WE WON! I’m so happy to be able to announce here that the original musical I’ve been writing for … oh, EVER… has just won a contest in Los Angeles. Years, truly YEARS, after I had an idea to write a show about a town that survives a flood, I find myself still working on it, rewriting things that we’ve never quite gotten right. That’s what I was doing this afternoon — rewriting that damn cemetery scene AGAIN — and I figured maybe it was time to post about it here.
A little history. Back in the late 90s, after I finished grad school at NYU but before too much else had happened, I met this pair of writers that I really liked. Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko had hired me to music direct a show of theirs at this black box space in SoHo, and at the time I was just starting out in the city. I made most of my living by music directing a children’s theater so being hired to work with adults was a real step up for me. It’s funny to think about it now because it was really such a different time in my life. I don’t think I even owned a piano yet, and I was managing to give coachings out of my apartment using an electronic keyboard and these tiny little speakers. (There will be karmic payback for that, someday, I’m sure.) But I was happy to have the job and the credit and I enjoyed being in rehearsal with these people who were smart and funny and completely inappropriate at every possible opportunity.
My friend Clay had mentioned an essay to me that was written by John McPhee and published in his book The Control of Nature about how the US Army Corps of Engineers tried (in the 1950s) to divert the flow of the Mississippi River for the purposes of flood control. (This was pre-Katrina, of course, and none of us knew how prescient the writer was.) The book description on amazon.com says “The Control of Nature is John McPhee’s bestselling account of places where people are locked in combat with nature.” I thought, ‘now there’s a subject I could spend years considering: man vs. nature.’ I was (and still am) particularly interested in how each new generation tries to come up with a plan to beat Mother Nature at her own game and each generation uniquely fails. You plug up this leak over here and suddenly there’s water springing forth over there, unexpectedly and completely out of your control. What a great idea for a musical!
Unfortunately, musicals are built on CHARACTERS, not IDEAS, and so it took us a few years of writing about nature and floods and damns to find out that our story was actually about a few (fictional) people in this small (fictional) town in Missouri which is built on the (fictional) Onkeeton River. We wrote a draft of it that was read at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. We did rewrites. Based on those rewrites, we got a workshop at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. I remember director Robert Kelley pulling his hair out trying to get all those people on and off stage for the opening number. (It’s been cut.) We learned so much about our show there, and as soon as the workshop was over we did another set of rewrites. Based on those rewrites, we got our first full production at the University of Michigan, under the direction of Brent Wagner. He was a godsend to us — a champion of the piece who was willing to spend weeks rehearsing it and untold hours of his time asking us challenging questions. (“When Rebecca and Will enter, how long have they been together? When Maddy says “quite bright,” what is she seeing?”) The cast and crew at Michigan pulled off a gorgeous production. Check out some of their photos as well as a program from the performances here. Really, they’re lovely and you get a real sense of the way the show looked.
Of course, we came home from that production and did an unbelievably huge rewrite that took the bigger portion of a year to complete. And now, at last, we have a new (again) version of the show. We’ve re-written all of the big numbers in the show and several of the solos and duets. The new version is the one we submitted a few months ago to the Academy of New Musical Theater in Los Angeles (ANMT) and they chose our piece as the first prize winner of their Search for New Voices in American Musical Theatre. Our next reading is scheduled for May and there is to be a concert presentation of the show in Los Angeles this fall.
So, today, I was back at the piano, going through the score, making sure everything that’s in the new script is properly notated in the score. It would really be great if this opportunity was the thing that allowed our show finally to build some momentum. It would be even greater if this opportunity solidified a relationship for us with a director who had bold ideas about where to take it next. It would be even greater than that if this opportunity leads to a full production and we can finally see our show with the diverse and heartbreaking cast we always intended to showcase. However, if there’s anything I’ve learned through the experience of writing this show, it’s that some things are just beyond our human control.