NAMT Festival Interview: Writer Timothy Huang

NAMT 2015 New Musicals logoThis week, New York will see a sharp and welcome uptick in new musicals thanks to the NAMT (National Alliance for Musical Theatre) Festival, October 15-16. During these two days, NAMT will present eight musicals (selected from 223 submissions) to members of their organization, who represent regional theaters around the country interested in producing contemporary musical theatre. The conference provides a wonderful (and necessary) opportunity for the writers and theaters to get to know each other and consider collaborations. Given that NAMT’s mission is similar to our own, we wanted to make sure you were aware of the writers featured in this Fall’s Festival.

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We start with Timothy Huang, who has been an active member of ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com. We asked about the development of his show, COSTS OF LIVING, and the opportunities the NAMT Conference is providing him as a writer.

What are the plot and themes of COSTS OF LIVING?

COSTS_OF_LIVINGCOSTS OF LIVING is inspired by an article I read in the times back in 2009 about two immigrant cab drivers who shared opposite shifts off the same medallion.  One drove by day and one drove by night and though they started out in much the same situation, the nature of American prosperity led them down two drastically different roads.  One ends up trying to murder the other in (what we presume is) jealousy and then failing that, commits suicide.  The show is largely about the marginalization of the immigrant working class in our country, the myth of first generation prosperity and wealth inequality.  It’s also what my professor at NYU Robert Lee would call a “third generation” Asian American musical, which I have realized in the last few years is really important to define: it isn’t a show about immigrant issues.  It isn’t about assimilation or a cultural breakdown between second generation and first, it isn’t an attempt to persuade its viewer that “look, we’re just like you, there’s no need to be afraid of us” it’s actually a wholly American story that casts Asian Americans doing something other than building the transcontinental railroad, lamenting being interned by their government, or dreaming that your arms are lovely.

Tell us a bit about the show’s production history.

COSTS OF LIVING started as a BMI second year project in 2010.

By the time the BMI Second year was over, I had five songs and a general plot outline.  I sent these to a producer friend who then asked for a full draft so we could discuss it in greater detail.  So I wrote one.  I think they asked for it in fall of 2011.

When that didn’t pan out I sent the whole thing to the ASCAP workshop, which we wound up getting in Spring of 2012.  If at this point it seems like everyone was on board, but that’s actually entirely false.  For every workshop or presentation I got greenlit for, there were two that rejected it out of hand.  I emphasize this because by the winter of 2012, I’d pretty much been rejected by every other developmental opportunity one can apply for.  Which is why I crowdfunded my own workshop with the help of the New York Theater Barn.

We workshopped the show in full, and I guess BMI found out about it, because within a week of finishing we were invited to present some of that material to Mr. Sondheim for the BMI Master Class.

2013 and 2014 were the years of reapplying to everything I’d gotten rejected to in 2012.  And again, getting rejected.  By everything.  And then in 2015 it received B-Side Productions’ inaugural New American Musical Award, which is a developmental workshop that is happening right now (late September), and was also accepted into the NAMT festival, which starts in October.  This might not be clear from the text of this paragraph, but I don’t begrudge any of the people or organizations that declined my show.  I know a lot of your readers and I think it’s important to illustrate the defeats as well as the successes because honestly, the only reason a musical about two murderous off-white cab drivers gets to see the light of day in this town is because the guy who wrote it refuses to believe it has no value.

Can you share with us some of the changes you’ve made in preparation for the NAMT presentation?

I have!  You can read all about it on the NAMT blog here.

What specifically are you hoping to achieve from this incarnation of the show beyond the opportunities and exposure NAMT provides.

I think writers who apply for this festival have a lot riding on their shows.  But just as much rides on themselves as writers too.  If I can’t find a production for my show, I hope to at least meet like minded individuals who recognize the need for this kind of theater, who might want to work with me on my next piece.  Or, actually, the piece after that.

This has been a banner year for diversity in theater.  For the first time in, I think my entire life, I have to use both hands to count the number of Broadway shows that feature casts of color.  If nothing else I’d love for the NAMT members to recognize that this kind of main stream change only  happens on Broadway when it has been happening for decades off Broadway.  And then ask themselves “where did THOSE shows go?  How can we put THOSE in front of our audiences?”  I think in a festival of only eight featured shows of two hundred plus equally worthy pieces it makes a lot of sense to consider how much falls between the cracks.

You’ve been incredibly busy with residencies, development on other shows and getting married (congratulations!!!). How do you balance developing different projects? Do you have a secret power for getting things done?

That’s very flattering, but I think the math is dubious… I mean, there were literally two years (see above) where Costs of Living did absolutely nothing.  During that time I conceived, wrote and rewrote a show called Peter and the Wall, that is only just now reaching a finishing point.  I think the reason it FEELS like I’m prolific (I’m really not) is because I try my hardest to see everyone else’s work and am sometimes talking about my own stuff.  Also, the time I spend writing is maybe comparable to the time other writer’s spend performing.  I feel like I hear about a Joe Iconis concert five or six times a year.  (And not ever from him mind you, always from people who just came out of one or are just going into one saying how excited they are) if I get to do one whole concert a year of my stuff I consider that lucky.

I will say this though: I reserve exactly one day a week to specifically do nothing.  And that’s probably the only time during the week I’m not THINKING about something related to my work.  Which is probably the reason why if you poll ten people I know six of them will think I’m on the spectrum somewhere…

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Check back later this week for interviews with other writers featured in NAMT’s Festival. For more information about NAMT and the Festival, please click here.

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 150 contemporary musical theatre writers and 400+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.

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