Wednesday, March 21, 2012

New Work in Progress: FEBRUARY HOUSE

An interview with Maria Goyanes, Associate Producer at The Public Theater, about February House by Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley as they prepare to bring the show to New York this May. The show was the recipient of one of our National Fund forNew Musicals Project Development Grants.

About February House: Carson McCullers. Benjamin Britten. W.H. Auden. Gypsy Rose Lee. Visionary and flamboyant editor George Davis transforms a dilapidated Brooklyn boardinghouse into a bohemian commune for these leading lights of 1940s New York. The residents of 7 Middagh Street create a tumultuous and remarkable makeshift family searching for love, inspiration and refuge from the looming war in Europe. Inspired by true events, this powerful and funny newmusical marks the first commission of The Public's Musical Theater Initiative.

Why did The Public Theater decide to commission Gabe and Seth to write February House?
Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of The Public Theater, has known Gabe since his college years at Brown University. They had stayed in touch while Gabe made his way through the music world circuit, putting out a pop album, composing classical pieces and occasionally music directing for the theater. Ted Sperling, when starting The Public's Music Theater Initiative, asked Gabe if he was ready to try his hand at writing a musical. He became The Public's Music Theater Fellow and then pitched the idea of February House, from Sherrill Tippin's book of the same name. When it came to finding a bookwriter, Gabe turned to his old college friend Seth Bockley, who had been making a name for himself as an emerging playwright and director in Chicago.

The Public Theater has been working on the show for a few years in many different readings. How has the show changed since the first reading in 2009?
The show has changed so much—and all for the better! Gabe and Seth always knew that they were making a different kind of musical, a chamber piece of sorts, with 9 leads and no chorus. So much of the development of this piece has been about honing in on the three principals—George Davis, W.H. Auden and Carson McCullers—and their needs for this house, hopes for their art, and the looming war in Europe. Because there is no single protagonist, the piece has been a delicate balance of these three storylines intersecting, influencing and playing off of each other.

This summer the writers had a chance to have a workshop at New York Stage and Film, in collaboration with The Public and supported by our National Fund for New Musicals. How was this process vital to prepare for the productions?
As the piece is set in an old Victorian home in Brooklyn, NY, the house is definitely a main character in the piece. How it comes together, how the characters inhabit the space together —these are key discoveries to be made for the show to be successful. New York Stage and Film was the first time we had the show up on its feet, and we could start to problem solve those ideas. It was invaluable.

The show opened last month at Long Wharf Theatre, in a co-production with The Public, before it heads to NYC in May. What is the importance of this co-production to the show's development trajectory and why was Long Wharf chosen as your partner?
Gordon Edelstein [Long Wharf's Artistic Director] is a great friend and colleague of Oskar Eustis. We shared the piece with him and he has provided incredible dramaturgical support and nurturing for Gabe and Seth. New York is a scary place for a first-time musical—musicals are such complex pieces to get right (and this one more so than others). It felt important to try to elongate the rehearsal process for it with a first stab at a production out-of-town, to learn from the audience and the experience, and then bring it to NYC.

Why should we all head to The Public Theater this May to catch February House?
Gabe is one of the most exciting young composers of the decade. His music is beautiful and haunting and true—this is your chance to see the first musical from an artist who is sure to have an impact on the American theatre for a long time to come.

For more information about February House, please visit

Festival Show Update: BIG RED SUN

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 its music did.

What kind of feedback did you get after the Festival reading of the show?
There was a lot of respect for thework 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.

What are some of the adjustments you have made to the show?
There's been so much! We've consolidated some of the smaller characters and streamlined the cast. There are now only 6 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 newsecond-act song. We've expanded the relationship between Harry and James, a former bandmate of Eddie (the father). We've tried to be very clear and consistent in how we use the flashbacks. 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 (UNL) this weekend. How did that reading come about?
The head of the musical theatre program at UNL, Alisa Belflower, and I have been email acquaintances since 2006. Last August, Alisa wrote me to say that her school had received 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 the NAMT Festival in 2010. Since I live in L.A. 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 having student voices on the work?
Musical theatre 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?
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 this past weekend) 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.

What do you need next?
We have now done developmentalwork 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 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—6 actors, probably 5 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 30 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 x36or