Thursday, January 8, 2015

Festival Show Update: BEATSVILLE

Logo from NAMT Fest '08

Last month, we caught up with alumni Wendy Wilf and Glenn Slater about the development of their 2008 Festival show, Beatsville, and their upcoming production at NYU-Steinhardt this spring.
Greenwich Village, 1959—Playground of bohemians, beatniks and jazzbos. Tragically square Walter Paisley finds that his clay figures, sculpted nudes and papier-mâché busts bring him the acceptance he desperately yearns for. But what if the world discovers that Walter’s body of work consists of actual bodies? A bebop-inflected black comedy/satire.

Beatsville was very well-received after the 2008 Festival so many people would be shocked to hear that it has taken this long for it to finally be seen in the States.  Do you want to talk a bit about why it took a while to get the show off the ground over the last few years? 
We were extremely pleased with Beatsville’s reception at NAMT, but as exciting as the response was, we also knew that we had a lot of work to do before we were ready to move to the next step. Then we hit a unexpected roadblock: a number of Glenn’s other projects all moved towards high-profile productions simultaneously. Every time we began to make real progress on our rewrites, another project demanded his time and attention.  It took a few long and frustrating years before we were able to regain our momentum as a team, but fortunately I was able to keep moving forward on the music and lyrics, writing several new numbers and reworking some of the old ones. When Glenn’s schedule finally eased up, we were able to hit the ground running.

How has the show grown and changed since being at the Festival? 
We loved the version of the show that we brought to NAMT, but as we began our next draft we started running into second-act problems, most of which stemmed from our faithfulness to the source material.  We had to take a big step back and reassess which elements of the original property were integral to our story, and which needed to be rethought and, if possible, improved upon. We also wanted to find ways to heighten the stakesthe story is a sort of whodunit, but since the audience already knows who the murderer is, we realized the tension (and hence the comedy) instead needed to revolve around the mystery of who would catch him, and how. Finally, we had always seen our 1959-set piece as having some satirical points to make about today’s culture, but while our first pass worked as a comedy, we felt the satire wasn’t jelling the way we had hoped. To get to where we wanted to be, we spent a long time looking for ways to make Walter, our main character, feel less passive and to give Carla, our female lead, a strong story arc of her own.  We’ve drawn the supporting characters with much more sharply-etched motivations, and jettisoned a lot of the original source’s second-half story to give our piece a tighter plot and a broader scope. In the process, we’ve also cut a few songs we lovedbut added several new ones that we love even more.

You got a chance to go to Rhinebeck Writers Retreat a couple of years ago to work on the show without the distraction of home life.  What was it like to get away and what work did you do on the show?
Rhinebeck was amazing! As a married couple, we constantly find that our writing time has to compete with the needs of our two sons, so it was pure heaven to have a full week with no distractions. It was perfect timing, too, coming exactly when we needed a kick-start to get back to work on the piece and rekindle our excitement about the changes we knew we had to make. We used the week to flesh out Carla's story arc, and to begin sketching out a new Act II that would take our story in a new and more fertile direction. I made a ton of lyrical changes to bring the Act I songs into sharper focus, and wrote the Act II opening number, and it literally felt like we had breathed new life into the piece; when we left, we knew exactly where we were going. More recently, we had the good fortune to take part in another retreat, at the Weston Playhouse in Vermontanother godsend!  By the time we arrived there, we had all our second-act material in place; by the time we went home, we had thrown out a ton of it, reshuffled a bunch of scenes, and finally solved our last few story problems.

Now the show is ready to be presented in a workshop production at NYU-Steinhardt this spring.  What are you most excited to work on with the show as it gets up on its feet?   
We’ve made a ton of structural changes, and while the piece feels sleeker and sharper on the page, we’re very eager to see how the new material plays on stage.  We’re also very excited to work with the university studentsour characters are the same age as they are, live in the same neighborhood and are grappling with a lot of the same issues: artistic ambition, the pressures of hipster conformity, a yearning for authentic experience. We can’t wait to see what kind of energy they bring to the show!  NYU-Steinhardt has a terrific jazz program as well, so I’ll get an opportunity to work closely with some great young players in honing the newer songs.
Why should people slip in to a black turtle neck and head down to Greenwich Village this spring to catch the Beat(sville)? 
Because it's cool, daddy-o!

For more information about NYU's production of Beatsville or for tickets, please contact John Simpkins at

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