From the newsletter of the National Alliance for Musical Theater. Interview with Branden Huldeen, New Works Director.
An interview with Georgia Stitt, composer of Big Red Sun (written with John Jiler), about the many changes to the show since being in the Festival in 2010.
A New Synopsis: BIG RED SUN is the story of a family of musicians. Eddie and Helen Daimler were great swing musicians in the 1940s, but now in the early 1960s their teenage son Harry, a budding songwriter himself, lives alone with his mother and writes songs about his great war-hero father. In an effort to write more truthfully, Harry unearths a dark family secret. World War II carved a silent divide between those who fought and those who waited – a truth unshared. In a few short years, the simple melodies of Kern and Berlin were replaced by the dizzying energy of jazz and the beginnings of rock and roll. This is the story of a family that changed as much as their music did.
What kind of feedback did you get after the Festival reading of the show?
There was a lot of respect for the work we had done, lots of compliments, but we did not get many offers to continue its development. John Jiler (book/lyrics) and I talked quite a bit about how it seemed like we had written a show that people admired intellectually but perhaps were not moved by. One producer we met mentioned the concept of the “skin-jump,” the idea that there’s a point in the show that’s so compelling that you want to jump out of your own skin to be in the world of the show. We wanted BIG RED SUN to do that, but we realized maybe we hadn’t yet written it.
The show has been undergoing rewrites lately. What are some of the adjustments you are making to the show?
There’s been so much! We’ve consolidated some of the smaller characters and streamlined the cast. There are now only six actors required — 4 men and 2 women. We’ve activated the son (Harry), making him a songwriter, a young Bob Dylan-type. In the last few months we’ve also really fleshed out the character of the mother (Helen), giving her a big new second act song. We’ve expanded the relationship between Harry and James, a former band mate of Eddie (the father). We’ve tried to be very clear and consistent in how we use the flashbacks. And specifically in the music, we’ve cut down much of the pastiche stuff, the diegetic songs, to make sure that the “style” music is always being used to tell the story. Making Harry a songwriter was a great discovery, because in a way, his voice could be my voice and I wasn’t limited to the vocabularies of the 1940s and the 1960s, though that music is still very present in the show.
You just finished a workshop/reading at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln) this weekend. How did that reading come about?
The head of the musical theater program at UNL is Alisa Belflower, and she and I have been email acquaintances since about 2006. Last August, Alisa wrote me to say that her school had just received some funding to produce a developmental reading for a new musical, preferably a book musical, and she wondered if I might have something to submit. BIG RED SUN was the piece of mine that best fit her parameters, and John Jiler and I were in need of a deadline to undertake the rewrite we had been thinking about since NAMT 2010. Since I live in LA and John lives in NYC, we are always thrilled to have a chance to work in the same room. We did more work on the show in the three weeks leading up to the reading than we had done in the six months prior.
What did you learn from student voices on the work?
Musical theater students are about as passionate as they get. UNL had some of the most fantastic voices we’ve ever heard, but their strengths tend more toward legit singing than pop. I learned that not all of the references we use in the show (Bob Dylan, The Andrews Sisters, klezmer music, the can-can, be-bop) are as well-known as I thought they were. I’m putting more information into the score, more hints about how musically to accomplish the various styles. And of course, the questions the students ask are revealing, too. If they’ve been staring at the script and they don’t understand how they got from point A to point B, then you can be sure an audience won’t understand it either.
What are your next steps for the show in the writing process?
We came home from Nebraska with a to-do list, several things that we’re hoping to fix in the next week or two. We have to consolidate our notes from this reading (which was only yesterday!) and process which fixes we want to do immediately and which fixes should wait until we’re actually working with a cast and a director. We’ll have to re-demo a few of the songs, and I often learn about the music by orchestrating and recording it.
Elevator pitch—What do you guys need next?
We have now done developmental work at the New York ASCAP Workshop (where we won the Harold Arlen Award), TheatreWorks Palo Alto, Oklahoma City University, the NAMT festival and the University of Nebraska. We finally have a script and score that reflect the story we want to tell. Next, we really want a rehearsal process and a run. Much of this show requires visual storytelling — a physical concept (lights, costumes, space) of how we move from present tense to past. We need age-appropriate actors and an actual audience. A chance to see the show more than once. It’s a small show — six actors, probably five musicians (piano, acoustic/electric bass, acoustic/electric guitar, drums, and a reed doubler). John and I figure if we get to sit in an audience and watch it thirty times we can make it magical.
If you want more information about Big Red Sun, contact Bruce Miller at Washington Square Arts, (212) 253-0333 x36 or [email protected].