Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Lyra: A Dark Fairy Tale" - Creating the show

Hey everyone! Again, sorry for my absence – I’ve been crazy busy getting ready to put up the premier reading of my new musical “Lyra.” I am SO excited about this show! And thrilled that I’ll finally be able to share it with everyone!

We’re doing a full reading of the show to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS on Thursday September 17th at 7pm, and Sunday September 20th at 5pm at The Triad in NYC. For tickets go here

The official website for the show is:

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I wrote the book and lyrics for the show (and music to “Happy Ending,”) and my dear friend, the insanely talented Evan Jay Newman, wrote the music. I’m also in the cast so I haven’t had much downtime. The few hours I have between waking up and rehearsals starting are usually spent returning e-mails, reviewing my material, and talking with the creative team about the game plan for the day. Then I have rehearsal, and then production meetings afterwards which barely gives me enough time to have some dinner and get things done in preparation for the next day before I (hopefully) get to go to bed. Evan and I have been functioning on about 3-4 hours sleep a night.

But I thought I would do my best to document the process for everyone. I’ll do my best to post updates as rehearsals commence, but I wanted to start with a history of the show. This is the project of mine that a lot of people have heard of, but don’t know a lot about yet.

“Lyra” is an adaptation of the original Hans Christian Andersen “Little Mermaid” story. (The dark one, not the Disney one.) It’s my absolute favorite story, and I always knew that one day I wanted to do a project related to it.

I started working on the show, well, I guess in a way back in 2011.  As you may know I love circus arts and work with a lot of people connected to the circus (see my blog post “The Power of Laughter.”) A friend of mine who has worked extensively both on Broadway and in Cirque and I were in Times Square chatting about the not always successful use of circus arts in Broadway musicals. I commented about how circus arts have pretty much always been used in narrative theater as spectacle only (sometimes not even in collaboration with actual circus artists,) but never to advance the story.

For example, in the recent revival of “Pippin” (which I loved,) the show made the Leading Player the leader of a circus – and the spectacular things Pippin encounters are interpreted through circus arts. A GREAT concept for the show, however, it wasn’t NECESSAIRY to the telling of the story. You can take the circus out of “Pippin” and still be able to tell the story completely successfully (the original production used elements of Commedia and “miracle plays,” but not circus.) I have been deeply moved by the circus arts and have seen them work as a remarkable and unique storytelling vocabulary. I commented to my friend that I was stunned that no one had ever used circus arts as an equal vocabulary to singing, dancing and acting – utilized to advance the story, not just as spectacle. There has never been a Broadway show (at least in recent history – “Barnum,” which is about one of the founders of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was of course about the founding of a circus,) where if you took the circus elements out you literally wouldn’t be able to tell the story. (On a side note – “Barnum” is clearly about an American circus – whose aesthetic is in and of itself primarily about spectacle. I was talking about a European circus aesthetic (think Cirque du Soleil) – a specific type of clowning, aerial, acrobatic work, and even magic that can be, but certainly never has been used to the narrative advancement of a Broadway show.)  He commented that very few people understand the vocabulary of both circus and the Broadway musical equally well and you would have to have someone who does to be able to write such a show.

Then he turned to me and said – “well, if it’s ever going to happen, you’re probably going to have to be the one to write it.”

I was very flattered by his comment, and also a bit overwhelmed. It’s true, the circus community and theatrical community don’t often mix – other then perhaps hiring some circus performers for a theatrical show. Circus and “legit” theater use different vocabularies and are created in very different ways. I was in the somewhat unique position of having friends and collaborators in both worlds. I was excited by the challenge and decided to see if I could do it.

So, basically this whole show started out as a bit of an intellectual exercise.

Circus arts deal with heightened realities – even more so then typical musicals. Musicals deal with people in heightened situations, but in circus you’re dealing with people who literally seem to have super human abilities. So I needed to come up with a concept that justified characters having those abilities. These couldn’t just be people performing circus arts. If circus was to be an inherent vocabulary within the story they needed to literally be a part of these characters essences. Therefore making them otherworldly felt like a necessity. Adapting a myth or fairy tale, however loosely, seemed to be the best way to go. At first I was drawn to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice – the myth tells the story of the greatest musician in the world (Orpheus) whose love (Eurydice) dies on their wedding night and Orpheus travels down to Hades to find her. But that idea wasn’t exciting me as much as it should and, while it justified the circus (Hades seems to be good fodder for Circus – everything from Cirque Berzerk to “The Devil’s Carnival” has utilized a variation of the idea) there wasn’t much by way of dramatic narrative to really hang on to.

And then I thought of “The Little Mermaid.”

Like I said, it’s my favorite story ever. I love the Disney version, but the original is AMAZING. And I’ve never seen a version of the story that really stays thematically true to the original. In the original story the Little Mermaid (like Ariel) is fascinated with the human world long before the Prince shows up. However unlike the Disney version the reason is because Merpeople don’t have immortal souls. The mermaids in Andersen’s story were inspired by the mythological Sirens – beautiful creatures who had the most glorious voices on earth, who would sit on rocks and lure sailors to their deaths. In Andersen’s story, Merpeople live for three hundred years, after which they turn to sea foam and cease to exist. The Little Mermaid’s sisters ultimately start taking up the “family business” luring sailors to their deaths (it’s a subtle moment but it’s in there.) But the Little Mermaid – who has the most beautiful voice of all, longs for an immortal soul, and (in not so many words) to go to heaven when she dies. Though she does fall in love with the Prince she makes the choices she does primarily out of a desire for a soul – which she will get should a human fall in love with her and marry her.
My favorite painter John Waterhouse's illustration of "the Little Mermaid."
The Sea Witch in the original is also, I think, one of the most fascinating characters in the entire fairy tale cannon. Unlike the Disney film, the Sea Witch in Andersen’s story is not the villain. And unlike every other fairy tale antagonist she does not go after the Little Mermaid, nor does she desire to hurt her. She is absolutely honest about who she is, makes it clear that she doesn’t control the rules of magic, and that she thinks it’s a REALLY bad idea for the Little Mermaid to make a deal with her. She even tries to offer her a way out at the end of the story. And yet, she is still one of the most terrifying characters in literature and what she does to the Little Mermaid – well lets just say it’s MUCH worse then what Ursula does to Ariel.

The story also offered the wonderful opportunity to have the show not take place entirely in a mythic world. By nature of the story a large part (essentially the entire second act) would need to take place in the “real world.” If I wanted to make circus arts a truly necessary vocabulary, the entire show couldn’t be magical. That would basically just be doing a circus show with music. I needed to make the vocabulary relevant when the story transitioned to a non-magical world.

I knew I didn’t want to make the story about a literal Mermaid. It felt too easy, and in a way limiting. The show would literally be about girls on silks and wires. That was falling into the trap of circus as spectacle. I needed to do something more unusual and vital to really incorporate circus as a necessary storytelling device. And I was really interested in doing something more elaborate with the role of the Sea Witch then just making the character, well, a sea witch. I wanted to adapt the story - not transcribe it. 

And that’s where I got stuck. Every time I thought of an idea, a million problems arose. And every time I came up with an idea for how to fix something with my concept it created a million new storytelling problems. “Ok, so what if instead of Mermaids they’re some sort of spirits, or fairies? What if it’s about the meeting of the seen and unseen world?” Well then, what are the rules of this world? Who are these people? I would be trading one mythology for another. It just wasn’t working.

So then “Forever Deadward” happened and “Lyra” moved to the backburner. But then one day, a year or so later, I was at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway (I honestly think it’s one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever been in. It literally looks like a crystal garden.) And I looked at the stage and I just saw the opening of the show. Instantly the thought popped in my head: “set it in a magical circus where the illusionist is like a Mephistopheles - using the whole thing to collect souls (like the Sea Witch collecting things from the deals she makes, or the Sirens luring people to their deaths,) and the singer, who was born into the circus just wants to join real life.” The idea of setting it in an actual circus seems like the most obvious thing ever – but it was actually the very last piece of the puzzle for me. Suddenly all the dramaturgical problems I’d been having just fell into place. I knew exactly who these characters were, and I knew exactly how to make the circus arts holistically fit (even when in the second act the action primarily takes place in the “real world.”) The idea of a Mephistophelian figure immediately allowed me to bring the soul element from the original story in, and it allowed me to go to town with the Sea Witch character (I always wanted to make the character a slightly androgynous man. I think it’s interesting how there’s an oddly masculine energy to the Sea Witch (even the Disney character was based on the drag queen Divine) and something VERY sexual about the character in both the original story and the Disney version. Making the Sea Witch a guy instantly created a giant toy box to play with when writing the show.)
A spectacular view of the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway
I was so excited – I wanted to start writing immediately. The problem was, I didn’t have a composer. I compose, but not well enough to write a full musical score. I think you can only consider yourself a master at an artistic craft when you can not only do it when you’re inspired, but when you HAVE to. For example, I can write lyrics both when I’m inspired, and when we decide we need a new song and it has to be finished before the cast gets back from their dinner break in ten minutes. Its not always fun, but I can do it. When it comes to music, I can write when I’m inspired, or when I have a LONG time to mess with something, but I’m not a great composer in a pinch. Plus I don’t physically have the composition or piano playing skills to write anything like what a full, complex musical score would need.

I really wasn’t sure who to collaborate with on this project.  I knew it was going to need a sound unlike anything I’d heard in a Broadway score before. This wasn’t straight musical theater – it needed to infuse a European circus aesthetic into the score (the sound of the circus within the show,) and it needed to be able to seamlessly blend that with both a “musical theater” sound (the sound of the world outside the circus) and a contemporary music sound (the sound of the illusionist,) and make it all feel like a unified score. 

But time was going by and I didn’t want to loose my inspiration waiting around for the perfect composer so, once again almost as an intellectual exercise, I decided to go ahead and write the libretto. The libretto means all the words that are spoken or sung in the show, so all the text, and all the lyrics. It was daunting to say the least. It took me a few weeks to do (which is a LONG time for me.) I spent a good amount of time structuring which included figuring out where all the songs would go, and what their titles were (once I have a title, I can write a lyric pretty fast.) I would set myself little goals – I started with the lyrics (since for me writing dialogue around songs is the easiest part of writing a musical,) and would do a full lyric or so a day (which is really helpful in that you get a sense of accomplishment, and finishing something even though you’re no where near actually being finished with the show.) We did a table read of that draft sometime in 2013 that included a wonderful intersection of both Broadway and Circus performers.

But I still didn’t have a composer. So, taking inspiration from how Ahrens and Flaherty got their job writing the score for “Ragtime,” I asked several composers if they would be willing to write music for a couple of the songs for the show “on spec” (sort of a musical audition.) A lot of awesome people ended up being interested, and it was really fun for me getting to hear vastly different interpretations of these songs, some of which were really phenomenal.

And then I happened to have a conversation with my good friend Evan Jay Newman.

I first knew Evan as a performer. He and I did a concert together back in 2010 (we played opposite each other in a parody number for the fictitious “Dungeons and Dragons” musical in which he played a cross between Howard and Leonard from “The Big Bang Theory” and I played the (only) female gamer (a less intellectual Amy Farrah Fowler type.)) He’s a wonderful performer (who’s been on Broadway multiple times) and we quickly hit it off. I then found out that Evan is also a fantastic writer. I went to a reading of a musical he wrote – and it was by far the best reading of a new work I’d been to in a long time. He became our second keyboardist on “Forever Deadward” (some hilarious moments in the show came from his very creative choice of key pads in certain numbers – this is why I love working with people who are creators, even if they’re not a creator on a particular project.) Soon thereafter he became the Musical Director for the “American Idiot” national tour, and I got to see what a wonderful musical director he was.

While he was on tour Evan heard that I was working on “Lyra,” and asked if he could read the script. I sent it to him, he read it, and asked if he could throw his hat in the ring to be the composer. We talked a bit about the musical world of the show – to be honest neither of us was totally sure this piece was the right fit for him. From my end the only music I’d heard of his, while fantastic, was very contemporary musical theater, and this show needed something a bit different. But he said he had just come up with something that he thought would really be right for the piece, and wanted to see what it yielded, and I of course was more then happy to hear anything he wrote.   

A few weeks went by, and Evan sent me his music. Where as most of the other composers had written music for the “pillar” songs of the show (the “I Want” song, the opening number, etc.) Evan sent me music for what I think were the three most difficult, random songs he could have possibly chosen. Evan sent me the Overture, the French song Lyra sings during a circus performance, and the very tricky opening to act 2.

I got four notes into the overture and felt like I had met my long lost composing twin. Evan got it. I had never heard music like this in a show before, and I felt like I had finally found the person I wanted to be my writing partner – not just on this show, but in general. I was a little iffy on one of the songs, and talked to him a bit about it (I’m always very aware that talent is only half the battle when finding a writing partner – you need someone you collaborate well with.) Evan was a dream to work with, and I was so happy to ask him to come on board the project.

So then Evan had the unenviable task of writing the music to an entire musical – all at once. It was literally – “Hey! So here are the lyrics to the 23 songs in this show. Have fun!”

There is one song in the show that I wrote both music and lyrics for. “Happy Ending.” It’s a song (you may recognize it from my youtube/soundcloud channel, or this very blog,) that was not originally written for “Lyra.” It was actually the first thing I wrote after “Forever Deadward” premiered at New World Stages. “Forever Deadward” completely drained me (I’ll write about my whole “Forever Deadward” experience sometime when, well, I have a lot of time to do it lol.) And I actually couldn’t write for over a month afterwards (a big deal for me.) The song came out of the fact that I had suddenly had this overwhelmingly wonderful (and challenging) thing happen – and yet, the very next day it was back to the struggle, and the hard work, and a lot of disappointments (and more challenges.) I had just received national press, and rave reviews for this show I created, and I literally didn’t have money to eat.

As I was writing the libretto to “Lyra” there was a moment in the second act where pretty much every character (except Lyra to a degree – as bad as things are for her at that moment, they’re about to get a whole lot worse,) is at their lowest point. It felt like we just needed a quiet, unified moment where everyone, though isolated, was experiencing the same thing, and “Happy Ending” fit perfectly. Here's the acoustic version I wrote well before "Lyra." 

Evan finished the score in the fall of last year (while he was once again playing second keyboard for “Forever Deadward” for us at The York and 54 Below.) We did a table read around the holidays last year after which we did some major rewrites. Because I didn’t want to be rewriting the script and lyrics while Evan was writing the score (“Hey! I finished the music to the “I Want” song!” “Oh! Sorry! Just scrapped it and wrote a new lyric,” is not the most effective writing method,) the script at that table read was literally the first draft I had written. Needless to say there were a lot of things that needed fixing. We did a second table read in the spring of this year, which also inspired some big (if not quite so drastic) changes. Every time Evan sends me a demo after he’s finished writing the music to a lyric it feels a little bit like Christmas morning. One of my favorite memories from the creation period thus far is when he sent me the demo for the final song in the show “Requiem.” I was working at “Phantom of the Opera” (a lovely setting actually for listening to music from the show.) It’s a tricky song that incorporates lyrics in three different languages (finally! All those years of studying French and Latin are paying off!) We had talked about the vibe of the song, but I knew it was going to be a tricky one to get right. I plugged my headphones in and listened to the demo – and I literally just started sobbing right in the lobby of the Majestic Theater. To this day the Latin section of that song is one of my all time favorite musical moments. It's now a tradition for me to listen to the score whenever I'm at the Majestic (or, any other theater, frankly,) and send Evan obnoxious photos like this (and yes, that is the "Phantom" chandelier in the background, and an entirely empty house. Theater magic.) Thus far "Lyra" has "played" at the Majestic, Winter Garden, and Shubert on Broadway. 
"Lyra" is playing at the Majestic!
We recorded three fully orchestrated demos from the show (check out our Soundcloud page) produced by the amazing Robin Lai (who is also our drummer for the show) earlier this year, and will hopefully be doing more soon. 

We’ve gotten great response to the show, and have started developing a following – both from the musical theater, and circus communities, which has been so thrilling. We’ve had Cirque artists involved at every step of the process, and the collaboration has been really exciting.

This upcoming reading features a fantastic cast – some of whom have been involved in the project since the very first table read, before Evan was even a part of the show. And I’m very excited to have my friend Madeline O’Hara (our A.D. on “Forever Deadward” and frequent assistant to my dear friend Gabriel Barre) directing the reading. Oh, and the band is sick. Like really, really sick.

I’ll do my best to document the process over the next couple of weeks. I guess it’ll be more “diary-like” entries then I usually do. I don’t have much free time, so bare with me…

I hope you can come see the show! Would love to have you there!

And now for fun,

Interesting “Lyra” trivia:

-       - The name of the main character (the equivalent of the Little Mermaid) in the show is Lyra. The name has multiple meanings within the context of the show.
1.)   A Lyra is a name for an aerial hoop (also called a Cerceaux) – an aerial circus apparatus. Lyra appears sitting in a lyra a few times in the circus within the show (and it was a challenge to avoid writing in the stage directions: “Lyra sits in the lyra” - which is actually exactly what Lyra is doing in the poster art for the show.) Also I find it kind of fun that Lyra does aerial work, and of course the name of the Disney Little Mermaid is Ariel. 

A lyra
2.)   The name Lyra comes from the musical instrument the Lyre which is most notable for importance to the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice” (I got it in there!) The constellation Lyra is also a reference to the myth. Orpheus was said to be the most wonderful musician in the world – and his instrument was the Lyre. The music he produced was said to be so miraculous that it warmed the heart of Hades (lord of the underworld), who gave Orpheus the (ill fated) opportunity to get his love back. Our character Lyra is noted for her miraculous voice, which gets taken from her during the course of the show. It is the loss of her voice that prevents her love from recognizing her.
3.)   The sounds in the name Lyra are an amalgamation of two of the primary sounds in “Little” (L) “MeR” (r) maid.

And speaking of #2…

-      -  “Orpheus and Eurydice” did in fact find its way into “Lyra” (in a bigger way then the name symbolism.) The plot of the circus within the show is based on the myth, with Lyra playing Eurydice, and the illusionist playing Hades. The myth also has metaphoric significance – foreshadowing what will happen to Lyra as the story progresses (and to a degree foreshadowing what the illusionist (falsely) thinks will happen…)

-       - The name of the circus in the show is “Shausteller’s Phantasmagoria.” A Phantasmagoria was a kind of late 18th century magic show, which claimed to conjure up the dead by using the first projected images. Since the circus is telling a kind of Orpheus myth (in which Orpheus descends into Hades – the land of the dead,) and the fact that not all the members of the circus are, strictly speaking, alive – the title has a subtextual appropriateness.

18th Century poster art for a Phantasmagoria advertisement. 
-    - The theater I was at when I got inspired about how to do the show was the Winter Garden on Broadway - where "Mamma Mia" was playing at the time. Evan is currently the Associate Musical Director for the "Mamma Mia" national tour. 

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