LIVE from NYMF 2015 – Vol. 2

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

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The New York Musical Theatre Festival (aka NYMF) is in full swing, offering performances of new work through July 27. In this second round of interviews, we asked our creative teams some more in-depth questions about their process in preparation for opening night.

THE CALICO BUFFALO

Calico BuffaloEJ Stapleton: Book
Peter Stopschinski & EJ Stapleton: Music and Lyrics

When the first-born son to the chief of all buffalo arrives covered with the markings of a calico kitten, the chief, his son, and the entire buffalo nation are catapulted into the adventure of a lifetime. The Calico Buffalo is a compelling theatrical experience. From the first musical moment, Grammy® Award-winning composer Peter Stopschinski lets us know we are in for one wonder-filled ride.

Have you rewritten/added/cut a song or songs since the beginning of your rehearsal process? 

EJ (Book, Music & Lyrics): Yes, we have. There have been songs whose lyrics, tempo and/or tone have changed dramatically. Sometimes because we have found a better placement for the song. Other times because we have found a better reason. Some songs have had to be cut simply because of run time. What is the old saying about “Having to kill your darlings…?” Ah well. We’ll save them for the film version of the Calico Buffalo.

Give a specific example of how the director, musical director or cast has positively influenced the shape of the musical.

EJ: The most significant example I can give is with regard to the input we have received over the past five years of development from our director, Craig J. George. Acting primarily as dramaturg for the past five years, and now, of course, with his surgically sharp directorial eye and skilled hands, has shaped and polished our finished work. Characters have been created while others have disappeared because of Craig’s intimate knowledge of the musical. Did I say finished work? Hm. That may not be the right choice of word. I am still rewriting….

What’s been the hardest part of working on the show? 

EJ: Rewrites. Rewrites. And more rewrites. It truly never ends.

The most rewarding?

EJ: Same thing. Rewrites. It’s in the rewrite where I have found the most glorious surprises.

Can you talk about a specific example of how actor feedback has helped shape the show?

EJ: Not actor feedback so much. But certainly actor performance. When an actor takes off with a role, hang on. You’ll be in for a fabulous ride. This is when the magic in the collaborative part of development takes shape. Often times, when you witness an actor flying in their role, the writing shifts to both recognize and support the discoveries, the “happy accidents” that will come in the process.

With limited rehearsal time, can you talk about the process of how rewrites happen?

EJ: It is a bit of a pressure cooker. During the rehearsal period, rewrites happen on the spot, in the room, while questions about a thousand unrelated things keep coming at you. I actually love it. It’s a great challenge. If successful, it’s the most rewarding thing.

Read more about The Calico Buffalo here.

HEADVOICE

Ethan Andersen: Book, Music & Lyrics

Eric is writing a musical about his life. But instead of actors, he’s using voices…the voices in his head. Frustrated with his own writing and his relationship with his mother, Eric brings his “HeadVoices” to life, and together they begin to musicalize his story. HeadVoice is a funny, touching, and original musical that tells the story of a young composer growing up and discovering love, loss, and the power of music.

Have you rewritten/added/cut a song or songs since the beginning of your rehearsal process?

Ethan (Writer): The show went through a pretty extensive editing and rewriting process right before we went into rehearsals. Several songs were cut because they no longer served the story or there was a better way to tell the story. In their place, we’ve added some great new songs. It’s always very satisfying and exciting when you try out the new material with the actors in rehearsal and it works. We’ve luckily had several of those moments. So to answer your question, yes!

Give a specific example of how the director, musical director or cast has positively influenced the shape of the musical.

Ethan: That’s such a hard question because our director, Charlie Johnson, and our actors have influenced so much of the shape of the show already in rehearsals. These are smart people who ask great questions and want the best for this piece. Early in our process, Charlie and I would meet every week and talk through a chunk of the material. He’d question certain lyrics, lines, and characters, and we’d talk out some solutions. Those meetings and discussions have influenced the musical in a really wonderful way.

What’s been the hardest part of working on the show? The most rewarding?

Ethan: The hardest part of working on a show that has been your baby for so many years is maintaining your objectivity and honesty. As a writer, it’s so important to stay honest about what is working and what isn’t. Embracing what’s great and letting go of what isn’t is a tricky but crucial skill. The most rewarding moments are seeing the actors and team light up when something works or they find a way into the material that wasn’t there before. It’s so exciting when everything clicks the way you imagined it would.

Can you talk about a specific example of how actor feedback has helped shape the show?

Ethan: HeadVoice is so lucky because we have such smart actors (Nicole Dalto, Katie Emerson and Matthew Summers) who dive deep into the material and their characters. There was a great moment last week when Nicole who is playing our mother figure was working on one of her big numbers (“Mother Knows Best”) and came across a lyric she felt her character would not say in that moment. Respectfully, she brought it up, and I completely agreed. It’s such a gift to have feedback from the actors who are working to justify everything you’ve written.

With limited rehearsal time, can you talk about the process of how rewrites happen?

Ethan: As I mentioned before, we went through an extensive rewriting session just before rehearsals began. So thankfully, we haven’t had to rewrite a substantial portion of the show. That being said, there have definitely been moments, specifically in our book, that have needed some reworking. Since I’m also performing in the piece, Charlie and I reserve editing talks for after rehearsal each day where we discuss what worked and what didn’t. I’ll then go home, come up with a solution or fix, bring it back the next day and try it out.

Read more about HeadVoice here.

TONYA & NANCY: THE ROCK OPERA

Tonya_and_Nancy logo

Elizabeth Searle: Book & Lyrics
Michael Teoli: Music

Two girls going for the gold. Based on the Olympic skating “knee whack” scandal, Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera is the story of two girls going for the gold. Produced in Boston, LA, and Portland, OR, it’s drawn strong reviews (“Brilliant and touching”; “Absurdly funny…surprisingly poignant”; “Black Swan on ice”). The show has inspired its own media madness on Good Morning America, ESPN Hollywood, NPR, CBS, the AP, and more. It’s a dark comedy done with heart.

Have you rewritten/added/cut a song or songs since the beginning of your rehearsal process? 

Elizabeth Searle (Concept, book & lyrics): We have not cut a whole song (yet!), but I have re-written many lyric lines in minor ways. This is the first full-length musical I have written, and I am still learning the ropes. Our director, David Alpert, and Music Director, Henry Aaronson, have been helpful in pointing out lines that are tricky to sing, so I can re-work them.  It’s a thrill to hear Michael Teoli’s music and my words belted out by such strong Broadway voices!

Michael Teoli (Music & additional lyrics): I have composed about 4 new sections of music that will be heard for the first time during the NYMF run. They help with the storytelling, while keeping the train moving. Since we have a capped run-time at NYMF, we’ve also had to do quite a bit of chopping from other places. Some of those cuts have made the show flow even better and have found a home, while other cuts will probably return in the future.

Give a specific example of how the director, musical director or cast has positively influenced the shape of the musical.

Elizabeth: David Alpert, our director, has made many suggestions as we go about what to trim and change to give the show the tightest shape. He also has been open to cast creativity: One mini-example is the our star Mom(s), Liz McCartney, had a suggestion for shifting the structure of the one song where she sings both Moms at once. Michael Teoli worked with her suggestion; Liz sings both halves with gusto and I feel the final song will have the right ‘shape’ and will make the most of the double-Mom moment!

What’s been the hardest part of working on the show? The most rewarding?

Elizabeth: The hardest part is the time and space pressure – since we only have a few weeks and I’m based in Boston. I’ve been to the city as much as I can manage and a part of me stays ‘in rehearsal’ even when many miles away. The most rewarding part of the process has been working with our entire team! We truly have an all-star team.  Director David Alpert, Music Director Henry Aronson, choreographer Marc Kimelman, and the whole high energy cast, led by our dynamic duo of Tracy McDowell (Tonya) and Jenna Leigh Green (Nancy) in the leads, plus the awesomely talented Liz McCartney as ‘Mom’ and Tony LePage as ‘Gillooly’ – it’s an honor to have them take on our show!

Can you talk about a specific example of how actor feedback has helped shape the show?

Michael: We’ve always tried to show the “how” and “why” something like this could happen and to give respect and props to both Tonya and Nancy. I think in the past the show sided a bit more with Tonya… or at least shed a bit more light on what people didn’t know about what Tonya went through. One of the things I love most about this production is that it evens the playing field and we see how Nancy’s words are twisted by the media more than ever before. While this was an element Elizabeth and David were working on, the level to which it is explored and the effectiveness can very much be attributed to Jenna Leigh Green. She did deep character research and found certain details that we had looked over and asked for them to be further explored. Probably because it was such a new take as compared to past productions, that’s one of the elements I most admire about this production.

With limited rehearsal time, can you talk about the process of how re-writes happen?  

Michael: Lyrical re-writes being done on the fly can make it really tricky for a composer.  Great detail goes into the composition of a song to work with a specific set of lyrics.  When the lyrics change, many times the piece won’t continue to work with the proposed lyrical changes.  Elizabeth and I go back and forth with different options to find one that has the same meaning as the necessary changes, but also maintain their function in the song the way the previous lyrics did.

Read more about Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera here.

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For more information about these and other shows taking part in the festival, check out the NYMF website. Our LIVE FROM NYMF – Vol. 3 blog will be published on July 30th!

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 550+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.

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