color. The kite and the girl reaching. It called to mind a few things. The story of Icarus. The true story of a girl who released a balloon and as a result something sort of magical happened. The longing to reach for something beyond us.

[NT]  For Janet, the image triggered an NPR podcast she heard about a girl named Laura Buxton who let a balloon go only to be found by another girl with the same name 140 miles south of where she lived. To me, I instantly recalled my own memory of letting a balloon go when i was a child and wondering how far it would fly, if it would touch the moon or dance with the clouds – an iconic sort of metaphor of the power of imagination or that universal need to connect to something bigger or extend beyond yourself. It was basis of the first poem I’d ever written. After studying the painting and watching the podcast, I knew we’d found a sweet spot where we could tell this incredibly fascinating story through song in a modern, relatable and concise way.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group? Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?

[JA] Fast and furious. In a good way. We didn’t have a lot of time so we made choices fast and committed to them. Different in the 10 minute form. We hadn’t tackled that as a team before.

[NT] Positive energy all around, well organized and dedicated to making the piece work.

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?

[JA] Sort of a new direction. Our first female protagonist!

[NT] I think it is a deepening. It’s interesting how Janet and I threw out the first song we wrote for the piece as it was leading us down a different story telling path. We like to play and explore a lot before we hone in on what is really working. It’s also really interesting how we found this organic, inter-woven way to tell the story where there were ‘song propers’ as well as small themes that we used throughout to help tell the story. In a way, this is a bit new as we often try to go down a more song-based path where here it is a tapestry of some theatrical/dramatic statements inter-mixed with more pop oriented song material.

5. Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?

[JA] “Trash Beach.” The title. And to see what craziness that image spawned.

[NT] All of them, can’t wait!

Janet Allard Musicals include: Into the Wild, Perseverance Theater (commission), Berkeley Rep Ground Floor (development), Rhinebeck Writer’s Retreat (development), Goodspeed Opera House (development), Encore Musical Theatre (workshop production), Rattlestick Playwright’s Theatre’s ‘New Songs Now’. Pool Boy at Barrington Stage, Provincetown Playhouse, Pittsburgh CLO, Driving West at Ars Nova, The Unknown: Jonathan Larson Award with P73 Productions, NYMF, Joe’s Pub. Her work has been seen at The Guthrie Lab, The Kennedy Center, Playwrights Horizons, The Yale Cabaret, The Women’s Project, Birdland, 54 Below. She is a Fulbright Fellow, has an M.F.A in Playwriting from Yale School of Drama, and has studied at the NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. http://www.janetallard.com

Niko Tsakalakos’ new musical Into the Wild, written with Janet Allard and based on the book by Jon Krakauer, was recently given a developmental premiere at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Dexter, Michigan). Pool Boy, also written with Allard, enjoyed a sold-out run at Barrington Stage Company (2010) and was produced at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse (2012). A cabaret version has recently been commissioned by Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. Fall Springs, written with playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, received a showcase at The York (2016) and has been workshopped at New Dramatists, Ars Nova, and TheatreWorks (Silicon Valley). More at: http://www.nikosongs.com

Our countdown is almost finished as we feature the eighth of 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 next profile is the writing team of Christiana Cole and Rona Siddiqui.

This year’s lab assignment was to create a musical inspired by a work of visual art found in an NYC museum.

magritte voice of space

Artwork: Voice of Space by René Magritte

Title of your Mini-Musical: “Make the Earth Great”

The responses below were made by Christiana Cole on behalf of the team.

1. Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?

I was familiar with Magritte, but not with this particular painting. I’ve always enjoyed surrealist art. I especially like Magritte because of his dry wit and his interesting mix of cartoonishness and coldness.

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?

Rona was first drawn to the painting. I forget how we came up with our story, but we both dig outer space, speculative fiction, and allegories, so it was born out of that.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group? Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?

Rona and I both enjoy working quickly, in part because it forces you to cut everything that isn’t essential to the storytelling.

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?

For me (Christiana), I found that this story necessitated a more symbolic (and less literal) form. I wrote a complete draft and had already edited it when I went and saw Pacific Overtures at Classic Stage, and it motivated me to throw out everything and start over — in a great way. Pacific Overtures inspired me to cut the plodding “hows” and focus on the more-interesting “whys” of the story.

5. Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?

I’m interested in seeing Emily Kaczmarek and Zoe Sarnak’s piece. I’ve sung some of Zoe’s music before and really enjoyed it! I’m also really excited for “Trash Beach” (we loved the image but couldn’t think of a story) and “The Door” (the Georgia O’Keeffe) (same deal).

The New York Times called Christiana Cole “top-notch.” Lyricist for musicals for young audiences, including Peanut Butter and Cupcake (based on the best-selling book), to be produced at Interlakes Theatre this summer. Her new adaptation of The Frog Prince will be produced at Random Farms Children’s Theatre in fall 2017, and is licensed to theatres in Japan, China, and Korea. Christiana is a champion storyteller, featured on NPR’s The Moth GRANDSLAM. Currently writing a musical about the life of Bella Abzug with Rona Siddiqui and Beth Blatt. Member: BMI Advanced Workshop. Christiana is an accomplished performer, and teaches voice lessons. http://www.christianacole.com

Rona Siddiqui is a composer/lyricist in NYC. (Musicals) One Good Day- ASCAP/Dreamworks Musical Theatre Workshop, 2014 Festival of New American Musicals’ Best New Musical. (Off-Broadway)The Tin,Treasure in NYC. (Regional Original Scores) Middletown, The Vagina Monologues, The Good Person of Szechuan, The Clean House, Love Song of J Robert Oppenheimer. (Web series) Amateur Dicks. (Awards) 2014 ASCAP Foundation Mary Rodgers/Lorenz Hart Award, 2011 ASCAP Foundation/Max Dreyfus Scholarship. Collaborations include The Civilians, NYC Gay Men’s Chorus, MuseMatch, 52nd St Project. Currently composing musical about Bella Abzug. Graduate of NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. http://www.ronasiddiqui.com

We’re nearing the end of the countdown as we present the seventh of 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 next profile is the writing team of Douglas Lyons, Ethan Pakchar and Melvin Tunstall III.

This year’s lab assignment was to create a musical inspired by a work of visual art found in an NYC museum.

funeral

Artwork: Funeral by Clementine Hunter

Title of your Mini-Musical: “The Funeral.”

The responses below were made by Douglas Lyons on behalf of the team.

1. Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?

No I wasn’t familiar with the artist or painting at all. I was blown away by the small details within the work and it became our job as the team to create backstory for every little nook and cranny of the painting.

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?

The four women of color drew us to the painting and the fact that one of the women had her bouquet of flowers turned upside down left some questions to be answered. The painting itself seems simple but there’s so many emotions at play during funerals, it felt like there was a juicy opportunity for us there.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group? Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?

This specific process has been unique because for 3 weeks we were long distance leading right up to a deadline. We’ve all followed our instincts and fed off of one another and we’re pretty proud of what we found.

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?

Ethan and I have been working as a writing team for 4 years now, Melvin and I have two other writing babies together. This is the first time this combo of writers is working together but it all feels like family. This is the first time I’ve been able to write gospel for Theater and that’s pretty exciting. I grew up singing in church so this piece pays homage to my roots.

5. Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?

I’m really excited to see “The Kite” because that was another painting that caught my attention during the selection process!

Douglas Lyons is a composer-lyricist and actor who’s originated roles on Broadway in The Book of Mormon and Beautiful. As a writer Douglas conceived Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical which has upcoming productions at the Atlantic Theater Company, Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati and Orlando Rep. Upcoming world premieres: Five Points at Theater Latte Da and Peter, Darling at Casa Mañana Theatre. With composer Ethan Pakchar his lyrics have played Lincoln Center, The Old Globe, Seattle Rep and morE. Douglas is currently in residence at The Directors Company and under commission with Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. @DouglasSings

Ethan Pakchar has played guitar for the Broadway productions of Hamilton, Wicked, Book of Mormon, Lion King and more. He serves as orchestrator on Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical. Half of the songwriting team “Lyons & Pakchar” who have been heard at Lincoln Center’s Broadway Songbook Series, Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, Goodspeed’s Johnny Mercer’s Writing Colony, The Old Globe, Seattle Rep, The Musical Theatre Factory and more. Commissions: Seattle’s 5th Ave Theatre (’64). He holds a B.M. from NYU.

Melvin Tunstall, III, composer, lyricist, librettist, began his career as a performer and has appeared in the Broadway and international companies of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Rock of Ages, and Ain’t Misbehavin’. A graduate of the Musical Theater Program at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Melvin wrote the book to the TYA phenomenon Polkadots: the Cool Kids Musical, which will be the first TYA musical filmed for Playbill.com’s new HD streaming service. His musical Peter, Darling was commissioned by and will premiere at Casa Mañana Theater in Texas in the spring of 2018. Melvin resides in New York City where he is currently writing the book, music and lyrics for Higgins In Harlem: a new musical Pygmalion.

We are getting closer to the show as we introduce the sixth of 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 next profile is the writing team of EllaRose Chary and Brandon James Gwinn.

This year’s lab assignment was to create a musical inspired by a work of visual art found in an NYC museum.

For The Woman's House

Artwork: For the Women’s House by Faith Ringgold

Title of your Mini-Musical: “Patchwork”

1. Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?

We were not familiar with the painting or the artist before the process, but were very excited to learn about Faith Ringgold. She’s an amazing artist and activist and the piece “For The Women’s House” was commissioned to be put up in the Riker’s women’s prison. Ringgold primarily works in quilt making as a medium, so we were also interested in figuring out how to make a musical quilt and what that would look/sound like. As we learned more about her, we wanted to make sure we did justice to not only the piece of art but the impulse and artist behind it.

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?

We’re interested in telling stories that are inclusive and that reflect the world around us, particularly in New York City, rather than the version of the world that we often see in media/on stage in musical theater. We’re drawn to stories about women and community, which this evoked. We were interested in writing a piece that happened in an instant and centered around an event that stopped the flow of city around it, with all of the women watching and reacting in specific ways. We’re also cognizant of issues of gentrification and police violence in our community in Harlem, and wanted to write a piece that dealt with that and our roles in those issues. The painting and the story behind it just made sense with our mission as artists and the kinds of stories we want to tell.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group? Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?

It actually took us back to our grad school days at Graduate Musical Theater Writing at NYU – being given an assignment and a limited time to write in and just figuring it out. It was a bit hectic (especially because we’re working on some other projects simultaneously) but it was also exciting to just have to make fast choices and follow our impulses.

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?

The themes are definitely in line with the types of characters we feature and the stories we tell – but stylistically this a totally new direction for us. More classically influenced than some of our other shows, and through sung – which was an exciting challenge for us and the actors!

5. Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?

Oh, this is a terrible question! Of course we’re excited to see all of them because a lot of the writers we know and like their work (or know them but not their work and are psyched to see what they do) and then the folks we don’t know as well, we love being introduced to new writers and their work. We’re too egalitarian and community-minded to single anyone out, obviously…:-)

EllaRose Chary is an award-winning writer focused on politically engaged projects. Prospect: The Daguerreotype, By The Numbers. Current projects: Cotton Candy and Cocaine (Ars Nova Uncharted), Queer. People. Time. (Dramatists Guild Fellowship), Patriettes (The Tank’s TV Writing Program, the #Fword Finalist), Untitled Anarchist Play (The Civilians’ R & D Group), The Lake and the Mill (Drama League Rough Draft Residency) and several commissions for young audiences. BA: Brown University; MFA: NYU Tisch http://www.ellarosechary.com

Brandon James Gwinn is an award-winning composer, lyricist and musician. His musicals include Cotton Candy & Cocaine (Ars Nova Uncharted) Queer. People. Time. (Dramatist Guild Fellowship), Matchmaker Matchmaker, I’m Willing to Settle (ART Club Oberon, New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011), Small Town Story (Finalist Richard Rodgers Award, NAMT Writer’s ResidenCy Grant, Village Originals Seattle, NYTB Commission). He recently produced the debut album of Trixie Mattel (RuPaul’s Drag Race) which premiered at #2 on the iTunes charts. MFA: NYU Tisch.

Presenting the fifth of 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 next profile is the writing team of Emily Kaczmarek and Zoe Sarnak.

This year’s lab assignment was to create a musical inspired by a work of visual art found in an NYC museum.

Fishing Boats

Artwork: Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Title of your Mini-Musical: “Afloat”

1. Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?

We were unfamiliar with our painting before the lab process. We were familiar with Turner by name, but this was a portal into getting to know his aesthetic.

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?

The image of a boat on a rough sea, visceral and full of energy, pulled us in initially. Then we realized that the painting could relate to an idea we had already been discussing– a dystopian scenario: in the near future, with global warning causing rising tides and storms until half of NYC is underwater, a group of young adults might decide to escape to the sea rather than live in refugee camps. Something about the painting felt timeless in its capturing of an elemental yet dangerous freedom: humanity taking to the ocean.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group? Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?

It was great! We’ve written together before and continue to do so. This process has been really fun because we’ve gotten to explore a seed of an idea and see what feels like to musicalize a portion of it. The lab has offered a structured but liberated space in which we’ve been able to experiment.

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?

A bit of both. We have a rhythm now as collaborators. We also have certain themes that we’re drawn to– family, identity formation, strong heroines– and we value earnest, accessible storytelling that is also smart and challenging. That said, this project allows us to flex some new muscles. Zoe is writing a gospel/hip-hop infused score– music she’s been inspired by and worked with in the past, but never really in a stage musical setting. Emily is tackling something a bit different too; the book has to establish a heightened, dystopian, action-packed world (in under ten minutes). It’s great to be able to expand our shared repertoire, so to speak.

5. Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?

All of them! 🙂 The story of the girl with the balloon is particularly poignant, especially knowing it’s based on a true story. Hopeful stories of human connection across boundaries feel critically important right now.

Emily Kaczmarek is a playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and performer. Works include: Sam & Lizzie (semifinalist, Premiere Stages Play Festival), Afterwards (music & lyrics by Zoe Sarnak; Village Theatre Festival of New Musicals, upcoming; MTF-Playwrights Horizons Artist Residency; Eugene O’Neill Artist Residency; NYMF Developmental Reading Series), Alma Mater and Landed (music & lyrics by Zoe Sarnak, dir: Nathan Brewer; commissions, New York Film Academy), American Kids (BoxFest Detroit; This Is Water Co.; Women in Arts & Media Coalition), Paper & Glue (Future of Storytelling conference; NYU; various high schools), and Anything New (commission, NYU; Wombat Theatre Co). By day, Emily teaches with the college access program SEO Scholars.

Zoe Sarnak’s works include: Secret Soldiers (with Marsha Norman), Galileo (with Danny Strong, Michael Weiner, dir. Michael Mayer), Afterwords (with Emily Kaczmarek, Playwrights Horizons-MTF workshop), The Years Between (with Kirsten Guenther), Landed/Alma Mater (with Emily Kaczmarek, NYFA commissions), Transport Group Commission (with Michele Lowe), and Teddy & Max (with Brian Crawley). Awards include: Davenport Songwriting contest winner, NY Stage & Film’s Founders Award finalist, Fred Ebb Award finalist, Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award Honoree, Women’s Project Lab. Residencies include: The Public Theater, Goodspeed, Williamstown Theatre Festival, New York Theatre Workshop, O’Neill, and Rhinebeck Writers Retreat. Music featured: NY Times, Lilly Awards, and more.

 

 

Presenting the fourth of 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 next profile is the writing team of Anton Dudley and Faye Chiao.

This year’s lab assignment was to create a musical inspired by a work of visual art found in an NYC museum.

Red Cross

Artwork: Red Cross Work Room 5th Avenue, NYC during the War by Jane Peterson

Title of your Mini-Musical: “The Clinic”

1. Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?  

Neither of us were familiar with the painting, however, we knew this was the one.  For such a quiet and still scene, there is an enormous amount of tension, exacerbated by the looming threat of the “To Let” sign.  And all those women!.. laboring for the Red Cross, dressed like nuns.  There was so much narrative to be mined.

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?  

In this current political environment, the importance of generosity of spirit and compassion, both of which are captured in the painting, seem particularly important.  This generosity is juxtaposed with something darker: a sense of impermanence and disappointment – that duality felt very human and immediate, the story came to us, instantly, as did its sound.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group?  Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?

We’ve written both songs and larger works, but never a ten-minute musical.  This process has been a great learning experience: we started with the idea for an epic story then made it into a sort of balsamic reduction to fit the form… the end result was thrilling – especially to have it brought to life immediately after writing it – usually, you have to wait a while before the show steps off the page.  

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?

We like to keep challenging ourselves in both style and form.  So far, we’ve created a one-act musical, a children’s theater piece, and some cabaret songs – and have received grants and commissions to develop an opera, an orchestral piece, and a full length musical; the lab was a wonderful opportunity to continue both our exploration of musical storytelling and look at yet another side of the prism of humanity.

5. Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?

We’re excited to hear all the pieces!  Aliens, familial relationships, trash on beaches… it’s inspiring to be a part of this talented group of theater makers.

Faye Chiao is an award-winning composer of musical theater, opera and concert music. Chiao’s work has been commissioned and presented by: Single Carrot Theater, The Lunar Ensemble, The Johns Hopkins University, and with Anton Dudley American Dream Theater, Playwright’s Realm, and the Boston Chamber Symphony. As a mezzo-soprano and founding member of the Corvus Ensemble, Chiao appears regularly on stage and in recital performing innovative programs of art song and chamber music. Chiao holds degrees from The Peabody Institute.

Anton Dudley’s plays and musicals have premiered Off-Broadway with Playwrights Realm, Second Stage, Cherry Lane Theater, and Theater Row, and, regionally, at Signature Theater (directed by Eric Shaeffer), LaJolla Playhouse (directed by Christopher Ashley), Walnut Street Theater, Williamstown Theater Festival, Adirondack Theater Festival, and EST, and are published by Samuel French, Playscripts, Applause, and Vintage. His play Letter to the End of the World was finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Drama. He is currently under commission from Musical Stage Company and collaborating with Faye Chiao on the OPERA America funded Island of the Moon.

 

Time to introduce to you to the third of 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 next profile is the writing team Brandon Michael Lowden and Alexander Sage Oyen.

This year’s lab assignment was to create a musical inspired by a work of visual art found in an NYC museum.

Vestie Davis

Artwork: Beach with Litter Baskets by Vestie Davis

Title of your Mini-Musical: TRASH BEACH

1.  Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?

Prior to this if you’d said the name “Vestie Davis” to us, we’d have guessed that was a character from a Damon Runyon story.  Our first impression of this piece was that it does not mess around. The painting’s title is Beach with Litter Baskets, and my god, does it deliver on that promise.


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?

I think we really responded to two key aesthetic elements of the piece, best described as (a) the beach and (b) trash. There was a strong impulse to embrace that duality; it suggested to us a world that is equal parts trash and beach (hence “TRASH BEACH,” which became both our setting and our title).  The next logical step was to explore what kind of characters would inhabit that world; for Brandon, it was very easy to imagine a character who loves trash beach even though it is clearly awful, as he is aware that millions of real-life people love normal beaches even though he finds them all equally terrible independent of their particular level of trash.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group? Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?

This collaboration was a bit different from others each of us has had in terms of the division of roles, so in many ways it was a new process.

[ASO]: Typically I write both music and lyrics in my collaborations, but I’m a fan of Brandon’s lyrics and the ideas they spark for me when setting them to music, so I was happy to let him take the lead. Plus, I have a lot of difficulty spelling the word “baech,” which we knew was going to be all over the lyrics given that it was in our title — it just made sense to let someone else handle that. Once it was time for me to add music, we agreed I had the freedom to use my judgment in tweaking, trimming, and expanding the lyrics as necessary to shape the song. I don’t think Brandon normally gives his collaborators rein to do that, so it was pretty cool, even though he eventually cut the three new verses I wrote about how the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is better than the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.

[BML]: After we had talked over the general arc of our piece, I went off and pretty much blasted through the whole libretto start to finish; I have the easiest time writing like that, so I was glad Alex let me take the driver’s seat lyrically. And when it was time to add music, I gave him a lot of leeway in editing lyrics because I knew his ideas would really break things open. For example, the opening number had been kind of small and unstructured, but he added in this big sexy chorus and I now can’t imagine it without that. Of course, I did have to go through and correct all the times he misspelled “beach.” I was willing to let the Pet Sounds thing stand even though I’m a Beatles man all the way, but those verses were so riddled with mutant spellings like “bache” and “behach” that I just ended up having to cut the whole section.


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?

This is a new-ish collaboration and TRASH BEACH is the longest piece we’ve written together, so that was a fun and exciting step. In addition, this is a deeper exploration of the themes of trash and beach than either of us has previously undertaken.

[BRANDON]: In terms of my larger oeuvre, this piece was a real departure for me, as it does not contain any robots or athletic competitions.  I am sure that there are in fact robots involved in the processes behind TRASH BEACH, and athletic competitions held in celebration of it, but none of these receive stage time.  It feels weird to leave robots and athletic competitions out of this one, but to keep things from getting too crazy I stuck to my usual habit of choosing a young female protagonist, something I do because ever since that time I accidentally watched The Big Lebowski, I find all male characters excruciatingly boring.  TRASH BEACH certainly contains a good bit of the “slice of life with a gleefully weird twist” aesthetic that I hope people consider a hallmark of mine.

[ALEX]: Musically, I just want to give the cats in the audience a hot single to bounce to, as always.  But one thing in particular with this piece is that Brandon doesn’t know about jazz chords; when he writes the lyrics, he never once thinks “I know what jazz is, and I think it could happen during this song.”  He literally never thinks that.  But here’s the thing: I know all the jazz chords, and I sprinkled them all over TRASH BEACH.  When Brandon found out about that, he screamed, “What is this strange device called jazz?” and then did lunge jumps until his muscles were sore.  That’s the beauty of collaboration; it can yield such delightfully surprising results.

5.  Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?

We are best friends with everyone in lab and want to see all of their pieces equally, but one that stuck out to us from the group meetings was Zoe and Emily’s; if we recall correctly, there’s a full-cast chorus and maybe found percussion? And the description sounded like something that might be in a hip dystopian YA series currently taking your local middle school by storm (this is a huge compliment, if that’s not clear).

Brandon Michael Lowden is a bookwriter, composer, and lyricist whose work deals with contemporary themes like self-loathing and love gone bad as well as more traditional musical theater subjects like women’s sports and Artificial Intelligence. You may have seen his work at Joe’s Pub, 54 Below, NY Theatre Barn, the Laurie Beechman, The Duplex, and Musical Theatre Factory, where he is a member of the writers group. He holds an MFA from the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a BS in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University. www.bookmusiclyrics.com

Alexander Sage Oyen is the recipient of the 2014 ASCAP Foundation’s Lucille and Jack Yellen award for lyricists and the Lotos Foundation Prize in Arts and Sciences for his lyrics. He was awarded the 2013-2014 Dramatist Guild Fellowship and their musical, Outlaws, was the recipient of the 2014 ASCAP Workshop. Additionally, he was a 2017 Jonathan Larson Grant Finalist. His music has been heard at Lincoln Center, Goodspeed Opera House, Symphony Space, 54 Below, Joe’s Pub, Playwrights Horizons, The Signature Theatre, New World Stages, and venues in Thailand, London, The Netherlands and all across the world. Proud member of ASCAP and The Dramatists Guild.

Introducing the second of 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 next profile is the writing team of Sarah Rebell and Teresa Lotz.

This year’s lab assignment was to create a musical inspired by a work of visual art found in an NYC museum.

Chagall

Artwork: Paris through the Window by Marc Chagall

Title of your Mini-Musical: “A Surrealist Sort of View”

1. Were you familiar your with painting / artist prior to the lab process and if so what were your impressions?

Sarah: I was familiar with the artist but not at all with the painting. I think of Chagall’s work more as representing Eastern Europe (angels, stained glass, shetls) than as representing Paris. So it was really cool to see how this particular painting is, in many ways, an amalgam of the two cultures.

Teresa: I was vaguely familiar with both but not familiar enough with either. I’m more intimately familiar with surrealism since I did a lot of research on it for one of my plays and I’m a huge Dali fan. I knew Chagall’s work through that lens and was excited to dig into the symbolism..

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?

Teresa: I was drawn to the rainbow and the cat sitting on the window sill. I really wanted to write a show about that cat… thus why our protagonist is named Catherine. She’s not a cat. But it counts.

Sarah: Catherine is sitting on the windowledge at the top of the show, looking out at the world around her, much like the cat is in the painting. She is our surrealist symbol of the cat, which was in itself a surrealist symbol for Chagall. He loved animals. He loved putting them in his paintings, often in places they didn’t belong and/or sometimes with human faces.
Honestly, I was drawn to the colors and composition of the piece more than to any one specific detail at first. But the more we’ve studied the painting, the more we’ve analyzed its metaphors and read up on the life of its artist (and his incredible wife), the more in love I fell with all the elements of the painting.

3. How was the lab writing process for your group? Was it different or similar to experiences you’ve had before?

Teresa: It’s been easier than past processes, and that’s funny considering that it’s the first time we’ve been working together against such tight deadlines. We are also exploring a new style that is actually more in line with what I usually gravitate towards. It’s been really refreshing to work with Sarah on this.

Sarah: One of the first things that was conveyed to us by Prospect Theater Company, in the very first lab meet and greet, was that they hoped this would be a joyfully creative experience, a time for trying new things in our writing and a chance to play in a way that writers often don’t get to do much after grad school. Teresa and I talked a lot about that goal, of having fun, letting ourselves be playful and blissful in the process, because that ultimately is what leads to taking risks and coming up with work that genuinely excites us. This has been one of the most enjoyable writing processes I’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience, in large part because Prospect gave us that freedom and encouragement right from the start.

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?

Teresa: We tend to write about unsatisfied women and how they choose to move on from that. We also tend to write a lot about unhappy marriages (which is curious and slightly(?) disturbing to me as a recent newlywed!) Though our show relates to both of those things, I really do feel like it’s something new altogether which is exciting for me, musically and collaboratively.

Sarah: Teresa and I had a conversation back in November, shortly after the devastating presidential election, about prioritizing certain themes in our writing. Female protagonists are a really important component of that. In a world in which men are consistently telling women that they are less important (on the campaign trail, on the senate floor, in terms of healthcare reform, etc.), it is crucial to us that women’s stories are examined, celebrated and TOLD. I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to have a homeland vs. to be an immigrant vs. to be a refugee. That’s a new theme that we have explored for the first time in this piece.

5. Which of the other lab musicals are you most curious to see and why?

Teresa: Trash Beach. Because I really appreciate the title, and because I can’t wait to go the beach. Also, the one about aliens because I believe they might actually exist and I believe there should be more musicals about them. I’m also really excited in general to see new work by writers I know and respect as artists.

Sarah: Same. I’m really truly so excited to see ALL these pieces come to life. The other writing teams are all so incredible, and it’s an honor to be included among them in this lab. That said, if I had to pick one piece, I’m really intrigued by Zoe and Emily’s interpretation of the beautiful Turner shipwreck painting. I can’t wait to hear the sounds and harmonies that Zoe creates for her humongous choir. It’s going to be epic!

Teresa Lotz’s work includes Red Emma and the Mad Monk with Alexis Roblan (Ars Nova AntFest 2017, dir. Katie Lindsay) ThreeTimesFast with Naomi Matlow (Pallas Theater TableRead Winner 2017, The Script at Stage 74, dir. Michael Bello, NYFA, dir. Robert Longbottom, 2016),The Awakening with Sarah Rebell (Reading, MTF at Playwright’s Horizons 2016 dir. Celine Rosenthal), She Calls Me Firefly (Workshop, Parity Productions/New Perspectives Theatre Company (NPTC), dir. Ludovica Villar-Hauser 2015, Reading, Cherry Lane Theatre TONGUES 2014). NPTC’s Women’s Work Lab, Dramatist’s Guild, ASCAP, League of Professional Theatre Women. Musical Theater Writing, MFA NYU. teresalotz.com

Sarah Rebell’s musicals include Off The Wall (music by Danny Abosch), The Awakening (music by Teresa Lotz), and Rose Petals (music by Lizzie Hagstedt). Workshops/Readings: Playwrights Horizons, Musical Theatre Factory, Stages Festival of New Musicals, Fingerlakes Musical Theatre Festival, NYMF, NYU, and Vassar College. Sarah’s work has also been performed at 54 Below, the Berkshire Playwrights Musical Theatre Lab, the Catalina Jazz Club, the D-Lounge, The Duplex, the Laurie Beechman Theatre, and the Metropolitan Room. As a theatrical journalist, she has written for The Interval and Howlround. Sarah currently works for The Dramatists Guild of America and for The Lilly Awards. MFA: NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.