Several years ago, a young Australian composer by the name of Carmel Dean expressed interest in joining ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com. Her songs were exceptional, especially her settings of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. In addition to her glorious writing, she has been an active musical director, supervisor, and arranger on Broadway.
Last week, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Carmel Dean and her collaborator, Dick Scanlan, who is well known and respected in the Broadway community for his work on Thoroughly Modern Millie, Everyday Rapture, and Whirl Inside a Loop, among others. Together, they have created a new musical that tells the story of Millay’s extraordinary life while making a strong case for her relevance today. The Transport Group is currently rehearsing their show, Renascence, which starts previews on Friday, October 5.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
How did you two meet?
CARMEL DEAN: We met on Everyday Rapture. I was music directing and Dick wrote the book. But I had always looked up to Dick, obviously. I had been a huge fan and he became both a colleague and mentor to me. I always talked to him about my inner struggle to be a writer and how to balance that with being a music director.
DICK SCANLAN: And I had gone through that a bit with Jeanine Tesori. When I first met Jeanine, she was still doing a lot of dance arranging (for How to Succeed…, Sound of Music, and Aida). She wasn’t really musical directing as much, but she was still being called for it all the time. And it’s hard being a young composer because you’re not making money and you’re being offered a lot of money [as a music director or arranger]. I watched Jeanine go through that and tried to offer what I had observed to Carmel.
Tell us a little about your Renascence [reh-nay-since]?
DS: Renascence is about a period of time in the life of a young Edna St. Vincent Millay – a poet who became a star at the age of 19 and was a star for the rest of her life. She was, in a sense, the Madonna of the day. Poetry was maybe never as popular as rock n’ roll, but it was a big deal back then. Millay espoused particularly progressive views on women and women’s ability to be in their bodies and not apologize to anyone for it. So, on the one hand, it’s the exploration of a very specific era in Millay’s life.
But in addition to that – and for us, more importantly – it’s an exploration of the six extraordinary young artists we have in the piece and the challenge that young artists face of how to be single-minded, rigorous, and perhaps even ruthless in pursuit of their art and the truth of their art and, at the same time, be a person who is capable of being present in relationships and being loyal to the people they love. It’s about the conflict and the difficulty of negotiating those two poles. We use highly curated aspects of Millay’s life to explore the struggles our six young performers are currently living.
Carmel, you wrote many of these songs previously, correct?
CD: Yes, a lot of them existed before, which is how we began to explore them as a theatre piece. I had given Dick a CD of probably a dozen demos I had done because I had been setting Millay’s poetry to music for years. I had the opportunity to a 39-hour reading at the York Theatre several years ago and asked Dick for his help in creating something with the songs. He did some research and we both read part of her biography (actually, I read part of the biography and he read the whole thing) and he found this brilliant way in through the poem “Renascence” and the period of her life when she wrote it. She was a teenager when she wrote it, and it went on to inform the rest of her career. That seemed like a very theatrical way of getting inside this story.
DS: The research has gone beyond reading her biography to reading her letters, visiting her house, etc… Research is an ongoing process.
Did your writing style change knowing there wouldn’t be rewrites coming from the lyricist?
CD: I’m actually discovering I like to work alone (she laughs). Working with Millay is, in a way, working alone because I’m just there with her poetry. I’m able to let her text tell me what I need to know and go from there.
There haven’t been a huge amount of rewrites, per se, because I can’t change her words.
DS: There have been many of changes to the script, though, on a daily basis.
CD: But as for the actual songs, most of them have stayed the same. In the case of “Renascence”, I didn’t set the entire poem and, in creating this theatre piece, we decided we needed to set the full version. There were a half a dozen songs where I felt the words needed a little more air around them, so I added some vocalises (i.e. hmms, oo’s, ah’s) to let our ears rest.
DS: You’ve done some repetition of certain lines, but you’re pretty faithful.
CD: I would like to think she’d be happy if she heard them. It’s been quite liberating being in a room with her poems.
How many songs have been written once this project came to fruition?
DS: “Renascence”, which has been enormously expanded from about 7 minutes to 20 minutes. A couple other pieces like “Dear Papa” and “Blight” were written specifically for this show.
CD: This speaks to Dick’s genius: he has created a jukebox musical out of some art songs.
DS: I will tell you that when Carmel told me she was musicalizing the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, I basically thought, “Why are you doing that?” Poetry set to music is usually a bad idea because the poetry is the music. But Millay, more than any other poet I know, is a lyric poet and writes almost in songwriting form. It’s a little bit more elevated than that, but in many cases, you could easily write that poem as a song lyric. I couldn’t believe how well they lent themselves to being musicalized. There’s a whole cottage industry of musicalizing Millay.
CD: It’s actually one of the requirements for the NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program.
Dick, how did you go about creating a book for Renascence? Given that this show and Everyday Rapture (while very different) are both biographical stories, did you feel an easier “in” to this musical?
DS: I’ve done so much biographical work. I published a novel that was “autobiographical.” I’ve done so much of it with people like Sherie [Rene Scott] and others. Sherie and I subsequently wrote this play, Whirl Inside a Loop. I’m very comfortable in that medium. One of the reasons Sherie and I collaborate so well is because neither of us care at all if the thing we put on stage is actually what happened. We’re trying to convey the truth of something, not the fact of it. And I certainly felt the exact same way here.
That said, the key points of this story are indeed the facts of [Millay’s] life, but the actual conversations are different and time is compressed. I’m very comfortable with that. It’s just something that makes sense to me.
We won’t have this issue with Millay, but with Sherie, it’s been an ongoing issue. Sherie and I have never claimed that the works we’ve created are autobiographical. There are certain elements of them that are, but they’ve been reordered. Some people get very upset about that.
I think about [writer] Philip Roth, who has a character named Philip Roth, who is a major novelist, has won the same number of Pulitzer prizes, and is married to the an English actress, whose name was Claire Bloom. No critic ever minded that he flies. It’s clearly not autobiographical and no one seemed to mind. But for some reason, when it’s a man and when it’s written on the printed page, it’s different than when a performer is saying to you “this is my life.”
In this show, it’s all third person, because Millay herself is not performing it, but I have never seen any problem in taking facts or data and creating theatre out of it and always letting theatre win. I see no contradiction in that, but I know other people may.
CD: You used to do this great thing in talk-backs on Everyday Rapture. When people asked you how much of the story was true, you would say 72%.
DS: When I published my novel, my mentor said I would be asked how much of the story was true and that I should make up a percent… 53%. And she said, people will be like, “Oh, OK.” So, with Everyday Rapture, we went with 72% of it is true. We thought, “OK, if that means something to you, then go for it.”
Sherie would often say, “I don’t know. How much of it is true? You watched it. You tell me what was true for you. All that matters is what is true for you.”
You both have varied and active backgrounds in the theatre: Dick, as an actor, book writer, lyricist, and director, and Carmel as a composer and music director. How have your backgrounds prepared you for working on this project together?
CD: For me, this is the biggest turning point with all my previous creative endeavors because I haven’t had a musical produced before. It’s been an amazing learning curve and gift. The timing feels perfect even though five years ago I wished I was here. Now, with hindsight, this is the time for me to be doing this. There’s nothing I can compare it with in terms of having a similar experience. I like to think when you’re working on any theatre piece, as either a conductor or arranger or composer, the piece reflects where you’re at in your own life – that you bring part of yourself into that piece and there’s a synchronicity there. I’m spiritual and believe we’re brought to our art for a reason. The word renaissance [or renascence] means rebirth, and this very much feels like it’s a rebirth for me and my career as an artist.
DS: For me, there always has to be love. There has to be something you love about the thing you’re doing – the reason you get out of bed and do it. This is the first time I’ve done any theatre because I’ve loved a person. When Carmel came to me, there were just songs – there was no theatre piece of any kind. Carmel asked, “Will you direct a reading of this?” And I said, “A reading of what? Unless you want to do a cabaret and we can order them and write a little patter. But what do you mean? There’s nothing to direct, other than ‘Go to that stool.’” And so, the piece had to be created because I wanted to facilitate the introduction and launching of this next phase of Carmel’s career. I so adore her and believe in her songwriting.
Interestingly, working on it for the last five years, I’ve come to realize that I really needed to write this piece. One of things that makes Millay so unusual is that she wrote about very progressive themes, and I suppose anytime you’re talking about progressive you’re talking about political. But she wrote about them in very classical form. She was not a modernist. Modernists got rid of rhyme and structure, but Millay adhered to it and believed that structure was the way. I’ve come to recognize I needed to do this because that’s the kind of artist I am. I tend to write about things that are very important and contemporary, whether it be abortion in Everyday Rapture or rehabilitation of the criminal justice system in Whirl Inside a Loop, or even in Motown, following Berry Gordy’s lead on showing how music impacted the civil rights movement. They were all important subjects, but I wrote them in a classic form. I’m not a postmodernist structurally. My proclivity is toward classic structure. So, that perceived dichotomy between subject matter and form, which feels so natural to me, is also in Millay. It gives me great comfort and inspires me. It all started out of love. The world has to hear what I hear.
How long has Transport Group been involved?
DS: The first meeting with Jack was in May 2014. We were all really busy. The first reading was in September 2015. There were conversations and plans put in place, including that Jack and I would co-direct. From then, it’s been a pretty steady sequence of developmental steps, culminating in a four-week workshop in the beginning of January 2018. It’s an unusual show – an illusive piece – so we needed to find our physical vocabulary with our choreographer, Scott Rink.
Dick, you’re sharing the directing credit with Transport Group’s Artistic Director Jack Cummings III, which is perhaps a novel collaborative effort. How has it differed from your experiences of directing solo?
DS: I’ve done it before, but only with Michael Mayer, who’s been my best friend since we were 18. We’re like brothers – in many ways, we know literally everything about each other, good and bad. For Jack and I, though we knew each other in the most cursory and collegial way prior to this, we weren’t really friends. All I can tell you is it’s not different than in directing with Michael. We never have any ego issues and have very similar tastes for this show. There’s never been a design element where I’ve thought, “Really? You want that?” I think both of us miss the other when we’re working alone. It’s nice to have someone next to you to say, “I don’t like that cross. Do you know why she’s crossing there?” It’s been completely effortless, joyful, and really fun.
I think when we first broached it, Jack was a little skeptical. I think the key is you can’t think in terms of compromise because, in that case, neither person gets what they want. I’m used to this in collaborating with writers, like Jeanine and me. If I have an idea that I really love and Jack doesn’t like it, or Jack has an idea that he loves and I really don’t like it, and we’ve had the conversation and neither of us can really get on board with the other, we look for a third idea that we both love. It’s gone really without a hitch.
CD: The tone Dick and Jack have set in the room is so special. It’s been amazing to watch it evolve from day one. It’s like two brilliant people for the price of one.
Has it been a challenge to balance co-directing and writing/rewriting?
DS: I originally came into this with a director mentality, so I conceived the writing of this so the director could direct it. And because I’m not doing lyrics too, it’s easier.
When we went out to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and did their Black Swan Lab, which is a company of actors who play different parts each day regardless of age or gender, so the focus can be on the text. I told Jack, “The book writer is going to Ashland, but the director is staying behind. There’s something bugging me about the script and I can’t figure out what it is. I need to be all in every day with that mentality. To any extent there’s any direction, that’s all you. I just need to be the writer. And if I start going into director mode, just kick me in the butt and remind me I don’t want to.”
There have been times when I’ve gone into the corner during this process to be the writer for a bit. Directing and writing are very different parts of my brain. It’s been great to be able to do that and know someone is still steering the ship.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of putting up this production? How has it differed from other new works you’ve been involved with?
CD: Yes. Two summers ago, we decided we needed to fully set the poem “Renascence.” In the previous versions, I had hacked through stanzas, but it was still a 7 1/2 minute song. We knew that, when I set the whole thing, it was going to be a very big thing for us all (the writers and creative team) to get our heads around. Once I set it and we had a rough timing (approximately 20 minutes), we decided to spend three days focused solely on this section so we could figure out how it related to the rest of the piece. We needed to explore the piece, both musically and thematically, so we could get our heads around the journey Millay had written. It’s such a massive work of art, even when you’re looking at the text. To add music to it… it’s like a mini opera.
DS: The next 29-hour reading we did was everything up to “Renascence” because you can’t, in 29 hours, teach it all. It wasn’t until the four-week workshop that we were able to hear the entire play put together. That’s been very unusual. It’s effectively a three-act play without an intermission between the second and third act, the latter being “Renascence.” The third act functions completely different from the rest of the piece, as if you’ve jumped into a chalk painting. “Renascence” is the most metaphysically wild poem Millay ever wrote. It’s really a hallucination.
Can you talk about how Transport Group has supported you during the development process?
CD: They have been incredibly supportive. As a musical director, I’ve certainly been through many musical development processes, but this has been unbelievable. I’ve felt supported every step of the way. Jack is extraordinary.
DS: It’s an incredible theatre company. There’s so much talk about process, and people proclaim to be process-oriented, not result-oriented. I have found very few people this is true of. It is not only true of Jack as a person – the whole company is like that, which is why they’re able to get such beautiful results. They don’t ask pieces to be where they’re not. They let pieces be where they are and keep developing them. They allow discoveries to be made and allow things to become the unexpected. In the current landscape, where the current non-profits (for all sorts of understandable reasons) are really looking for the next Broadway transfer, that is not what this company is about. I’m sure they’d love a Broadway transfer – that’d be great – but it’s never in the room when you’re trying to make the piece you’re working on the most glorious realization of the piece it can be. Whatever is next, who knows? And I find that thrilling.
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