Monday, August 29, 2011

Wrapping up The Fringe and looking towards what's up next

Sadly, Hurricane Irene cut this year's Fringe Festival a bit short, canceling this weekend's performances with the MTA shutdown here in the city. I do, however, want to send out congratulations to all the shows, many of which received great reviews and mentions throughout the last 2 weeks. Also, many were highlighted with The Fringe's Overall Excellence Awards, which are listed here. [EDIT: Looks like a spoke a little soon -- The Fringe Encore Series has just been announced. If there was a show you missed, see if it made the list here.]

Just as one festival ends, though, another begins as tickets to NYMF shows will go on sale to the general public later this week (the festival will run from 9/26-10/16). Check out some of the great offerings on their website, and get ready for even more awesome new musical goodness at the end of September.

In speaking of things to come, Shaina Taub's EP, What Otters Do, is now available online (and in hardcopy through her website). If you're in New York, also check out her show tonight at Rockwood Music Hall at 8:30.

Speaking of Shaina Taub, the songstress will be a guest at Eli Bolin's upcoming show at the Laurie Beechman at 8:00 on September 18. They will be joined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anne Harada, Sam Forman, Allison Posner, Greg Hildreth, Anthony Rapp, and Olli Haaskivi -- and with a line-up like that, you gotta get a reservation!

Also, bringing everything full circle, later that week at the Beechman will be a concert version of Bed Bugs!!!! The Musical, which I saw and loved at NYMF 2008. This hilarious show, which was written by Fred Sauter and Paul Leschen, will be performing on 9/20 and 9/21.

So save your pennies and get ready for a month of great new music. In the meantime, I leave you with this great tune from Nick Blaemire's concert at Ars Nova a couple of months ago:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fringe Update and Leonard Cohen Koans

The Fringe Festival wraps up this Sunday, and I’ve been trying to see as many shows as possible. I’m hoping to get in a couple more musicals by this weekend, especially because I have to admit I’ve been finding myself seeing more plays than I intended (if you are looking for a recommendation, I highly suggest Fit, put on by my friends at Plastic Flamingo Company – it also has Celtic music, so in that way there’s a nice musical element to it too). Still, the festival is rolling on, and many musicals are selling out (you can find a list here), including the record-breaking Yeast Nation whose opening night performance was the fastest selling performance in Fringe history (they even added a show, only to have it sell out once again). Remember to also check out the 6-word Fringe musical pitches if you're having trouble deciding what to see.

So far in the Fringe coverage, we’ve gotten insights into Zombie Prom and Ampersand, and today I wanted to mention my experience seeing Leonard Cohen Koans at Le Poisson Rouge last night. Though it’s not traditional musical theatre – in many ways it’s more cabaret, which perfectly fit the space, it was a really enjoyable night of music, especially if you’re a fan of Leonard Cohen (can’t tell you how delightful it was to see one audience member who was clearly a fan, bobbing his head and smiling with recognition at every song). The show exudes a narrative that makes it more than just a collection of covers. The ethereal quality of the show is a testament to Ali Hughes, the lead vocalist who effortlessly embodies every lyric she sings. The selections are also nicely curated and arranged so that the songs seem to flow seamlessly. I would definitely recommend this as a stop in your Fringe marathon (they have 3 shows left) – if anything just to vary up your itinerary and to see a great performer and talented musicians find inherent stories in thoughtful classics.

Monday, August 15, 2011

You Ampersand Me: An Interview with Mariah MacCarthy and Brian Kirchner

Last night, I started off my Fringe marathon with Purple Rep (with Leta Tremblay)’s Ampersand, a modern gender-bending reinterpretation of Romeo & Juliet. With pop-rock tunes inspired by the likes of Lady Gaga and Amanda Palmer and Billy Idol, this show adds new layers to a seemingly familiar story and raises some interesting questions about sex in all its roles and incantations. There are 3 performances left at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, and you can get your tickets here. But before Ampersand had its first performance in the Fringe, composer Brian Kirchner and writer Mariah MacCarthy were generous enough to answer some questions about the show:

Me: What was the collaboration process like writing Ampersand?

Brian Kirchner: Compositionally, Ampersand was a largely experimental process. Mariah and I would shoot some ideas around, and then I’d record these fuzzy sounding demos on my phone and Mariah would give her approval or suggestions. Creatively, I tried to find the rhythm and emotion behind Mariah’s lyrics and form melodies from there. As time went on,Ampersand’s style began to take shape, and certain motifs and themes carried the piece into a distinct form. The cast adds another layer to the whole process. Each member has their own style and inflection, and I tried to embrace this and let the people shape the music rather than the other way around.

Mariah MacCarthy: The way I put it in our Kickstarter video is, I hand Brian a mess of words and say “Hey, make this sound pretty.” Throughout the process, I’ve gotten better at giving an actual shape to my songs, but there are still plenty of songs in the show that eschew traditional song structure. I also very rarely tell Brian what to do. I find that letting him just do his thing and give me whatever comes into his head usually yields the best results. Sometimes I’ll say “this one’s a power ballad” or “I was listening to Billy Idol when I wrote this one,” or I’ll listen to his demo and ask if it can be faster or something. But mostly we’re kind of autonomous, and that works beautifully for us.

Me: The music of Ampersand is described as being pop-folk. How do you define that sound, and how does it set the scene for the world where Ampersand takes place?

Brian: Mariah’s first discussions were about embracing modern pop-sensibilities with darker lyricism. So much so, we began with the ground work of interposing current pop hits from Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake into the show. Eventually though, we thought it’d be far more interesting to have the music be completely original and maintain the energy of these performers. My personal style is probably where the folk comes in. I write a lot of solo piano music and like to use lots of odd instruments on stage. Sometimes limitations are awesome for creativity. For example: instead of the standard musical orchestra, we’re now a small band of guitar, violin, piano and ukulele. This seems to work well with the raw tension of the script and its characters, and frankly I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Mariah: I struggled for awhile to put my finger on a name for our sound. It’s not pure folk, and to call it “rock” makes it sound louder and harsher than it is. I arrived at “pop-folk” because there’s one song that, to me, sounds exactly like Dar Williams. So I Wikipedia’d her and saw her described as a “pop-folk” singer and thought, “Ah-ha! That’s what we are.” There’s one moment where (at the time of this interview) everyone onstage is holding either a guitar or a ukulele, which is the “folk” end of our spectrum; but then there’s another number that Brian described as a “Gaga S&M aggressive tango,” which is definitely more “pop.” So “pop-folk” sums it all up, I think.

Me: What were some of the challenges of rewriting such a classic story? What do you most want to communicate with this interpretation/story?

Brian: I’ll let Mariah take this one. However, I should say that musically the songs attempt to recreate the self-reflection and heightened emotion of Shakespeare’s drama while moving Mariah’s unique script forward.

Mariah: First of all, Romeo is a girl. That wasn’t particularly challenging to change; she’s still just as brash and starry-eyed as Shakespeare’s Romeo, but she’s a girl. The challenge was in how to approach this famous relationship in a modern, more cynical context. I wanted to take kind of an unromantic approach to Romeo & Juliet. Not that there isn’t romance inAmpersand—there is tons of it!—but I don’t romanticize obsession and self-destruction. We’re too reverent of Romeo & Juliet, I think. I’ve heard so many people say, “They’re just kids but they’re so much wiser than the rivaling adults around them!” No, no they’re not. They kill themselves! How is that wise?

So once I’d established to myself that I wasn’t going to romanticize double suicide, or let Romeo off the hook for killing Juliet’s cousin, then the question became, how faithful do I have to be to the rest of the script? I haven’t kept any of Shakespeare’s language (though if you’re familiar with the original you can hear his influence), but did I have to keep the plot intact? Ultimately, I found satisfaction in my irreverence of the original, and I consider my blasphemy to be almost more of an homage than if I’d done a more “loyal” adaptation.

Me: In the trailer, there are a lot of very interesting physical scenes. What role does movement play in this piece?

Mariah: We are working with so many brilliant people, it blows my mind. What you see in the trailer are our rehearsals with fight director Teddy Lytle and choreographer Chris Shepard. Those excerpts are actually just from rehearsing two scenes out of the whole show! The dance clips are from the party where Romeo and Juliet meet, and the fight clips are from the confrontation between Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo (which, spoiler alert—but not really because this is pretty loyal to the original—does not end well). I write plays that teeter on “Dance Theater” sometimes, and while I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Ampersand as such, there is a healthy dose of movement: some tango, some dream ballet, and a fair amount of ass-kicking as well.

Me: What was the process like of raising money for the show through Kickstarter? What role has social media played in promoting your show?

Mariah: Oh God, our Kickstarter campaign was so nerve-wracking! And so amazing, because all these people came out of the woodwork and supported us—we had 108 donors when our campaign closed. I figured out in the last week of our month-long campaign that people responded to the promise of me making a fool of myself on camera. With just four days to go, I promised to videotape myself moonwalking if we hit $1500 by midnight that night (we were just barely over the $1000 mark), and we made it. So I did (video evidence is here), and then the next day I thought, how do I top that? Then I found out that one of my band members had a Mario costume, so I promised to videotape myself wearing that if we hit $2000 by that night, which we did. (The Mario video is here, and involves various silly dances including the Electric Slide and the Dougie.)

I should mention at this point that the Ampersand cast and crew is one of the most delightful rooms of people I’ve ever been in—and there are so many of them! Eleven cast members, and about as many creatives, all of them passionate and lovely and (fortunately for this production) persuasive! So when everyone reached out to their networks at the same time that these crazy videos were being created, it created a perfect storm of fundraising magic and we raised about $4000 in a week.

As the marketing brain for Purple Rep, the theater company presenting Ampersand (of which I am a co-founder), I always struggle with how personal or professional to be in our communications via twitter, facebook, and email. But no one cares about a generic marketing message. People care about people. So I allow Purple Rep’s online presence to be silly and personal and unique. When you’re an off-off-Broadway theater company and your marketing budget is tiny-to-nonexistent, social media can be your best friend, but it has to feel personal.

Me: What have been some of the biggest challenges of mounting a show with the Fringe? What have been some of the biggest rewards?

Mariah: So far, I love Fringe. I may change my mind when we get into tech, but right now, I love it. I am working with a godsend of a co-producer, Leta Tremblay, who handles all the Fringe paperwork and deadlines because she is wonderful. I love that, for the price of the Fringe participation fee (which, compared to renting your own space, is nothing), we get to play the beautiful Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa (by far the biggest space I’ve ever had my work in, which is both liberating and terrifying). I love their humorous-yet-idiot-proof emails. I love that there are Fringe junkies who hop from show to show during the festival. Right now, I’m a Fringe fan. Next week, after we’ve had five hours to rehearse a two-act musical and I’m hyperventilating, we’ll see how I really feel.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Long Distance Collaboration on a Zombie Wedding: A conversation between R.C. Staab and Daniel Sturman

Continuing on with coverage of the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, I am excited to share with you the very first guest blog here on Emerging Musical Theatre. British Composer Daniel Sturman and American Librettist/Lyricist R.C. Staab are the creative team behind the new musical, Zombie Wedding, which premieres August 15th at FringeNYC at The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa. What I really found fascinating about their collaboration, however, is that until this week, they have never met in person. Their collaboration started and has flourished solely through email and Skype calls (crazy, right?).
For their post, Daniel and R.C. talk about what it was like collaborating over an 18-month period to bring their 90-minute musical comedy – My Best Friend’s Wedding meets a Zombie movie – to the stage:

R.C. Staab:
What ever possessed you to mash together a Zombie movie and "My Best Friend's Wedding" to create a musical comedy?
Daniel Sturman: Well when I first had the idea for Zombie Wedding it was in a rather different shape that it is currently. I initially envisioned a two act show in which the whole second act involved the bride, groom and a Reverend Mr. T type held captive in besieged chapel. In my head it seemed like I really clever "bunker" play but in retrospect, it would have been the wrong plot for a musical, or even a play I would want to watch. It certainly wasn't My Best Friend's Wedding.
R.C.: I forgot about that. It certainly wasn’t in the original short script I read. I probably never would have suggested a stronger romantic story.
Daniel: When I began working with you -- starting almost from scratch on the story -- the characters and basic setup gravitated towards a love triangle and I seemed right to go in that direction. Interestingly in the beginning I was nervous that making the show too much like a chick-flick would mean compromising conflicts in the characters, but in reality it has made them and the show richer. I wrote a flawed zombie musical that evolved into "My Best Friend's Wedding". As It happened I had only seen that film after you had mentioned the show could go in that direction, so it was research.
What were your initial impressions of Zombie Wedding?
R.C.: For me a librettist and lyricist, I’m only interested in working on a project that has music that I love and whose basic concept can be boiled to an elevator pitch. Okay, so I’ve done marketing all my life. I thought the music – only three or four songs – was terrific. And because you already flushed out the basic concept, we didn’t have to spend hours trying to agree on basic character motivations and plot.
Given that our initial discussions sent you in a different direction and the time zone, geographic and age differences, what made you decide to give the collaboration a go?
Daniel: I always believed that I had a fun idea with Zombie Wedding, but I was quite aware that what I liked was the high concept and not really anything in the writing at that point. So to have Zombie Wedding taken in a new direction was not an issue. A no brainer really. You and I are different ages, and come from different eras of popular culture, but I didn't really see that as I problem, not for me or for the work. Although the show is set in the 80s, an era that you know better that me, it's that cinematic, vernacular zeitgeisty 80s that exists more in Brat Pack movies and MTV videos than in reality. And anyway differences of age are just some of listless differences you can have with people. I can easily say that in all of our collaboration to date, my using British idioms in lyrics has brought about more confusion than any age differences. As for time zones and geography, we are separated by seven hours and thousands of miles. We also have email and Skype. It was never going to be a problem.
R.C.: Especially because you must stay up to 3AM almost every night. I admire that.
Daniel: I really don't.
What made me decide to give this collaboration a go was reading an interview R.C. gave with a San Francisco reporter. He was discussing a workshop production of his show, “Shadows of Pompeii.” In the interview he talked about how he had commandeered a theatre company. Hoodwinked a composer. Bullied some actors into reading (a theatre term). I think there was probably some blackmail in there too. I am possibly misremembering. But anyway. He talked about the experience of letting the audience give their criticism via various multiple-choice questionnaire. Questions like "If you could cut one song..?" stick out. For all it's dangers I liked the moxy and it was refreshing to hear of someone thinking about musicals in such an... now I don't mean this to sound bad... in such an artless way.
R.C.: The power of the Internet! I never sent that story.
Daniel: Musicals are as vulnerable as any other creative form of getting lofty and 'for the writers' rather than the audience. You weren’t doing that. So I was very impressed. You had also created the basically show on your own. I didn't get the impression that the show was a classic "collaboration" like Zombie Wedding.Altogether you seemed very motivated and ambitious and, as much as anyone can in this business, you seemed to know what to do. Giving the collaboration a go seemed like one of the best decisions I could make.
R.C.: My biggest concern was that it’s so easy to ignore email. If we were in the same town, it would be harder to avoid me if I called or saw you at a show. The biggest risk was that I would spend several months on the project, and you’d never get around to sending me the music.
But email helps in a different way, it allows us to be contemporaries even if we have such apparent differences. My guess is that if we lived in the same town and had run into each other a speed dating for composers/lyricist, we would never have immediately connected. We would have thought of each other as coming from different worlds.
Daniel: That's true.
Buy tickets and get more information on Zombie Wedding here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

6-Word 2011 Fringe Musical Roundup

Festival season is upon us, bringing with it exciting announcements of new musicals. Coming up fast is The New York International Fringe Festival, which kicks off August 12th. But with 194 shows, the selections can get overwhelming -- which is why I asked the 34 musicals that will be performed in The Fringe to help narrow the field and submit a 6-word pitch for their shows. Below are the pitches from the 25 shows that responded. Feel free to peruse the listing and, if you see something that catches your eye, click on the musical’s link or check out the profile on The FringeNYC’s website. Also, check back here in the next couple of weeks for a little more insight into a couple of the musicals in this year’s festival.

Lesbian pop-folk Shakespeare, with drag queens.

-- Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story

Sitcom icons in a Shakespearean bloodbath.

-- The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families
Partridge and Brady

Lady robber's shenanigans cause Brooklyn sensation!

-- The Bobbed-Haired Bandit

Music. Temptation. Loyalty or betrayal?

-- Destinations

Self inflicted injury, depression and singing.

-- The Disorientation of Butterflies

Glee Club iced by psycho slasher.

-- Gleeam

Puppets + rockin' songs like "Bearhemian Rhapsody."

-- Goldilocks and the Three Polar Bears

Babbling Buddhist baffles Businessman in blizzard.

-- Hush The Musical

Chatty psychopath extrapolates, divulges personal anthems.

-- Jeffrey Dahmer Live

Hit Hollywood musical lampooning Jersey Shore.

-- Jersey Shoresical: A Frickin' Rock Opera

A hysterical and dysfunctional music concert.

-- Killing Nellie

Backstage scandals of Spider-Man on Broadway.

-- The Legend of Julie Taymor,
or The Musical That Killed Everybody!

Wistful to wild in a heartbeat.

-- leonard cohen koans

A Ridiculously Risque Restoration Rockomedy (Roar).

-- Love In A Tub

Old hymns sung fresh by Gays.

-- The Miss Teen Jesus Pageant

The gay holy grail's been discovered!

-- Parker & Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey
to the End of the Rainbow

Peer into the dustbins of History.

-- Pawn

Temperatures rise when Bluesman beau arrives...

-- Pearl's Gone Blue

1894 immigrant prairie bride solo musical.

-- Rachel Calof

Exotic, simple beauty, fully underscored piece!

-- Sanyasi2011

Sometimes it takes a leap of faith.

-- The Seed of Abraham

Only freeform chamber punk cures earworms.

-- Smoke The New Cigarette

Sex positive feminist super hero songstress.

-- The Toughest Girl Alive!

Magic Merriment For Heroes And She-roes!

-- There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly
And Other Heroines That Reach For The Sky!

Soulmates! Satan! Heaven! Rocking rollercoaster romp!

-- Winner Take All (A Rock Opera)

80s Romantic Comedy with Zombie Twist.

-- Zombie Wedding

Other musicals in this year’s Fringe: Araby; Hard Travelin’ with Woody; Hello, My Name Is Billy; Keepers; Le Gourmand or Gluttony!; The Unsung Diva; Top Drawer; Yeast Nation (the triumph of life).