WORLD VIEWS: 2017 Musical Theater Lab Q&A Series Part 3

July 2, 2017

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.

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.


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