About a year ago I got a phone call from Paulette Haupt, a producer in New York who runs the O’Neill National Musical Theatre Conference. She asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece for a new series she was creating called INNER VOICES. She described the project as kind of a musical version of Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads,” saying she wondered what would happen if she commissioned writers to write musical monologues. One actor, alone on stage for 30-40 minutes. One or two musicians. Those were the parameters. Go.
Paulette suggested I might want to meet Cheri Steinkellner, a writer based on the west coast (as I am). Cheri’s credits are impressive: in addition to having SISTER ACT currently running on London’s West End, she wrote a musical called PRINCESSES, a movie called TEACHER’S PET and a little TV show called CHEERS. Yeah, okay, I’ll meet her. We had coffee and she pitched me an idea about a woman keeping a video blog. As the woman talked into the computer, the images she saw on her screen would be projected onto an upstage wall. The woman would be archiving her life and at a certain point in the show we’d realize she was pregnant, and she was archiving for her unborn child with the fear that she might not be there to watch the child grow up. It was a great start and it made me excited to think about working with her.
This idea ultimately became MOSAIC, and we spent the fall of 2009 writing it. The first draft Cheri sent me was about seven pages long… this happens, then this happens, then there’s a song, then this happens, etc. And we carved away at it, adding lyrics and music and reshaping the dialogue until we had a version that was about 35 minutes long. We flew to New York, and with Cheri at her computer and me at the piano, we played it for Paulette, who cried at the end. Success.
Paulette was pulling all the details together for the Off-Broadway production, and the other piece she’d commissioned was written by composer Josh Schmidt and playwright David Simpatico. (Their piece is called WHIDA PERU.) Director Jonathan Butterell was examining both pieces, trying to find things about them that linked them together. If you know me, and you know Josh, you can see what a challenge that might have been. I have really gotten to know Josh and his work through this process, and I think he’s an astounding musician and an inspiring composer, but as he said to me during the rehearsal process, “We don’t even breathe the same musical air.”
Cheri and I, along with Paulette and Jonathan, began talking about casting and all came to the conclusion that the piece would be a natural fit for Heidi Blickenstaff. We made an offer and hoped she’d say yes. Thrillingly, she did. Steve Marzullo, a friend and colleague I respect and admire but had never worked with, agreed to music direct. We found Simon Kafka to play the guitar parts, which then meant I had to write guitar parts. We were off and running.
Creative team in place, we rehearsed in New York for the month of March and ran for sixteen performances in April at Primary Stages, housed in 59 East 59th Street Theater. The rehearsal process was pretty standard, I suppose, except it was exhausting for Heidi never having anyone else as a scene partner. And the piece asked her to get very emotional and very personal. She’s a total rock star, because she did it all, sometimes crying her way through rehearsal (often making everyone else in the room cry, too), sometimes screaming, trying things, rejecting them, keeping them, elaborating on them, challenging us to make our work specific and correct. Meanwhile, our director Jonathan had such a respect for the writing, for the actor’s process, for making the rehearsal room a safe space where risks can be taken and process can grow. He is musical. He is thoughtful. He is organized. Cheri and I have made a few small changes at his request, but really the overall sense in the room has been that the script has something to say and it’s everyone’s job to honor it and bring it to life. Ooooohhhhhh what a treat it is to have so much space to grow.
And then we teched, and then we opened, and then we got reviewed, and then we closed. It was a quick chapter, the birth of this little piece. My very favorite thing about the process, and what I say when anyone asks me, is that it was a thrill to be commissioned to write a piece and then get to see it come to life. We didn’t get stuck in development. We didn’t have seven hundred readings. We didn’t have to fire anyone. There were no legal battles or personality conflicts. We just wrote it, and Paulette just did it. For giving me THAT experience on my first Off-Broadway show, I will always be grateful. Thanks, all.
P.S. In the works… We plan to write a companion piece to MOSAIC: our own second act. We’ve recorded three of the songs with Heidi, which I hope to release on my next album. And the sheet music to those three songs is available here (“Not Yet”) and here (“You Never Know”) and here (“Lullaby”).
MOSAIC (part of INNER VOICES)
written by CHERI STEINKELLNER and GEORGIA STITT
starring HEIDI BLICKENSTAFF
directed by JONATHAN BUTTERELL
music direction and piano STEVE MARZULLO
guitar SIMON KAFKA
produced by PAULETTE HAUPT and PRIMARY STAGES at 59 East 59th Street
producing associate SUSAN ELLIOT
stage manager BOB BENNETT
assistant stage manager AARON GONZALES
costume and set design DANE LAFFREY
lighting design JENNIFER SCHRIEVER
sound design TOBY ALGYA
video design ROCCO DISANTI