Sunday, April 24, 2011

And In That Universe, You'd Be Everything: An Interview with Heidi Heilig and Mike Pettry

Heidi Heilig and Mike Pettry's full-length musical, The Time Travelers Convention, debuted as a podcast about a month ago, bringing the story of three friends looking for answers through time travel straight to your living room via Youtube and iTunes. With a wonderful cast starring Nick Blaemire, Lorinda Lisitza, Jeff Essex, Stephanie Spano, Phoebe Strole, and even Mike Pettry himself, this radio play way of experiencing a new show boasts a lot of talent and fun presentation. Luckily for us, Heidi and Mike offered to answer a few questions about the process of recording a podcast, fusing nerd and musical theatre culture, and everything in between:

(First part of Youtube podcast of The Time Traveler's Convention)

The big party in The Time Travelers Convention is based on a real event organized by MIT students. How did you decide to turn the idea into a musical?

Heidi: In the summer of 2005, Mike and I were looking for an idea for our thesis musical for the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU, and my mother, who is a musical theatre writer herself, sent me an article she’d seen in the New York Times about these wacky young science nerds at MIT and the party they were holding to try to attract visitors from the future. She sent it in an email with just the heading “Time traveler convention – GREAT IDEA FOR A MUSICAL.” I’m not joking, that’s how I decided – an all caps email heading from my mother.

Although I don’t do everything she suggests to me in all caps. (If I did I may have tried for a more lucrative career than ‘bookwriter/lyricist.’) And I had to convince Mike, too, but that wasn’t too hard because the idea really grabbed me and I can be really pushy when an idea takes hold.

Mike: It didn’t take much to convince me – I was excited by the idea of writing music from the perspective of nerdy high-schoolers. Before, I had been writing more cerebral art-song stuff, and was getting very tired of that.
The Time Travelers Convention was a great opportunity to dive into more pop-rock styles, although the score ultimately found a balance between both worlds (like if Stephen Sondheim were to start an Arcade Fire cover band).

My favorite part of our first meeting about the show was that Heidi had pitched it to another collaborator first, who wasn’t that excited about it. He was like, “Time travel? Enh,” but I was like “BEST IDEA FOR A MUSICAL EVER.”

Heidi: What really sung to me about the whole story was that Amal Dorai (the organizer) and others were asking for things from the potential time traveler – cold fusion reactors, cures for AIDS, solutions to mathematical mysteries – and I thought, well, what would I ask for, if a time traveler showed up?

And the answer that came back in my head was “I’d want the time machine.”

I think a lot of people feel that they have turning points in their lives that they look back on and say “If only I’d—" or “I wish I could have–" or “I never should have–" and they end that sentence with “because then everything would be okay.” I know I have. (And I would sing about it, too.) And for me, characters are formed quite easily out of a mixture of dreams and regrets.

Me: Something I love about
The Time Travelers Convention is how it fuses theater and music with science and math, a combination that made me realize that those subjects have a lot more in common than initially comes to mind. What were your approaches in writing the songs for the show?

Heidi: Well, I’ve always been a science geek and a musical theatre nerd, so to me the match was natural. Indeed, the idea of the music of the spheres – the marriage of geometry and harmony – is a very old one. But for me, lyrics always come out of characters and their emotions, and these characters were the most math-y kids we could dream up. They express their needs and desires in scientific or logical terminology, in part to avoid the messy work of talking about feelings. I spent a lot of time polishing up my time travel knowledge, though, and asking for help from the algebraically inclined. One of our songs ("XY Blues") was actually inspired by a tattoo a friend of mine wanted to get – the logical expression for “Everything is everything.” In that song, Greg takes that algorithm, which only applies in one universe – namely, a world where there is only one object – as the ultimate expression of his loneliness. "One Plus One" is, as you may well guess, another math song, where Samantha uses arithmetic to process her feelings after she terminates an unwanted pregnancy. In the songs from the show, we use mathematics as just another language with which we can express emotions like regret, longing, and hope. All of which I experienced in high school Trigonometry. Especially regret.

Mike: It would be rad if I could say that all the songs had mathematical formulas built in, like all the F sharps on the sheet music to “One Plus One” formed a Mandelbrot set…but they don’t. I tried to write music that I thought math/science geeks would listen to. There is occasionally some crossover between traditional nerds and musical theatre nerds – a great example would be
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – and we’ve kind of hoped that our show would draw more non-musical-theatre nerds into musical theatre.

(Stephanie Spano singing "One Plus One")

Me: Where did the idea come from to do the podcast? What were some of the biggest challenges of working in that medium/adjusting the material to fit that medium?

Mike: We’ve been discussing alternative ways to produce new musicals for a long time. Our first project together at NYU was a punk rock concept album based on long distance romances. We should probably get around to finishing that, huh? But after several readings of
The Time Travelers Convention that lead to nowhere, we wanted to find a way to self-produce it and release it ourselves. Our first thought was to make it into a film, but when we figured out the costs involved it seemed impossible to finance it ourselves. The idea of the podcast (or really, radio play) came from the practical reason that I have a lot of home recording experience. I’ve recorded and produced all the demos we’ve ever done, plus I’ve produced an album of my own songs as well as a film score out of my home studio. So, really, audio is something I’m really comfortable working with, and that led us to the idea of making an audio-only version, because we could it all the technical stuff by ourselves. And that later led us to the idea of adding comic-book-like drawings of the scenes to publish on YouTube.

We wanted to make sure that felt like, a production of the show, not an ad for the show or a demo. So we had several rehearsals before recording it, working on the script and songs as we would for a reading or a production. We hired a director, Michael Perlman to help direct the actors in ways that Heidi and I don’t have any experience with.

Another crazy fact about the recording…my studio limits me to only recording one person at a time, so every dialogue scene is cut together, not live. However, I REALLY didn’t want it to sound unnatural, we did have the other actors in the room while each person recorded their own dialogue. So about 10 of us were crammed into my non-air-condition living room/recording studio to record the dialogue. It was a long day of recording, but I remember those stories about how Bill Finn used to showcase his stuff in his cramped apartment, and I thought, “Well, this is how musical theatre gets made.”

Another big challenge was making the show make sense as audio only. It was originally written to be a staged musical, so there are certain visual events that happen – Julia kissing Romi, Dr. Hammer grabbing the picture off of her desk, Greg and Sam throwing flyers into the air – that we had to “fix” so that they would translate. Sound effects helped that a lot, in other places Heidi added lines as clues. We toyed with the idea of adding a narrator at some point, but it ended up not being necessary. And really, it would’ve been so weird in the Julia-Romi kiss scene for some random person to say “They kiss.” If anything, it would make it feel like a reading, not a production.

Heidi: That is something that I think actually helped – the fact that, while we were writing the show as our thesis project, I was very aware that it would be seen first as a black box reading at NYU, where props were not to be suffered. The show would flow best if any props or meaningful movement was referenced in the dialogue as opposed to read by a stage manager. And something that ultimately helped, I think, is that, as to stage directions, I am the opposite of Eugene O’Neill. Back in the early days of writing the show – and when we’d just started working together – I would write these little cryptic parenthetical italicized fragments and Mike would be all “Why are you referencing a photograph here? Where did that come from?” And I’d be all “Hammer has a photograph on her desk, it’s clear from Julia’s line on page 57,” and he’d be all like “Put it in the stage directions!” It was our first big fight…but not our last, duhn duhn duhhhhhhnnnn….

Me: Mike, how was it actually playing a character in the recording? Your Greg was hilarious.

Mike: Thanks! There’s actually a somewhat uncomfortable story behind that. We hired a terrific actor and singer to be Greg, but after we started editing and mixing the dialogue, it occurred to us that he and Nick Blaemire (who played Romi) had VERY similar speaking voices. It was confusing to listen to, because you couldn’t to tell them apart. By the time we realized this, this actor had left to do a tour, so having him come back and alter his performance wasn’t an option. We made the tough decision to replace him.

Heidi suggested that I be Greg, which I thought at first was a terrible idea, and would only compile with the guilt I felt for having to replace him. But knowing how long it would take to complete this project, it seemed more logical than hiring someone new who’d be unfamiliar with the show and cast, have to teach him the score, and expect him to act with pre-recorded voices. I knew the show as well as anyone could, so I could do it quickly. Plus, Heidi once told me that she always imagined Greg as a fatter version of me, so the part came pretty naturally. All the time travel business and Star Wars references helped, too. But man, I’d be lying to say I didn’t take several passes at the high notes in “Could It Happen” and “Don’t Go.”

(Nick Blaemire singing "Can I Tell You?")

Me: I also saw through your websites that you have another collaboration,
World of Heroes, which is about a college student who gets immersed in a multiplayer online role playing game. What is it about these characters who go searching for answers in other kinds of dimensions that speaks to you?

Heidi: It’s probably not a surprise for me to say that for all that I love new musical theatre, part of me has one foot firmly in the past: in the classic era of musical theatre, where shows were set in different worlds. When I think of book musicals that I’ve really loved, there has always been some kind of transportative setting, elements of travel to far-away places to experience an exotic existence – like the world of Kings and concubines in
The King and I, or the sexual limbo where Hedwig dwells. I feel that it is in these ‘far away places,’ so different from our every day, that we can most easily view the trials and the themes of our own lives. And I think that when characters break into song, we immediately break from our everyday notion of reality – and so it’s easy to push through into another dimension or a parallel world. Of course, nowadays, what can be more far away and exotic than the cutting edges of science or technology?

Mike: Yeah, these are locales that speak to our generation as well as younger ones, and they’ve often been explored in other media such as TV, film, and video games...but musical theatre at large hasn’t embraced stuff like time travel and video games games so much. I agree with Heidi that our approach to writing musicals is partly very traditional (I sort of aspire for us to be the rock ‘n’ roll Rodgers and Hammerstein), but I think musical theatre has to embrace new subjects and styles for the art form to remain vital for new audiences.

Me: Any other projects (together or separate) on the horizon that you’d like to plug?

Mike: At some point, I hope we get around to recording Long Distance, our punk rock concept album. That’s something we can easily self-produce and put online like The Time Travelers Convention. And we’re getting close to having World of Heroes ready to shop around. I also just recently finished writing music and lyrics for a children’s musical with playwright Lila Rose Kaplan called The Light Princess, which we’re currently sending out. I have also some new projects in the works with Tommy Newman and Chris Dimond.

Also! I don’t have many details yet, but New York Theatre Barn just approached me about doing their monthly D-Lounge show on May 30th. So check out their website for updates on that!

Heidi: When I’m not geeking out with Mike Pettry, I’m writing pop R&B love songs or whacky cabaret material with
Rob Baumgartner. We have some great standalone songs up at YouTube, and we’re working on a recording of The Hole, which enjoyed a run at the St. Clement’s Theatre in 2009.

Curl up with some popcorn and enjoy The Time Travelers Convention in your pajamas by watching/listening to the podcast on Youtube here and buy the original cast album on iTunes here. Also be sure to visit the show's website to read up more on the project!

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