Thursday, March 1, 2012

Star Blazers: An Interview with Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda

I am so excited to share the following interview with songwriting team (and husband and wife real-life team) Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda after their memorable performances at the NYMF/ASCAP Showcase last fall. I first heard of Brendan and Valerie in connection to their band, GrooveLily, whose musical, Striking 12, is celebrated at theaters across the country every holiday season, but I am especially excited about some of their upcoming projects, including Valerie's solo show, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, and their autobiographical musical, Wheelhouse. Just watch the epic video of "This Sucks" below for a taste of some things to come. So, without further ado, here are some of the insights they so graciously shared with me about their collaborations and new works:

Me: Your band, GrooveLily, made a name for itself in the musical theatre world, first with Striking 12 and now with various other projects. Was musical theatre always a natural progression for GrooveLily?

Brendan Milburn: I actually wrote musicals in high school and college, and came to NYC to attend the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Program. But after my first year at NYU, I met Valerie and fell hard for her--and fell hard for the deceptive simplicity of what she was doing: getting friends together to sing and play her songs, writing a song in the afternoon, and then premiering it in front of a pass-the-hat audience at the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village that night. It seemed so immediate, and so fun, and so carefree.

In addition, I was 22 when I met Val. I didn't know my ass from my elbow, professionally speaking. The idea that it might take FIVE YEARS to get a musical from conception to its first production seemed like an AEON to me. And that it would have to involve PRODUCERS and DIRECTOR and CHOREOGRAPHER and ALL THESE INVESTORS and man, it just seemed the opposite of the "hey, kids, let's put on a show" vibe that I had been a part of in high school and college. And Valerie's band seemed to be a way forward that was easier. So after I graduated from NYU, I turned my back on writing musicals for seven or eight years.

Let me state for the record: trying to make it in a rock band is *not* easier than trying to make it as a musical theatre composer.

Valerie Vigoda: I think that, in retrospect, it looks like a natural progression from rock band, to rock band that does concert-musicals, to writers of musical theatre where we're not performing at all. (As if we knew what we were doing! As if we had a plan! :)

But it has felt, at times, like we were groping around in the dark, veering wildly from one extreme to another, until we finally hit upon something that really resonated with a lot of people: Striking 12.

Really, in hindsight, we should have figured it out a little sooner - I mean, we would do showcases for record industry people, and over and over they would tell us, “I really like your music - it’s refreshing, original, inventive, hooky - but it’s a little too theatrical. Too Broadway. I can’t help you.” And we would try to change our sound, to fit into more of a radio-friendly, poppier sound format - but it never quite worked out that way. It wasn’t until we basically gave up and said, “okay, we’re too Broadway for the music industry - so let’s just BE what we naturally are and start doing some theatre already” - and then doors started to open, and it started to feel like we were finding our niche - figuring out where we belong in the world.

It’s unfortunate that wisdom doesn’t come more easily. Doh!


Me: With the blending of genres, from rock music to concert-musicals, from more traditional musicals to solo pieces, how do you guys personally define what qualifies as 'musical theatre'?

Brendan: As long as people periodically sing instead of speaking, and as long as there is character and conflict, then I think it qualifies as musical theater. Some people would probably say you don't even need conflict--or character--but for me, that would be going too far.

For me this definition encompasses Show Boat, Guys and Dolls, Hair, American Idiot, and a concert performance of Striking 12 in a club. As long as the performers and the audience agree to agree that characters are being portrayed and their thoughts and feelings are being sung, then it's musical theatre.

Val: What he said! I think that more and more, the adjective “musical-theatre” as applied to a *style* of singing will become meaningless, since it can comprise really any style - and, I hope, that also means it will return to being more pop, as in popular on a more mainstream, massive scale. (Hooray for musical theatre on major TV shows, for instance.)


Me: I know Valerie keeps a blog with videos of new music-- what has the process been like sharing your work through social media?

Val: Initially I’ve been very cautious about the whole Pandora’s box of social media, because I tend to be pretty type A and I see it as one huge potential time/energy vortex that if I’m not careful could take over my life and pull me away from what I really want to be doing, which is singing and playing and writing! But I've been truly thrilled by the response to the videos I've put up, and am starting to embrace the possibilities here and am even beginning to see how it can be fun. It is a fantastic, incredible time to be an independent musician and theatre artist.

A little background: after Brendan and I had a kid (and after Gene, our drummer, had two kids!), our touring schedule has had to lighten up a bit to make room for family. But I've kept yearning to get back out there and perform more, and that was the impetus behind Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (my solo musical) and my concerts where I do the entire show myself with violin, vocals, and Ableton Live.

So I've put up videos of me doing cover songs and some original material, and people from all over the world have been reaching out and telling me how much they enjoy it, sharing ideas, asking questions about how I'm doing it, and mostly just sending appreciation from Argentina and Norway and all over. It's pretty wonderful.


Me: Especially after hearing "This Sucks" at the NYMF/ASCAP event, I'm very excited about Ernest Shackleton Love Me. What was the inspiration behind this particular show? How far along are you in development?

Val: Brendan has been gently pressuring me to do solo work since about 2003. We had some autobiographical ideas for a solo show for me, and we started developing some…but then we saw some solo autobiographical musical theatre pieces that made us cringe. I wasn’t interested in doing an exposé on my family history, or a memoir kind of thing really at all. I wanted to do something epic! But what would that be? So we put the idea on the back burner for a while.

In 2007, Steve Spiegel from Theatrical Rights Worldwide introduced us to Joe DiPietro (Memphis; I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change) and told us we should probably write together. We invited Joe over for dinner and the conversation led, as it does, to what kinds of things we might want to work on.

Brendan explained about the idea of a solo musical for me, but I made it clear we didn't want it to be autobiographical. I wanted something different, something really exciting and epic…I don't know, like a one-woman show about Ernest Shackleton. (It was the most far-fetched idea I could think of - but exactly the heroic against-all-odds story that makes my heart sing)

"Who's Ernest Shackleton?" asked Joe.

So we proceeded to give him the Cliffs Notes version of Shackleton's story, along with a few random tidbits of information about my and Brendan's courtship…we happened to mention that Shackleton insisted on bringing a banjo along on the expedition, and Joe immediately said “that’s it! That’s our way in to the story!”...and a week later Joe emailed us a nine-page treatment. And it was great. It was an amalgam of a fictionalized version of my early courtship with Brendan mixed with Shackleton. It was hilarious, and moving, and inspiring.

And a month after that, he emailed us a 60-page script, with dummy lyrics where he thought songs should go.

We talked to TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley, where we'd done some development on our shows Striking 12 and Wheelhouse, and they ended up commissioning it, in conjunction with La Jolla Playhouse. We managed to get our first draft of the entire score (including a 30-minute non-stop song cycle of Shackleton's Endurance Voyage, which is the centerpiece of the show) done in a month, and workshopped the piece at TheatreWorks in 2008 and La Jolla Playhouse in 2010. Independent producer Matthew Kwatinetz is now attached, and the plan is to take it to a couple of regional theaters before bringing it Off-Broadway.


Me: What are the challenges of writing a solo musical? For Valerie, what are you most excited about being able to perform this piece?

Val: It’s definitely a challenge to make sure I get little moments to stop singing/talking throughout the 90-minute show...and Joe has been incredibly smart about that, using the idea of people calling me on the phone and leaving messages (including songs) to create some vocal interest, differentiation and water breaks!

It’s also challenging with a one-person musical to create visual interest - lucky for us it’s kind of built in to our piece in two ways: 1 - Kat, the character I play, is a video-game-music composer, and the set is her studio, with lots of different instruments all over the place in different “stations” on the stage, with computers and Ableton Live running so I can loop the various parts I play on various instruments, with plenty of physical activity and motion from place to place; and 2 - the centerpiece of the show, which is the Shackleton story, is accompanied by projections of the actual photos and video footage taken on the journey in the Antarctic in 1914-1917. They are stunning, and haunting, and we can’t wait to get to work putting all these elements together...that is our task for the next workshop (July 2012, at Seattle Rep)!


Me: What else are you guys working on? Any other plugs?

Val: We’re about to do the world premiere of Wheelhouse (our autobiographical musical about our band and the disastrous period of time when we ditched everything to live and tour in a used RV) - rehearsals start May 11, and the run is June 6 - July 1 at TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley, in the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. We’re very excited about this show - bringing the band back together to work on something new, like we did with Striking 12 nearly ten years ago! Here’s the link.

And Sleeping Beauty Wakes continues apace...after this year’s productions at McCarter Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, and we now have commercial producers attached. We’re about to head to NYC for another round of rewrites, we’re doing a concert of the score on March 16 at Wolf Trap Barns in Virginia.


Me: In speaking of Wheelhouse, what's it like working on a show that's autobiographical? How did you approach the subject matter as a group?

Brendan: It's remarkably painful to dredge up the past and try to turn it into a show. Especially in light of everything we've said so far about our wariness vis-a-vis autobiographical shows...but the events that make up the story of Wheelhouse took place in 2000, 2001, and 2002...and with ten years of history since then, we have the perspective and enough accumulated wisdom to look back on our stupid younger selves with more humor and less pain. Wheelhouse is about the time when the band almost broke up, and me and Val's marriage almost broke up, all because I convinced everybody that Val and I should ditch all our possessions and move into a used RV. Which promptly died. After three months. Leaving us stranded, homeless, and without a way to get to gigs to earn money to buy a new engine for the RV.

We started writing the piece back in 2004 and 2005, after Striking 12 got off the ground. We approached it as a group, actually, with all three of us in the band (including our drummer, Gene Lewin) writing songs separately and together, and picking what worked and throwing away what didn't...but we put the project on a back burner in late 2005 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that we didn't yet have enough perspective on the events in question to be open and honest about them.

I think some of our best songs are in Wheelhouse, and while it's certainly not the likeliest candidate for Broadway and super-stardom, it's a piece we're very very fond of. We are thrilled that it's actually getting a production this year; the people at Theatreworks of Silicon Valley see enough universality in our very specific tale to warrant putting it into their season.

Val: I agree completely with Bren's answer...and will only add that the combination of a decade of distance from the events of Wheelhouse and ten years of seasoning as writers I think is helping us a great deal. (Was that a sentence?)

With the distance we are more able to poke fun at ourselves without trying too hard to be self-protective...and with the seasoning we are more able to be ruthless about throwing things away that aren't working - whether they are songs, attempts at humor or in some cases, too much biographical truthfulness instead of something more dramatic!

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