Monday, January 31, 2011

The Online Musical: An Interview with Jeff Luppino-Esposito and Matt Savarese

Though there are other musical web series out there, Musical: The Online Musical goes a step beyond the just a serial comedy/drama with a couple of big production numbers. The first kind of interactive online musical experience, Musical: The Online Musical used Youtube comment suggestions to shape the story and influence the development of each weekly installment, which was written and shot on a week-to-week basis. The series, which has concluded after ten episodes, tells the meta tale of a protagonist who realizes that his life is a musical. Revealing this reality to the characters surrounding him, chaos ensues when a main character dies, threatening the musical world they all inhabit. It's satiric and campy while still hilariously endearing with very real stakes for protagonist Henry (no matter how absurd).

Especially because technology and musical theatre seems to be a recurring theme on this blog, I am very excited to share this interview I had with Musical: The Online Musical writers and University of Virginia students Jeff Luppino-Esposito and Matt Savarese. In this Q&A, Jeff and Matt talk about writing the online musical, their upcoming mini musicals, and how that translates back to the stage.

Episode 1 of Musical: The Online Musical

Me: How did you two start writing together? How would you describe your process of collaborating?

Matt Savarese: In the Spring of 2010, I approached Jeff to join me in working on a one-act musical entitled Sorting Through. Unlike our recent comedic works, it was a dramatic piece about a young man reliving his past as he sifts through a box of memories left to him by his mother who recently passed away. After we mounted that at the University of Virginia, we knew we wanted to attempt a full length musical, and our collective interest in the Internet led us to start working on Musical: The Online Musical. For Sorting Through we did a lot more at-the-piano collaborative work, but with the crazy week-by-week grind of Musical: The Online Musical, we found the most success with the two of us first outlining the episode, Jeff pounding out the lyrics, and then me plugging away on my midi keyboard. By the end of the semester, after writing at least a song a week together, and not killing each other, we were excited to discover that we were often thinking on the exact same page, even when we weren't in the same room simultaneously.

Me: Also, I saw you are both UVA students. What's the theater community like there? And what kinds of opportunities are there for producing new musical theatre work?

Jeff Luppino-Esposito: A lot of the great theater happening at UVA is driven by student-run organizations; the two of us actually met in a group called 'First Year Players'. The organization is particularly unique in that it not only aims to put up a high quality musical every semester, but that it does so with an entirely Freshman cast. Within that group, we both got a chance to act and direct, which really opened up a ton of opportunities in the University theater community for us. Beyond FYP, the UVA Drama Department always mounts quality productions and there are a ton of other student organizations putting on everything from Opera to Shakespeare. In terms of 'new' musical theatre, we've self-produced our works so far as there is not a pre-established outlet, but we've been fortunate to have our projects received with open arms. We got a ton of support from not only the Drama Department, but any and all other disciplines at the University who could help us out. Between grant money, free use of facilities, and borrowed equipment, the community has really come together to support our projects.

RSO Songbook Winner

Thanks for all the great entries, guys! Really enjoyed seeing everyone's favorite performance videos!

So I drew a name from a hat, and the winner of the RSO songbook is... Chase, who posted this video as being a favorite:

Congrats! Email me your address at, and I'll be sure to send the book your way!

Even if you didn't win, you can order your copy from RSO's website here -- you can even get a sneak peek at what's inside. Also, concerning Crazytown, I highly suggest reading his newest post "I Love My Dead Gay Song," which discusses musical theatre songs, their contexts and cultures, and being able to maintain those values when the content you're representing is in the minority.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Visiting Crazytown/RSO Songbook Giveaway

Have you been reading Ryan Scott Oliver's Crazytown blog?

Because what was already a fun and informative blog now features a slew of guest bloggers, from musical theatre writers to producers to actors, and many in between. Best part? Every guest contributor has a post a week, so you can easily follow the different "columns" for your weekly fix. Get a glance behind the barricades at the stage door with Alex Brightman. Or find (another) producer's prospective with Ryan Bogner. Or catch up on some monkey business via Tony Asaro. Or hear newly born musical theatre songs curated by Shoshana Greenberg. Or share the perspective of a creative making her way through finance social circles with Kirsten Guenther. Trust me, there's a ton of good stuff on there, with Ryan Scott Oliver chiming in regularly. Here is a list of all the new contributors:

Alex Brightman
Alexander Nagorski
Brett Ryback
Daniel Mate
Geoffrey Kidwell
Gordon Leary
Isaac Oliver
John Constantine
Julia Meinwald
Kevin Michael Murphy
Kirsten Guenther
Matthew Murphy
Ryan Bogner
Sophie Modlin
Tony Asaro
Shoshana Greenberg


I have more RSO goodness.

How is that, you ask?

In honor of the release of RSO's first songbook (with a concert on February 7th at Joe's Pub), we are giving away a copy of RSO's brand new songbook! It's easy to enter. Here are the details:
  • To enter, simply post a link in the comments to your favorite RSO performance video. Need some inspiration? Look at any of the videos mentioned on this blog here, or check out RSO's youtube channel here.
  • You have until 11:59 p.m. eastern time on Saturday, 1/29 to enter.
  • The winner will be drawn at random and announced by 1/31. The winner's name will be posted on the blog then, so be sure to check back so you can send me your address if you win. If I don't receive the winner's information by 2/7, I will draw again.
I am very excited about this songbook, which would be perfect for any performer looking for dynamic, new songs. So be sure to put in your entry or spread the word to other musical theatre enthusiasts!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

We Go to 11

This post is overdue, but last Wednesday I had the extreme pleasure of hearing five 11-minute musicals written by BMI Musical Theatre Workshop writers at Don't Tell Mama as a part of We Go to 11.

Timothy Huang, who I interview in my last blog entry, had his fantastic piece A Relative Relationship, which told the story of a step brother and sister who struggle to accept each other and their respective parents' separations (performed below by Jennifer Blood and Timothy Huang).

Noah Aronson and Patrick Gallagher wrote the beautiful piece I'm Listening, which tells the story of a suicide hotline operator who helps other people find connection but has trouble connecting himself when faced with the idea of meeting his online girlfriend in person for the first time.

Michael Dexter and Kevin Hammonds' Smokey Topaz was a swift and hilarious cautionary tale of a man who refuses to grow up and is consequently pushed out of his own life by his childhood imaginary friend.

Eric Kubo and William TN Hall's On the Lawn was an all too familiar character study of two friends post-house party hungover, trying to sort out their feeling for each other in the harsh morning light.

And Lauren Cregor Devine and Emmy Laybourne closed out the night with the rousing The Chorus, a story of a girl being followed by a Chorus that refuses to leave until she solves a riddle that reveals what is missing from her very controlled life.

It was a very fun night, and I walked away really inspired with the performances. Though there were no real sets, the pieces were really transformative and the energy was palpable amongst the cast (which some of the writers were a part of). Perhaps the thing that really got to me though was how deftly the short musical format was handled in all instances -- really taking a limited amount of space and filling it with characters who told compelling stories. The craft of structuring such a thing seems daunting, but even the way music was incorporated made everything seem so organic, as though the need to express a small but important moment in song could never be incidental. It was a great thing to witness, and I look forward to seeing much more from these writers in the future.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Drawn to You: An Interview with Timothy Huang

Timothy Huang wears many hats, writing as a composer, lyricist, and librettist in addition to having some acting/singing experience under his belt. He's a graduate of NYU's Tisch (twice!) and received the audience award in 2004 for the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of his musical And the Earth Moved. Yesterday, his work was showcased at Don't Tell Mama as a part of We Go to 11, an evening of five 11 minute musicals written by BMI Musical Theatre Workshop writers. We Go to 11 has another show on Wednesday, but for now, I have the privilege of posting this Q&A where Timothy talks about Joss Whedon, the writing process, and being the self-proclaimed mayor of 15 minute musical town:

"Drawn to You" performed by Jared Gertner, Kendal Sparks, Jen Blood, Sarah Corey, Piper Goodeve, and Andrew Kober

from song cycle Lines as part of Timothy Huang: Chinese or Crazy at NYTB

Me: How did you get started in musical theatre?

Timothy Huang: I had Asian parents. So I grew up playing piano, saxomaphone and drumming and other foolishness. I started singing at an early age too and my school was like, the artsy one, so there were a lot of opportunities to perform. When it came time to pick a college I knew I wanted to act in theater and NYU turned out to be where I landed. One of the other theater people at my high school (the girl whom I always played opposite in school shows) had very supportive parents and they sort of knew my parents were unfamiliar with the whole "study of art as a profession" thing so they made themselves available to me whenever I needed advice.

About halfway through college I started wondering why all my classmates seemed so content to do other people's choreography, sing songs that other people had made famous and do shows that had been already done. The answer, obvious to me now but not back then, was because they were real actors and I was really a writer. Eventually I figured that out and when the opportunity came to go to grad school, I ended up back at NYU because I didn't want to leave the city and lose touch with my agents, etc.

Me: How would you describe your musical style? Who are your biggest influences?

Timothy: I would probably call my style "contemporary American theater" which is of absolutely no use to you... But critically I have been likened to a lot of different people. Bill Finn, Jonathan Larson, George Gershwin (??). I think that people tend to want to put artists in a box, critics especially, because they have an obligation to make the art accessible to the lay person. I mean, that one time someone likened me to Gershwin, it was a different show than when they likened me Bill Finn. Each show tends to have it's own voice and it just happens that in The View From Here I wrote a song that aped the jazz standards of the 20s/30s and used that as my backbone, and in And the Earth Moved I wanted a very "New Yorkey pre-9/11 hopeful" feel. And that translated to one reviewer as William Finn-ish. He's not wrong, I studied under Bill at NYU and I grew up loooving the Falsettos score.

As for my influences, I'd have to say that most of my writing influences are literary/dramatic, not musical. The nature of the drama always dictates the nature of the music (which may account for why there is such a disparity between the writers I have been so generously compared to). I'm a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. Have been since A Few Good Men. The economy with which he conveys depth of character is really unparalleled, I think. And in a musical theater setting economy is key. You can't really write a twelve page scene and then have someone sing about it. Well... I suppose you could, but it wouldn't be the least bit engaging... I loved Sports Night, and feel like Studio 60 got unfairly judged. I thought the opening scene to Social Network was so brilliant. Conveying as much in what they do say as in what is implied or left unsaid.

I'm also an enormous Joss Whedon fan. Discovered Firefly during the legendary "million amazon five star rating age" and subsequently bought all the Buffy/Angel sets. I feel just a few steps removed from him because I went to college with Sean Maher, who played Simon Tam in Firefly, and in the summer of 2000 right before grad school I did an indie film with a then unknown Amy Acker who would go on to play Fred in Angel the following year. I feel like he and I have similar tastes in actors. We maybe look for the same things.

Beyond that I can say I've been really fortunate in my career. Studied under William Finn and Michael John LaChiusa at NYU, and by way of my former life as an actor, I got to work with and for Jason Robert Brown, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, all of whom are so generous with their time and talents. But just having access to that brain trust is like -- kind of a huge deal. They're successful, and they care about passing the torch. They aren't so wrapped up in their own ambition that they won't sit down and tell you what they think of your work. That's very rare, especially in this landscape where genuine musical theater writers are struggling to compete in the mainstream with aging rock stars searching for cultural relevance and musical adaptations of movies that existed in the 80s and 90s. Which isn't to slam adaptations, or rock stars (We're all artists right?) but just to say that when your goal, like mine is, is to create new and original work, it's that much harder to get the attention of a producer who for better or worse thinks a "known" property is more likely to return his investment than an unknown one.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Story Pirates

Hey all, and happy new year! There's a lot I would like to say about my blog topic today, but I wanted to start by formally announcing that I am officially now on Twitter. Yes, I am finding myself falling down the dizzying rabbit hole that is social media, and surprisingly, I am finding it to be a ton of fun. I encourage anyone else on Twitter to follow me and to also follow many of the emerging musical theatre writers who tweet regularly (I'm trying to follow as many as I can find... Also, notice how I used "tweet" as a verb? I feel so hip!).

Anyway, when trying to figure out what writer to kick off the new year talking about, I had a ton of people immediately come to mind. There are a lot of exciting things I want to do with this blog and new writers I want to continue to mention/show their work off. When I was doing research on songwriter Eli Bolin, however, I also discovered the Story Pirates, an organization for which he serves as songwriter and musical director. And while I intend to do a full post of Eli Bolin later (and his cool projects with Sam Forman), I feel like Story Pirates more than warrants its own post.

So what is the Story Pirates? Since it was founded in 2003, it's a multimedia organization that encourages kids to write creatively by adapting their short stories into sketches, songs, and stories. From in-school programs where they have writing workshops and performances to their weekly mainstage shows out of Midtown's The Drama Bookshop (250 West 40th St.), they provide a wealth of opportunities for kids to see their words come to life. Watch the following documentary to get a behind-the-scenes look at what exactly they do:

This program is so fantastic for so many reasons, and I couldn't think of a better way for musical talent to be spent than using its magic to transport kids into each other's imaginations. These songs are great, and I think Eli Bolin does an amazing job of really embracing silliness and whimsy without pandering to younger audiences. The music for pieces like "Tickle Monsters Are Robots!!!!!" and "Leo's Favorite Train is the F Train!" conceptualize the stories in a way that really captures the hearts of the kids writing them and makes adapting them look seamless.

But perhaps one of the best parts of talking about Story Pirates is that the book/lyric writers are, for the most part, the kids, and I'm sure anyone who is a writer can feel in his/her gut how this organization is providing a meaningful service . Even as a writer now, I know how hard it is to be able to get my work on a stage with an audience, so to be five or six and get to see your work being performed in front of all your peers, the experience would be an invaluable source of pride and encouragement. Not to mention that there is a lot of talent to be fostered here -- and these kids could very well represent the future of the musical theatre community.

So, I thought it was nice to open the year highlighting an organization that I admire a lot and that provides the kind of hope I think we can all use in the new year. Please check out all of Story Pirates' Youtube videos at their channel here, and go to their website to see how you can get more involved!