New Works, New Life

A solid two months have passed since the clock chimed in the New Year, and one persistent theme has emerged thus far in the way of my musical theatre life:  new works.  Thus far in 2015, I have…

…finished writing a new work.

…auditioned for a new work.

…performed in a staged reading of a new work.

The truth is that I’ve found religion in the new works process.  Though I never claimed to be on the cutting edge of new musicals, I felt ahead of the curve.  I had a bootlegged CD—yes, a CD—of The Last Five Years before most had heard of it.  I knew someone who worked on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee before it moved to Broadway.  I enjoyed seeing new musicals.  I was hip, right?

My older, wiser self would tell my younger, more naïve self, “Nice try.”  I’ve come to realize that what my younger, more naïve self was actually enjoying were new ‘hit’ musicals.  Even the freshest, newest work that I could have hoped to see was already years, if not decades, old by the time my butt made it into the seat.  When I thought I had found a jewel of a show, I really was seeing only the most polished version of that stone.  That the work probably started out as a crude rock escaped my awareness as did any thought of the cutting, faceting, and grading of it.

My younger, more naïve self really had no concept of how shows developed.  I mean, I knew musicals had composers, lyricists, and book writers.  I knew there was source material out there—sometimes.  I knew there were things called ‘previews’ and ‘out-of-town tryouts’ where creators could change their mind about many facets of a show before officially opening it.  But really my knowledge was the theatrical equivalent of a four-year-old asking “Where do babies come from?”

It’s only been in the last fourteen months that I’ve been learning the answer.  When Orin and I decided we should write a musical together, we more or less walked upstream until we arrived at the headwaters of that mystical river known as ‘New Works.’  There’s not much up there.  It turns out most people who know what they’re doing are already in the river somewhere, paddling downstream towards a clearer destination than what we had.  We waded—and waited—up there in the headwaters for a couple of months.  I remember in our earliest meetings at Shaw Coffee, Orin and I just looked at each other.  The territory felt remarkably uncharted.

But we gradually started piecing together a boat for ourselves, and we launched our ship downstream.  Fourteen months of collaboration later, we are proud of our story of Esther, and I am anxious to share more about the process of creating Just Pretend as we draw closer to its premiere on June 27.

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All the cool kids of St. Louis theatre and/or liturgy realms gathered for a reading of ‘Just Pretend’ on Jan. 10, 2015 at St. Margaret of Scotland in St. Louis.

Aside from that, I had the supreme pleasure of auditioning for a new work recently for some real stars of the musical theatre world right now.  I hesitate saying too much right now least I jinx it.  Truly, I am not holding my breath that I will be cast in the show, but that doesn’t stop me from praying for it daily.  The real takeaway for me was being able to read a script and score from some highly respected creators and see that it was a) not perfect and b) not finished.  It seems like everyone has to go back to the headwaters and work downstream.  What a relief.

The last project I alluded to just wrapped up yesterday.  Our MFA class at San Diego State was honored with the opportunity to work with Tony Award-winning actor and La Jolla Playhouse Artist-in-Residence BD Wong to perform a reading of his new musical Mr. Doctor, which he wrote with Wayne Barker.

The piece tells a beautiful story, and the themes it weaves using the play within a play (within a play) are intellectually and emotionally rich.  Theoretically, Mr. Doctor is at the same stage of development as Just Pretend, but let’s face it:  BD and Wayne know how to paddle a canoe better in these waters than Orin and me.  I have much to share from the experience, and I am excited to do so in the weeks ahead with this new series I’m calling “New Works, New Life.”

Next week, however, I’ll be revisiting the MFA process again with “Something’s Coming—Part 7” as we will be passing the one-year mark of an audition that literally changed my life.  Thanks for reading, friends.

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The SDSU MFA Musical Theatre class performed ‘Mr. Doctor’ in the Experimental Theatre along with La Jolla Playhouse Artist-in-Residence BD Wong on Feb. 27-28, 2015.

I mean, sure, we’ve been working on this musical for thirteen months now, but it’s hard to say, “I’m writing a musical,” and have anyone take you seriously unless you have a logo.  So here you go, world:  our new logo.  Many thanks to the incredibly talented–and new father–Mr. Alex Matthews.

Orin and I are gearing up for a workshop performance of the show next weekend.  We are excited–and terrified–to have a number of St. Louis theatre professionals, Youth Sing Praise Board-types, and loved ones see and respond to our work.  Loads more to come from this part of the process.

We also have some social media to unveil.  So connect with us:

Esther on Twitter!

Esther on Facebook!

Esther on Google+!

And as I stated in my last post, here is the Just Pretend website!

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On Hal Prince and Making Sausage

I am procrastinating.  But I am doing so by reading a book on the theatre that wasn’t assigned, that is completely enriching, and that is unrelated to the research paper I need to write in the next week.  I have picked up Contradictions, a book of musings by producer and director extraordinaire Hal Prince.  Next to the reading assignments for Research & Bib, this book feels like fluff.  But it is the heavenly hash of theatre anecdotes:  Prince drops prominent names in the midst of discussing landmark musicals as a confectioner might stud his marshmallow and chocolate delight with peanuts.  And the result for a musical theatre nerd is, well…heavenly.

This afternoon, I read about three cups of coffee worth of the book, and I found myself with a slew of ideas for blog posts.  Closing a book and saying, “I need to write,” is high praise in my mind.  With that, here’s a big announcement.  It’s no secret, but I have not yet trumpeted it from the rooftops:  I AM WRITING A MUSICAL.

I did tweet about this fact so perhaps I have trumpeted the news after all, but the masses might have missed the memo.  Mr. Orin Johnson and I are crafting a work for Youth Sing Praise (check them out here) based on the book of Esther called Just Pretend (check it out here).  It is set to premiere June of 2015.  We began meeting in November 2013 to discuss story, plot, and concept, and the actual writing of it began in March of 2014.  We are a little under two months away from its workshop in St. Louis in January 2015.  We have some really clever and beautiful material so far, but I, in particular, have a great deal of work to do on the book.  Officially, Orin is “music” and I am “lyrics and book”, but we have both made contributions to the other.  I have found it enjoyable that we aren’t strict about who is Rodgers and who is Hammerstein.

On the occasion of this news, I want to share two brief thoughts about creating new works.

I have taken a lot of heart in something our professor—Rob Meffe—has told us in recent weeks about musical development.  “Making a musical,” he states, “is messy.  It is like making sausage, and nobody really wants to know what goes into sausage.”  While I don’t think Orin and I have gotten to the gruesome Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle-esque parts of the process yet—check back with me after the January 10 workshop—there are times when my stomach has churned over it.  Up to now, the main work has been pouring over a lyric, sitting at the piano with a draft of a song, and praying to the muses.  Up to now, we have been blessed with some nice filets and some decently tender cuts.  I predict that after January 10, we will get out the cleavers and grinders.  And while I can’t speak for my partner, my foray into meatpacking is seasoned with just a dash of self-doubt.  What will Orin think of this lyric?  Will YSP participants take to this show?  Did Irving Berlin have this much trouble writing a musical?

I’d like to take a stab at that last question and say, “Yes, he did…at least when he started.”  After having just finished eight amazing presentations on heritage composers in history class and now taking a first-person look this afternoon at the early career of Hal Prince, I think it’s safe to say nobody making musicals really knows how to do it when they start.  Or put another way, I don’t think the musical theatre butchers really know how to make sausage when they set out at the meatpacking plant.  But the crucial thing is that they started doing it.  Eventually they create something that’s palatable, or, if they’re lucky, downright tasty.

And so, my name is Brad, and this is my friend Orin, and we are the newest butchers in town.

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