Me: How would you describe your show in one sentence?
Daniel Heath: It's a rock'n'roll musical (based on a Restoration comedy of manners) that is about the quest for true love and true rock in the 1980s.
Me: How did a Restoration comedy inspire a rock musical?
Daniel: How can you tell when someone really loves you? That's a central question in Man of Mode, as the womanizing protagonist churns through three different lovers in the course of a few days. That set of plots and themes transferred directly over to Man of Rock. How is Antoinette supposed to trust that Dorimant really loves her when she's watched him lie to two other women?
Man of Mode had a second parallel theme--how do you know who is truly witty, and who is a fop? In Man of Rock, that parallel way of addressing the broader question of authenticity is mapped onto hair rock--who is the true rock god, and who is just a poser?
That passionate striving for authenticity--and at the same time an obsession with a very stylized surface (e.g., the huge hair in both 1676 and 1986)--connected the two time periods for me. Also, both periods had some interesting gender-bending going on (e.g., male courtiers wore elaborate wigs and make-up during the restoration, while in the 80's hyper-masculine hair-rock singers wore mascara and lip gloss while singing crude songs about banging chicks). In addition, a lot of the action in Man of Mode takes place at the High Mall, and nothing says '80s like a mall.
I tried to take the spirit of the original, with its humor, complex relationships, and witty dialogue, and map it onto a story and characters that would produce a parallel experience for a contemporary audience. That required some plot changes. For one thing, the original is pretty misogynist by contemporary standards, so I had to make some changes to make it fun for me to write, for my actors to act, and for a contemporary audience to watch--but without defanging it completely or losing the things that make the plot work.
Me: Coming from playwriting and songwriting (but not necessarily musical theatre) backgrounds, what was the process like of writing a musical?
Daniel: When I originally started the script, the music was much more secondary; I wasn't even sure there were going to be original songs. I wrote the lyrics to the first song ("Come Down Angel") almost as an exercise. But when my composer Ken Flagg took the lyrics and created this amazing fake 80's song around them, I couldn't stop listening to it--I think I was grinning like an idiot for a week. And as I started to work the songs into the play, I found that I was able to express some emotional and character beats through music more powerfully, and I just love the energetic lift it brings to the show when one of Ken's shredding songs starts up. Now, the songs are completely integral to the show. And even though the songs all take place within the world of the play (that is, characters don't just break into song... all the characters are in bands and during the course of the play those bands play shows), they have major plot/character payoffs like an ordinary musical--and you can really feel the lack of them at a table read.
Me: What has the process been like bringing the show to New York?
Daniel: A crazy, beautiful theatrical tornado. We were able to bring a couple of our amazing original cast from our San Francisco production out with us (Danielle Levin and Lance Gardner), and we filled in the rest of the cast with an outrageously talented team of NY actors (Nick Cordero, Lisa Birnbaum, J. Michael Zygo, and Vanessa Reseland). We've assembled a local production/design team that includes some NYMF veterans (Samantha Saltzman our assistant director and Chris Studley our lighting designer) and some NY-based folks whose work we've seen in San Francisco (set designer Drew Boyce) and other folks who we just recruited for this project (like our music director Karen Dyer and stage manager Heather Arnson).
Theater is always collaborative, and you're always reliant on a large number of other people doing their jobs extremely well. A cross-country production just makes that doubly true--we've been relying very heavily on our local team to know what they're doing, and people have done great work.
For me, it's also just a blast to have a chance to spend five weeks living and working in your city.
Me: What are you most looking forward to about NYMF?
Daniel: You're a playwright, too, so I don't have to tell you how much fun it is (and how much you learn) watching a talented cast rehearse and then eventually perform your piece. I hope the show is great, I hope people love it, I very much hope it goes on to further life after this. But I think what I am looking forward to (and already enjoying) most about NYMF is the practice of making theater. I'm a playwright b/c I ****ing love the being involved in the process of making theater and I love the results--and it's great to get the chance to do it here.