Musical as Vehicle for Social Change, Part II

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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Last week we explored the three musicals comprising City Center’s new ENCORES!: Off-Center series, running July 10-27. In each case, the themes the show powerfully resonated with social issues effecting our society.

This week, I’ve interviewed three of our Directory writers about shows they’ve created with important social themes.

Costs of Living

Timothy Huang
Timothy Huang

Book, Lyrics & Music by Timothy Huang 

Give us a brief synopsis of Costs of Living and its production history.

Inspired by a New York Times article, Costs of Living tells the story of two immigrant cab drivers who share opposite shifts off the same medallion.  While both have the same goals and ambition, the day shift driver has more success than his counterpart resulting in an attack that leaves one man dead and another man brutalized.  It’s fundamentally an examination of the promise and the perils of the American dream.  One part American Idiot (the album, not the musical) one part Golden Child (the play, not the film) with a little Outliers and The Other Wes Moore mixed in for good measure.

I started writing it in 2011 half way through my second year in the BMI workshop and on the basis of that material, was invited to the Advanced Workshop that fall.  In 2012 it was selected for the ASCAP Musical Theater workshop, so we got to do some of it for Mr. Schwartz and his panel.  Following that, the New York Theatre Barn helped me and our Rockethub funders produce a workshop reading of the full show in December, which resulted in the BMI Workshop inviting us to present some of it for Mr. Sondheim for the Master Class, as well as the Dramatist Guild Fellowship nominating it for the Weston award.  My director, Marlo Hunter and I are both a little tied up right now with other projects, so we will be conferring in July for a game plan this fall.  It hasn’t ever seen a full production though.

What inspired you to write this show?

I was reading The Other Wes Moore around the time I saw this Times article.  I was fascinated by the notion that two men who came from similar backgrounds and had similar aspirations, when placed in the exact same environment, would have astoundingly different outcomes.  My parents are from Taiwan and came over here before I was born so I grew up, essentially, surrounded by immigrants and the immigrant mentality.  I thought it was a worthy exploration since unilaterally, all of them held fast to the notion that hard work plus dedication equaled success- when the results did not always reflect that.

I’ve heard you say this musical is not afraid to tell a story of social significance.  Can you elaborate on that?

Apropos of the above- the party line for our country seems to encourage this fantasy that all that is required for success here is hard work and dedication.  Yet there are so many different occurrences that illustrate how making it here isn’t that black and white.  Luck is an enormous factor, for example.  And as an individual, I find that being honest about where I am is more conducive to figuring out where I’m going than being… less honest.  So by that standard, I feel like our country’s best interests would be far better secured if we just called this spade a spade.  You have to be more than dedicated or hard working.  You have to be super lucky, and if you’re not, you have to have a HUGE bunch of money going in.  Like, family money.  None of that lotto garbage, if when you immigrate here, you’re the third generation to have owned property or have gone to University, then maybe we can talk guarantees.  Otherwise it’s a crap shoot.

I know you’re passionate about telling human stories, regardless of race and other divides our culture often creates.  How do you personally connect to this piece?

My parents came here, had me, tried to make a home for themselves here and to a degree were successful at it.  Insofar as I’m a person who knows how to volunteer, participate in community events, eat a salad with a salad fork and not a dessert fork… But one might look at the endgame (where they returned to Taiwan in 1994) and say that their having left is the earmark of failure.  I think a case can be made for both perspectives – either way, the story of someone who comes over here to make a better life for themselves and their children is my touchstone.  Because we ALL come from somewhere else.  This is everyone’s story who lives here now.

What do you want audiences to take away from your musical?

I’ll be the first to admit I have an enormous political agenda.  I’d say I want audiences to respond to this show in the same way I want them to respond to all of my shows: to question the way they, as members of this society, define what an American is.  Like I said before, everyone here comes from somewhere else, but not everyone is really acknowledging that.  And if they do, they still hold fast to this “legacy” notion that the more generations they have been here the more entitled they are than others to certain inalienable rights… which is kind of hilarious when you look at the world “inalienable.”  Like, we all know in a very academic way that today’s America came at the cost of nearly exterminating a nation that had occupied this land before us, but I don’t see people recognizing that nearly as much as I’d like to when they talk about building walls and starting border militia.  Like… how is that not on our minds every time we speak of nationalism and patriotism?  It makes no sense to me.  It should make less sense to everybody.

As a writer, what do you hope to accomplish with your work, both personally and professionally?

This is the part where I tell you with a straight face I wish to someday be worthy of a Pulitzer… seriously though, for my money there’s only two different kinds of Art.  There’s the kind that is designed to make you forget, and there’s the kind that is designed to make sure you never do.  So, by way of example, for every The Producers, there’s a Schindler’s List.  If that makes any sense.  I love this dichotomy.  And eventhough it’s the latter I am better suited for, it’s not difficult to recognize how as humans, we need both.  That said, I feel like the current ratio in main stream musical theater is like, 98 to 2.  I’m not saying I want it to be 50/50, but couldn’t it stand to be like, 80/20?  Don’t get me wrong, the needle is definitely pushing in that direction in our generation, with shows like In the Heights and Next to Normal.  I just really want to be a part of that.

The Hinterlands

Michelle Elliot & Danny Larsen
Michelle Elliot & Danny Larsen
Book & Lyrics: Michelle Elliot
Music & Lyrics: Danny Larsen
 

Give us a brief synopsis of The Hinterlands.

The Hinterlands is the story of a gay teen growing up in a rural part of the U.S.  Because he is perceived as gay by his peers, he is bullied and humiliated on a regular basis, which causes him to think of taking his own life.

What precipitated you writing the show?

Like many people, we were broken-hearted by the spate of suicides by young LGBTQ people.  We aren’t social workers or teachers, so we can’t directly engage with young people, but we still wanted to respond with compassion and encouragement.  Since we are storytellers, the obvious choice was to write a musical about the experience of a gay teen struggling with bullying.  We chose to make The Hinterlands a musical web series because we wanted it to be as accessible as possible by the kids who could benefit from it – those who have reason to fear being publicly identified as gay and those who live in areas where there are few to no resources and support systems in place.  When it launches in the fall, The Hinterlands will be available for anyone to watch, free and in the safety of their own homes.

Is this your first time working on a web series?  If so, tell us about any unique challenges you’ve faced in producing it.

This is our first time writing for the web and the first time we’ve filmed our work.  For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to connect with the way young people film and share their own lives today, we decided to make the film ourselves, so by far the biggest challenge was learning how to be filmmakers!  We literally taught ourselves every aspect of making a low budget, independent film, including lighting, equipment, cinematography and sound capture – to name just a few.  It was an amazing, exhausting and ultimately wonderful experience.  Now we are in the editing phase, which is overlapping with meetings and decisions about disbursement, etc.

How does this project differ from other musicals you’ve written? 

The biggest difference was writing for film—a visual medium—as opposed to writing for stage, where the story is told primarily through language.  Also, The Hinterlands consists of 6-7 episodes, which is different than writing a complete piece of theatre.  It can be viewed in multiple sittings, from anywhere in the world, actually.  We are curious to see what the emotional impact of the entire series will be and how it will differ from the ways in which audiences have been impacted by our stage work.

What do you want audiences to take away from your musical?

Our deepest hope is that young people, whether they identify as LGBTQ or not, and who are suffering from the disease of bullying in all its ugly forms, will take a message of hope from our main character, Paul.  Specifically, that while the world around them might not get better immediately, they can find in themselves the ability to become more resilient and empathic and develop a sense of personal strength and character.  Ultimately, we hope that all who watch the series will claim and internalize the truth that they are “worthy of love and life”.

Do writers have an obligation to express social and/or political views in their works or should they be avoided?

The only obligation a writer or collaboration team has is that they must write about what they care about, what moves them or makes them curious or angry or impassioned in some manner.  Our work is more inherently political than much of what is written, or certainly, at least, produced.  We are very curious about the world; we question accepted notions and traditions, and we want the world to be a more just and compassionate place.  Our work reflects that, but we don’t consider it an obligation, we consider it an expression of how we see the world and how we would like it to someday be.

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Artists are still using their various mediums to influence our ever-changing world.  True,  it may be harder to find in musical theatre, given some producers are known for wanting “a sure thing.”  But then again, there are great producers and regional theatres out there who are willing to take a risk and let these important voices be heard.  Keep your ear to the ground.  We hope you’ll see Costs of Living, The Hinterlands and many others become the voice of social change in our generation.

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