Cast Recordings to Listen To After Hamilton Has Blown Your Mind Twenty Five Times- Part One

0245_151205_ARTCometDressEESo okay. Let’s get the agreed-upon bits out of the way first: the cast recording to Hamilton is a game-changer, an instant classic, and also a highly addictive listen that keeps its emotional punch through numerous consecutive plays. But what do you do after you’ve listened to it so often that you (as I did this morning) wake up wondering what the French phrase “casse-toi” in Lafayette’s first rap means? Here’s my first of four blogs about other cast recordings that scratch that same itch in different but still satisfying ways, as well as one that, on the surface, is pretty much the antithesis of Hamilton- a thoroughly traditional book musical- but manages to subvert the form in new and dangerous ways.

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

If Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is, as some suggest, the Second Coming of musical theatre, then Natasha, Pierre is John the Baptist. In 2013, two years before Hamilton would begin its initial run at the Public Theater, Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin set up a giant tent in the New York’s Meatpacking District, created a 19th century Russian supper club inside, and set their actors loose in and around the audience in this immersive electro-rock opera based on a 70 page sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One could certainly make that case that Natasha, Pierre’s use of anachronistic dance and hip hop beats to tell a story of love and honor from long ago helped to pave the way for Hamilton’s ecstatic reception by critics and audiences.

But in other ways, Natasha, Pierre remains a bit more prickly and experimental. Malloy hews to the language of the novel so faithfully that he throws out rhyme scheme altogether for about two thirds of the score. It’s a striking effect that gives the songs a real sense of danger, freedom, and complexity, but also keeps them from sticking in your head as easily as Miranda’s skillful couplets. Still, Malloy’s work has its own distinct pleasures, mixing a multitude of styles – a bit of Russian folk here, a Lilith Fair guitar ballad there, a crazy Tom Waits-esque stomper just to keep things interesting- to achieve very clear, memorable voices for each character, and his use of electronic beats is thoughtful and dramaturgically satisfying (they enter with a particular character, and leave with him, too).

One of the things that sets Dave Malloy’s creation apart is its incredible collection of roles for women. Miranda makes a concerted effort to give his female cast more to do than just pine and fall in love, and the last song of Hamilton is a real triumph in that regard, but the story he’s working with demands that the Schulyer sisters are kept mostly to the side of the main thrust of the narrative, and he’s very smart about how much he can fight against that restriction without stalling the progress of Alexander’s journey. Malloy’s source material, however, gives him all sorts of room to create powerful roles for women, and he does so with relish. Natasha is a powerhouse of a lead role, and though she starts off as a lovesick ingenue, the journey she goes on is not the one the audience is probably expecting. Sonia also has a surprisingly satisfying arc, (and gets what’s probably the best song in the show. At least, it’s one of the ones I find most consistently moving.) And the supporting roles of Marya, Helene and Princess Mary are each rich with their own distinct musical moments and complexities.

My favorite part of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, though, is its deceptively simple plot. As opposed to Hamilton’s epic rags-to-riches-to-disgrace narrative, Natasha, Pierre looks through a smaller lens, and basically consists of a studious man’s midlife crisis juxtaposed with a young woman’s first teenage explosion of love and sexuality – with all the confusion and impaired decision making that goes with both stages of life. While both wild and bombastic in places, Malloy’s score has the guts to climax with a quiet moment, and in the end, the show becomes a testimony to the power of one simple, humane act of kindness and empathy. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 may be less instantly catchy than the breakout success that took some of its innovations to a different, more audience-friendly level, but it more than rewards the time and attention it asks of its listeners. Check it out.

Hamilton fan bonus: Want to hear more of Philippa Soo, Hamilton’s Eliza? Well, you can, ’cause she sings the role of Natasha on the cast recording, and yes, she’s just as brilliant here.

Here’s some video if you feel like diving down the rabbit hole.

 

So This Is A Thing That Is Happening Now…

I just checked my computer for verification, and it tells me that I created the document that eventually became An Invitation Out on Wednesday, December 9th, 2009. Which means I’ve been working on this script in some form or other for a little over five years now, hoping that one day it would fully exist. See, just like a tadpole is not yet a frog, a script is not yet a play. There is still more growing to do, a few more appendages to acquire. You can dot the last i, type out the final stage direction, but you didn’t write those words to be read. You wrote them to be seen and heard, and for that you need other people.

Deanna Jent read one of the earliest drafts of my script back in 2011. At the time, it was precisely one bazillion and eight pages long, and full of ideas that were interesting in theory, but pretty much a mess in practice. Yet even in that state, she saw something in the sprawl, believed in it, and decided to take a chance on me. In the summer of 2013, she had someone unexpectedly drop out of a playwriting seminar she was teaching, and invited me to fill the empty slot so I could work on the script in the company of other playwrights. It was perfect timing. I’d essentially been working in a vacuum, and had reached the end of where I could take the script alone in a room by myself. 8 weeks later, I walked out of that classroom with a completely new ending, a tighter focus on what the story was, and a host of connections with actual human beings. Deanna said she might be interested in producing it for Mustard Seed Theatre if I’d be open to making some more revisions. I kept at it, and in early 2014, I got the official good news: the play I’d been working to see onstage for what seemed like ages would be a part of Mustard Seed’s 2014/2015 season. At the very end of it. So, four years of waiting down, one to go.

For most of the last year, this upcoming production hasn’t seemed quite real. I’d spent so much time thinking about it that it became more of a fuzzy idea that people would ask me about occasionally, a theory rather than a tangible fact. But then, early this February, we had the first cast read-thru. I entered the theater, and there it was – the tables pushed together with clusters of chairs around it, the stack of scripts, the pencils, the cups of coffee – all the signs of a rehearsal process. Suddenly, there were tech people talking about how on earth to make the things I’d written actually work, the sounds of actors chatting in the lobby. Then Nicole came in – an actor and good friend who’s been in both of the other shows of mine that have been performed so far. On the way to her seat, she gave me a huge hug, and just like that, it didn’t seem like only a script anymore. A play was coming together. With my arms around her, it finally flashed through my mind. “So this is a thing that is happening now.”

March 24th was our first rehearsal. Before the actors arrived, Maggy and Katie – our S.M. and A.D. – snuck me into the theater where our crew were already hard at work on the set. It seemed gigantic. Even in pieces, it was already grander than I had imagined. I just stood there and stared at it all until Maggy asked me what I thought, bringing me back to lucidity. All I could stutter out was “All of this is here because of something I wrote down on a piece of paper once.” The implications of that seemed enormous, but Maggy and Katie just smiled.

A script is not yet a play. You can dot the last i, type out the final stage direction, but it doesn’t become real until other people pour in their talents, their time, their passion even when it’s very difficult work. “This is a thing that is happening now.” But it doesn’t happen alone.

Bet on the Kiss

One of the secret pleasures of writing your own plays is that you get to use them as a way to try and fix the things that annoy you in other people’s plays. Case in point: As I’ve often mentioned, I’m a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, and his works were a major influence on my play, “An Invitation Out,” but something he did in one of his early comedies has always bugged me.

At the end of Act One of “A Woman of No Importance,” witty Mrs. Allonby challenges the dandyish Lord Illingworth to kiss a visiting American puritan named Hester Worsley, and Illingworth gladly accepts. But once the challenge is made, Illingworth and Hester are never actually onstage at the same time, no tension is built, and their tete-a-tete happens entirely offstage. Hester just runs on yelling about how she’s been terribly insulted, other plot mechanics kick in, and that’s pretty much the end of it. Which has always struck me as a huge missed opportunity. There was an interesting scene that happened out of our view, I was sure of it, and the fact that I would never get to see it continued to irk me every time I picked up the play. But as I worked on “Invitation,” I noticed that a few of my characters had some surface resemblance to Wilde’s trio – there was the witty young lady, the dandyish gentleman, the awkward outsider in their midst – and I suddenly realized I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to write my own version of the scene I’d been dying to read for years.

I started with the same basic situation – the lady bets the dandy he can’t get a kiss out of the outsider – but since the similarities between our characters were superficial at best, my dandy’s attempt to get that kiss became a much different scene than the one between Hester and Lord Illingworth that I’d been imagining for so long. As I went through various drafts of the play, that scene always stayed in, but in each draft the answer of who exactly “won” the bet became murkier and more complex, and I began to think that maybe Mr. Wilde was on to something when he decided not to open that can of worms. Even so, it’s still one of my favorite scenes I’ve written. So if you happen to come see my play next month, you’ll have to let me know if you think it was, in fact, a good bet, or if Oscar was right all along and I should have left well enough alone.

Seasonal Anxieties of the Third (fifth?) Kind

When I first saw the full line-up for the Mustard Seed Theatre season that my play would be a part of, I felt a bit like the odd girl out. There was “Human Terrain”, about the relationship between a U.S. Cultural Advisor and an Iraqi woman during the Iraq War, then “All Is Calm” about the Christmas truce of 1914 during WW1, followed by “White To Gray,” a tragic cross-cultural romance in the shadow of Pearl Harbor and the opening days of WW2. And then there was me and my very silly play about online dilettantes in gravity-defying dresses who talk funny. Cue the song from Sesame Street – “one of these things is not like the other…” But as the months have gone by, and I’ve had the chance to see each production, I’ve started to think my play may not be as out of place as I had expected it to be.

A glance at the poster and synopsis for An Invitation Out makes it fairly clear that I wrote it with modern technology on my mind, but may be a little less clear about what was in my heart. I conceived and wrote the first two drafts of the play at a pivotal time in my life, when I was finally coming to terms with being transgender and what that meant for my future while simultaneously wrestling with the legacy of my strict Pentecostal Christian upbringing. It was a period marked by long stretches of feeling like a stranger in a strange land pretty much everywhere I went. And in a way, the online/offline worlds of the play became a way for me to discuss the experience of venturing outside of a world-view you’ve grown comfortable with, and the rewards and consequences that come with such a step. A technological setting seemed a perfect way to examine it, too, because the internet has given us open access to all sorts of new conversations while also giving us the tools to be more closed off from other voices than ever before. Social media algorithms learn how to give us the news sources we like; the confines of post, comment, and tweet lengths make our arguments more brittle and two dimensional; and we can barricade ourselves away from views we don’t like with a simple click of the “unfriend” button. So you can imagine my relief when each of the plays before mine this season turned out to be about people reaching across cultural and ideological divides in order to connect with another human being. At its core, that’s what An Invitation Out is about too. And just like that, I didn’t feel like such a stranger after all. There were four of us, all from very different places, asking the same question. Although I’m pretty sure my version of the question still has the most jokes about blogging, greased ferrets, and sentient computer programs named Astrid. Which is probably for the best.

That question, and this answer

As the first production of An Invitation Out creeps closer and closer, one question has been making frequent appearances in the many conversations where I can’t shut up about my play – “So how’d you come up with the idea for this?” And I usually answer with something short and tag line-ish to avoid going into the long-winded, embarrassing truth that the origins of this show extend all the way back my gawky teenage years in the quiet mountain town of Paradise, California (yes, the name is mostly ironic). One of the first leading roles I ever got in my high school drama department was in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. And yes, it’s one of those plays that gets performed so often (and usually rather badly) that many theatre folk roll their eyes at the very mention of it. But coming to it fresh was electrifying. I was immediately intoxicated by the language, the wit, the plot’s effortless combination of intelligence and utter silliness. The style of it very quickly clamped onto my fancy, and never let go. My high school drama program was pretty amazing, looking back, and in my freshman and sophomore years, I’d already been exposed to Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, and Jean Giraudoux. Wilde was the fourth and final nail in the “maybe I want to be a playwright” coffin, and I was done. The year that I performed in Earnest was also the year that I wrote my first play.

Flash forward more years than I’m comfortable admitting to, and we arrive at the heyday of Facebook and Twitter. As countless posts skittered across my computer screen, I started to notice a trend – a sizable number of the things getting “liked” or shared around were quick, two or three sentence attempts at humor or cleverness, a form that Oscar Wilde made his public reputation from. “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much” “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” “The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.” Seriously, Oscar Wilde would have OWNED Twitter. 21st century social media had found a new stage for the witty epigram, had in fact turned the internet into one gigantic Victorian dinner party with everyone rushing to come up with the best zinger of the night. All of the sudden, the archaic 19th century drawing room comedies I’d been obsessed with since high school felt more immediate than ever, and seemed a natural form to use to explore an online world of clever dandyism gone mad. The idea was a simple one: I would write a Wildean drawing room comedy, but in a chat room instead. From there, the story gushed out very quickly, a look at the future inspired by the past that would hopefully shed some light on the present. So there you have it, how I came up with this. And now, if we happen to bump into each other, you’ll already know the answer to your question, and won’t be subjected to me rambling on about high school theatre productions and long-dead playwrights, and we can both share a perfectly lovely sigh of relief.

Surviving the good news: A non-comprehesive guide

In this new-fangled age we live in, playwrights have many sources for good advice. I’ve seen countless articles online with genuinely helpful tips on topics varying from structure and format to how exactly to keep on writing when the rejection letters keep flooding in. Most of it rightly focuses on the kind of habits and attitudes that will help you get to that fateful moment when a theater calls you up, and offers to produce your play. One thing I haven’t seen, however, is advice for what happens after that phone call, advice on how to wait.

Because one of the things all those helpful people never seem to talk about is how, even when momentum is on your side and theaters are responding to your work, EVERYTHING JUST TAKES … SO … DAMN LONG.

I got that coveted call in February of 2014. Deanna Jent, the artistic director of Mustard Seed Theatre called to tell me that they’d decided to produce my play, An Invitation Out, as part of their 2014-2015 season dedicated exclusively to new work. I was ecstatic, of course. So ecstatic that I didn’t quite process the information that my play would be the season ender, very much in the 2015 section of the 2014-2015 season. In short, it’s been almost exactly one full year since I got the good news. And my play starts rehearsals in a month and a half.

Even in February of last year, it had already seemed like a pretty long haul. Deanna had first seen my script in 2011, as part of a new play contest. At that point, An Invitation Out was exactly umpteenillion and eight pages long, had several dangling character arcs, far too many words, and a completely different ending. Strangely enough, a different script I had submitted ended up winning the contest. So my first serious script, The Geography of Nowhere, got a staged reading, while Invitation sat on the back burner. That reading went relatively quickly – notified in January, staged 3 months later – no doubt skewing my idea of what to expect when things get rolling. It was another year after that before I finally dusted Invitation off at Deanna’s urging, and subjected it to a writing seminar at Mustard Seed in the summer of 2013. The play really started to get whipped into shape thanks to Deanna’s guidance and a wonderful group of very talented playwrights who were nice enough to read the thing out loud and very kindly tear it to pieces, which is really what it needed. I came out of the seminar with new tools and a much better draft. And also another five months before I heard anything about what might happen with the play.

From this process, I’ve learned a lot about playwriting and myself, and would like to momentarily transform myself into one of those helpful online theatre advice dispensers: (ahem) For all you aspiring playwrights out on the interwebs, I want you know that there is good news, and there is also-good-but-kinda-annoying news.

The good news: Just because you haven’t heard back from a theater you’ve sent your stuff to doesn’t mean that someone there is not actively thinking about your play. Maybe it’s not right for them – yet. Maybe they want to see what else you’re capable of producing, or are investigating to find out how open you’ll be to constructive criticism when it comes. There are a lot of reasons a company doesn’t contact you right frickin’ now to get your work ready for production, so be patient. These things do, in fact, take time. And not just in a “B.S. people tell you so you’ll feel better” way. In a real way. So take heart. It took four years for my script to go from an A.D’s desk to the reason I’ll be nervously biting my haphazardly painted nails until April. Which brings us to –

The also-good-but-kinda-annoying news: even when you do hear back, the chances are you are going to have to learn how to wait. The realities of theatrical production are not hurry-friendly – there are too many humans involved. So here’s a few tips on how to handle the long wilderness between the amazing news that someone might actually have faith in your work and seeing anything actually happening with it.

1. Keep working on the play, dammit!

Just because it’s finally been accepted doesn’t mean it’s done. Even if the director doesn’t ask you to, keep exploring, keep trying out new things. Very few directors are going to begrudge having new options to look at, and if your experience matches mine, you’re going to need to keep yourself connected to your script somehow. There are a lot of times in the production process when you won’t see any forward movement at all because the ball is basically in someone else’s court. But you’ll still be getting rejection letters from other places you’ve submitted to, and that makes it very easy to forget you’ve even gotten a break in the first place. What Is (rejections, not hearing back) feels more emotionally real than What’s Coming, even if you have it in writing. So do what all great artists do, and distract yourself from reality! (only kinda sorta joking) Keep finding out more about the characters, keep fiddling. The staging of your show may not always feel tangible, but the script and the characters do. Find out more about them. They may surprise you, which can be exciting. And you’ll need things to keep you excited. There’s only so many times you can tell your friends about your slowly approaching good luck before they want to punch you in the face.

2. But work on other stuff too.

Because seriously. There’s only so long you can work on one script before you burn out. In the course of getting a play put on, there are lots of peaks and valleys, and having something else to focus on can keep you from feeling all the ups and downs so strongly. For instance: Mustard Seed Theatre has auditions for their whole season at once. So at the very beginning, there were lots of things to do to prepare for that. I got lots of recognition from people and lots of pats on the back. But after auditions, everyone had Other Things To Do. Like, you know, three whole other plays that needed their undivided time and attention. The sudden lull made it hard to not feel a complete drop in energy. Luckily, I had a new play and songs for a musical to work on – other worlds to take vacations inside of, and that helped a lot. Production can be crazy because all of the sudden a lot of very talented people are spending tons of time figuring out how the heck to make that crazy-cool thing you wrote on a piece of paper once exist in 3 dimensions, on a budget, preferably in a way that won’t kill anyone. Being able to go back to a place where anything can happen with just a click of the keyboard, no practicality required, can be a wonderful tonic to the headaches of actually putting something on stage.

3. Don’t forget to actually have a life.

I’m pretty bad at this one, and I don’t think I’m alone. Playwrights are kind of an odd lot – introverted enough to sit alone in a room scribbling things for a large majority of the day and/or night, but extroverted enough to want to put that scribbling up in front of lots and lots of people you’re actually in the same room with once you’re done. I think a lot of us are attracted to the theatre as opposed to fiction or poetry because it offers community that can be hard for us to find elsewhere. But as mentioned in the previous point, that community has natural ebbs and flows. When your play is in one of the more active stages of production, there are cast and crew meet-and-greets, going out for drinks after production meetings, and other various activities that don’t involve staring at a screen by yourself, and it can feel great. But it can also vanish quickly when all those people have other things to focus on. Spending time building relationships with friends and family outside of that particular world is something that has helped a lot when I’ve remembered to do it, and left a huge, ugly gap when I’ve forgotten.

4. Try not to spend the whole time worrying about what can go wrong.

My girlfriend loves me a lot, and only occasionally wants to throttle me with her bare hands. One of those times is when I sit on the couch fretting over the possibility of bad reviews seven months before rehearsals start. So don’t be me. Hug your girlfriend. Go take a walk. Do anything but obsess over things you can’t control months and months before you get the chance to not control them. Either learn to live in the moment just a little bit more at this time in your life, or get really familiar with a particular kind of eye-roll from all of your friends. I’ve done the latter. Not recommended.

5. Go see other people’s stuff while you wait.

There are two things that are very inspiring when you’re waiting to have your own work produced – seeing other work that you want to be as good as, and seeing other work that you hope to god you’re going to be better than. Either way, you’ll be challenged in new and interesting ways. If it’s good stuff, you may find a solution you wouldn’t have thought of without seeing how that particular playwright dealt with the tricky parts of their work. If it’s bad, take all the things that bothered you, and go look for them in your own script. Be prepared to find them, too, because they’re probably there even if they’re hiding. And the more you find, the fewer playwrights will be inspired by you in the less nice way. But also do it for karma. Do unto others, etc. And yes, I’m mixing religions, but you get the point. You of all people know how terrifying it can be to put new stuff out into the world, so do your best to support as many other people doing that as possible, not only because it can be helpful, but also ’cause it’s just nice.

6. Don’t forget to enjoy it.

Like most early career playwrights nowadays, I have a day job, and a lot of other things that demand my time and brain activity, so in order to actually write a play, my life sort of HAS to revolve around it just to get it done. Production is different, though. There are many points in the process where there’s just not much for you to do. And that can be a good thing. If you’re anything like me, writing isn’t just a passion or a calling, it’s also the only thing that might possibly rescue you from the prospect of waiting tables until you die. That sort of “there is no Plan B” desperation can actually be put to good use as motivation, but even when used as fuel, it’s exhausting. During this year of waiting, I’ve had to battle hard against my own tendency to constantly want to get on to the next thing in order to not have all my eggs in one basket, always in a rush to prove to myself and others that this one opportunity isn’t just a fluke. But you know what? That’s really not any fun. It’s been shocking for me to see in myself how easy it can be to lose track of a positive moment in life by constantly trying to figure out what that moment can get for me later. It’s a mindset I didn’t realize had snuck in, and now that I’ve seen it, I want it out! Lately, I’ve been working hard at enjoying moments for themselves. It may sound strange to say that I have to work at enjoying something, but it’s true, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s a useful skill, so don’t be afraid to work at it.

Those are the things that stand out right now, but I’ve got another 43 days before rehearsals start, so I’ll do my best to keep you posted with the latest breaking neuroses.

I Have a Blog! Let’s see if I actually use it …

Now that I have this fancy new website,  internet etiquette and common sense both cry out with one voice that I should really have a blog with which to convey current information, the status of various projects, personal factoids, etc. And since I am, in fact, a writer, you’d think that creating and maintaining said blog would be easy. But oh, dear reader, there you would have made a very grave hypothetical mistake.

One of the reasons why I write plays is because my brain does BIG very well.  Full length Greek Tragedy about 1920s cartoon characters written in verse? Check. Sprawling mashup of Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare? Workin’ on it. Give me 90 to 120 minutes to lay out a story, and I’m bouncing off the walls with ideas. Ask for a ten minute play, and … uhhhhhhhh. I got nothin’. I am both mystified by and envious of those gifted writers that can work in miniature, so the thought of jotting down short missives for a blog terrifies me. And, when terrified, I over-think, over-edit, and spend WAY too long trying to craft the words just right. Meanwhile, the very large portion of my psyche that is a raving workaholic gets immediately enraged that I’m spending so much time working at writing anything that is “NOT A PLAY”, and starts lobbing giant guilt bombs at my poor bedraggled inner editor. Chaos reigns, blood and dangling modifiers litter the  metaphorical streets, and that juicy tidbit about coffee and quiche with Someone Cool And Important remains unfinished.

But I’m going to try this time. Really try. We’ll see how far I get …