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.

Me: I read the BackStage article where you guys talked about the process of bringing Musical: The Online Musical to life, and it's all incredibly impressive. Were you expecting to get the response you did to the series? Was there any back-up plan if people didn't respond, or was the show truly dependent on audience participation?

Matt: We were definitely nervous going into the project-- we were unsure of the response we'd get from viewers both at UVA and the Internet community at large. Fortunately, the show quickly developed a relatively small (in terms of YouTube) but dedicated and enthusiastic fan base who continued to submit great ideas every week and really engage with our content. We were lucky to have the tweeting support of fellow collegiate musical theater writers from UMich, 'Team StarKid', the group behind A Very Potter Musical, as well as more traditional press coverage from BackStage, BroadwayWorld and Playbill. We definitely saw spikes in our viewership as the word spread. Although we were confident that we could put out solid work, we had no clue what the response would be like, so if we didn't get submissions, our backup plan was essentially to force our parents and friends to send in ideas. Luckily it didn't come to that.

Me: Now that everything is said and done with Musical: The Online Musical, what are some of the biggest things you've taken away from the project? Any advice you would give to someone who wants to try something like this?

Jeff: Matt and I like to half-jokingly call the M:TOM process 'musical theater boot camp.' We learned an incredible amount about the writing and production process and the limits of sleep deprivation. In terms of tangible take-aways, we came to really appreciate how much an actor, even if given the script just minutes before filming, can totally transform a work. As the process went on, we learned to leave more and more space for that sort of creative interpretation at all levels of the project for both the technical and performance aspects. The other big thing we excitedly discovered was just how much a work can change through the interactive workshopping process. Characters and plot lines were radically altered at every turn-- it brought our work to places we never could have imagined at the get-go. In terms of advice-- while the deadlines kept us on track, we wouldn't necessarily suggest that students with a full course load and a desire to see the light of day try to put on a weekly show of this nature. Really we wish we could have spent all of our time doing it-- we had so much fun with the cast and crew even at the toughest of times, and artistically it was very fulfilling. Nevertheless, we would probably suggest a bi-weekly model for those seeking a similar project-- we definitely wish we had more time to develop our ideas for each episode and rehearse with the cast.

Indie GoGo campaign video for "The Mini Musicals"

Me: Your next project involves writing mini musicals (also using audience feedback). What do you think are going to be the biggest differences between this and Musical: The Online Musical, both in creation process and content?

Matt: The biggest difference will definitely be the time constraints, or rather the lack thereof. We really want to take all the knowledge we gained from the M:TOM process and use it to carefully craft these microshows. While our first interactive project had more critical appeal due to the nature of the process, we're definitely aiming more toward widening our audience with these mini musicals by basing each one on a pop culture icon or historical moment. We're hoping we can increase both quality and accessibility with these self-contained shows. Whereas the M:TOM viewing process required a weekly commitment, these will be able to stand alone and test our ability to produce funny and powerful short narratives.

Me: Do you think the internet is always going to play a large part in your musical/theater projects? What is it about fusing theater and the internet that interests you most?

Jeff: In short-- yes. We see such an amazing amount of potential for collaboration and artistic growth on the web, which we want to continue to tap into. Having access to an essentially limitless audience base who could serve not only as a viewer but as a contributor to our projects is invaluable to us. One thing that the two of us have always wanted to be able to achieve is actually a hearkening back to the theater of old-- the almost mythical image of the Greek theater as being the 'art of the people,' as we are taught in the classroom. Through the power of this new age technology, people won't be constrained by high ticket prices, location, or the aims of wealthy producers-- they will be able to participate in the process of creating new art and they'll have the ability to consume it for free at anytime on the web.

Me: If you see the internet always playing some part in your future musical endeavors, how do you, in turn, see your internet projects translating to the stage? Do you guys want to continue working on web series/shorts, or do you see these works having a place in a more traditional theater venue?

Jeff: In a couple weeks we'll be submitting Musical: The Online Musical to the New York International Fringe Festival-- and so begins the challenge of attempting to translate our episodic online show into a cohesive stage play. We're in the process now of interpreting it, adding in all those missing transitions, taking out some of the mini-arcs that are expected in a week-by-week performance but that would lower the stakes when watching it straight through live. We'd love if M:TOM and our future works can find a home both on the web and on the stage-- it's still our dream to make it to Broadway one day. I think the magic of live performance will always have a place, and it would be amazing to see a work that was built on the Internet, with free access for all and insight from everywhere, to find its full realization in New York or Chicago. A great model of that fusion of traditional and new media work is thriving over at StarKid Productions-- they've now found a theatrical home in Chicago, but their fan base comes from around the world via their YouTube channel. It's definitely an inspiration to us as we try to work between spaces, tangible and otherwise.

Find out more about Jeff, Matt, and The Online Musicals at their website or catch up on all their videos on their Youtube channel! Want to get involved? Submit an idea -- or be a supporter for their Indie GoGo campaign here by donating.

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