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My two weeks at Goodspeed

I've recently come back from spending two weeks at the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut.  East Haddam is this picturesque little town with a population of just over 9,000 that is the home of the Goodspeed Opera House, which specializes in mounting revivals of classic musicals as well as new work.  The theater built new housing recently, mainly for actors and artists who are staying there while working on one of the shows in Goodspeed's annual season. But for about a month in the winter, there are no shows being mounted, and the housing is instead given over to writers of new musicals. There are no "rules" for those accepted into the colony, other than to simply write.  Breakfast is offered every morning, and all the writers gather each evening to share what they've been working on -- if they care to -- but none of that is compulsory.  There is also a dramaturg on hand if you wish to discuss your show with someone knowledgeable about structure and other tenants of musical theatre writing.  

All collaborative writing teams are given their own house to live and work in for two weeks. Since I was writing alone, I was given my own one-bedroom apartment above another one-bedroom apartment that also housed a solo writer.

So who were these other writers?  


Living below me was Mark Sonnenblick, who I referred to on more than one occasion as a "beautiful genius of musical theatre."  He is working on an original show about (in part) opioid addiction which has electronic-based music that is so achingly beautiful it can bring you to tears.  Look for his show, DEVOTION, in the future because it is sure to be stunning.  

Drew Gasparini and Alex Brightman were working on IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, based on a film and book of the same name.  Forever performing and forever cracking jokes at the drop of a hat, they were the colony's "bad boys." But looking past their aggressive facades, it was clear right away that Brightman is a cracker-jack book writer, penning scene after scene with wit and economy, and Gasparini can write pop hooks that stick in your head and haunt you for days.  

Janet Allard and Niko Tsakalakos were doing an adaptation of the book INTO THE WILD.  She writes smart and deeply emotional scenes that match his soaring rock score.  A great team -- and also incredibly nice and generous people.

June Rachelson Ospa and Peppy Castro were working on a concert version of the Book of Genesis titled ROCK THE BIBLE that is going to end up filling rock stadiums around the country, mark my words.  These two have boundless energy and all of it is positive beyond belief. Great people!

Joel Derfner and Dan Marshall brought in songs and scenes from their show, WILDE/WHITMAN, about the historic meetings between legendary writers Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman.  These two have wit coming out of their ears.  I'm in awe of what they can do.

Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie were visiting from Glasgow, Scotland and were affectionately referred to as "The Scots."  Young, sweet, open-hearted and just all-around lovely, these two charmed their way into the hearts of everyone at the Colony.  Writing an original musical, A SILENT MAN, based on the true life of a mute New York man who passed away a couple years ago, they came to the Colony with nothing and left with nearly a complete first act.  


Benjamin Halstead and Nikko Benson were there putting the finishing touches on their electronic musical, NIKOLA TESLA DROPS THE BEAT, about the famed inventor.  So fresh, smart, and up-to-the-minute contemporary, their show is going to be a big ole hit.


Finally, there were the "bros" -- Daniel and Patrick Lazour, very young and talented brothers creating an original musical about the development of chemotherapy titled BETHESDA. Writing their songs on guitar, they bring integrity and quiet experimentation to all they touch.  


Two weeks went by like two months.  It was a gift to be able to focus exclusively on my writing without the distractions of my survival job and New York City craziness.  I was there to work on my new original musical, THE CLEARING, a four-hander about two couples whose lives are changed forever when they meet one afternoon in a clearing in the woods.  I made great progress.  And of course, I became quickly attached to my fellow writers -- as well as colony producer (and writer) Jonathan Brielle, dramaturg Christopher Lee Johnson III, Goodspeed Line producer Donna Lynn Hilton, and colony coordinators Amanda Kate Joshi and Eric Mattingly.  I created the following song and video for my fellow artists on our last night together.  Watch it and you can get a quick glimpse of the magic that was the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony 2017...


The inspiration for Monroe's show

Several years ago, I was riding the subway here in New York and sharing my car was a tourist family who looked to me to be visiting from the Midwest.  The father, a nice-looking, straight-laced type, kept stealing side glances at me while pretending to be involved in a conversation with his wife.  It certainly seemed as though he was checking me out, sort of covertly cruising, and hoping his family wouldn’t notice.  And it struck me how agonizing it must be to be heavily entrenched in one life while longing to be living another.  I mentally filed it away, as we writers do, thinking it was an interesting character.  A few years later, I picked up a copy of several short plays by Neil LaBute which all took place in the front seat of a car, under the title AUTOBAHN.  I thought to myself, wouldn’t that be an interesting setting for a musical?  I began playing around with storylines, originally thinking it would be a series of unrelated vignettes played by a small ensemble of actors (similar in style to A.R. Gurney’s THE DINING ROOM).  But suddenly, there was that character from the subway ride a few years earlier.  He announced himself so insistently, that I felt I owed him the entire show.  And suddenly the idea of setting his story entirely inside the front seat of a car wasn’t simply a gimmick, but a stage picture of his struggle, his longing to escape, and the mode of transportation by which he would ultimately do it.


As this was forming, I happened to see an interview with Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who famously served six years in prison for her affair with a 12-year-old male student.  At the time of the interview, she was now married to that student (who was now a young man) and they were raising their two children together.  While not condoning the rape of an innocent minor, I was nevertheless struck by what clearly seemed to be a true bond between these two people.  And I felt that if I could somehow, through writing, reveal the very human element of a similarly “sordid” story, and actually have an audience rooting for an illicit couple who they would otherwise judge and condemn, they’d be thrown into an interesting emotional and moral grey area.  And I liked the idea of that very much.  And so, out of these various influences / inspirations, came DRIVE.


Working on DRIVE has been a challenge.  Setting the entire show inside and around that car has meant that I’ve had to make clear any action that takes place outside that car through a ton of exposition in each scene – and still make it feel as if the show is moving forward all the time with economy.  Also, the constraints of that car dictated there can be only two people in each scene, yet I’ve had to keep alive the arcs of five characters throughout (for example, I wanted to establish that Ellis and his daughter have always had a close relationship, yet they only actually have one scene together – the one where we see that their relationship is possibly irrevocably damaged – so I had to infer the strength of their prior relationship through other conversations so the audience might somehow still feel the loss of that relationship when we see them together for the first time).  I hope these choices pay off -- if not on a conscious level , then at least on a subliminal one -- when DRIVE is presented in front of an audience.

Read more about DRIVE 

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