Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Lyra" - The American Ninja Warrior of shows

Hey everyone!

Today’s my first day off in a while. And by “off” I mean it’s my only day without rehearsal, so I have to get all my “human stuff” like laundry, grocery shopping, etc. done today, in addition to going over my material, sending some faxes, and returning e-mails. So not really a day off in a relaxing sense, but I did manage to squeeze in an episode of “Dr. Who.” J

Last week we staged the whole show – which is actually much less daunting in a reading situation then it sounds. For those unfamiliar with the development process of a musical, the way it works (at least these days) is:

After you’ve finished writing the show you sit down with a combination of really good actors, and really smart theater friends and do a table read and talk back. You do table reads as many times as you need to to get to the place where you honestly feel like you can’t learn more about your show until you get it up on its feet. Then you do some version of a Staged Reading (which is what we’re doing.) A staged reading means that the actors have learned the music, and rehearsed the dialogue. Usually there are music stands set up at the front of the stage, and actors, using their scripts and scores, perform the show for an audience made up of everyone from industry, to potential collaborators, to friends, to the public. There is at least minor staging to assist in visualizing the show – all things the actors can do with script in hand (or on a music stand as the case may be.) Stage directions are read aloud to assist with visualizing the show as well. The music is performed either with just a piano, or a band. From there the show may move on to a workshop (a workshop is somewhere between a reading and a full production. I like to think of them as readings where the script and score are memorized so more staging can be accomplished. Possibly with some sets and costumes.) From there the show hopefully moves to a regional try out (a full but smaller scale production) and then a no holds barred production.

So our blocking basically consists of standing up, going to a certain music stand, and doing the scene. There’s certainly more to it then that, but that’s the basic idea. This reading actually gets a bit more physical then usual especially in one of the clowning numbers where our resident clown Shereen Hickman (seriously – girl’s worked with Cirque) gets to actually do some physical comedy in the number, and for me in act 2. Surprise spoilers! As in “The Little Mermaid” Lyra loses her voice – which means I get some really fun moments where I get to communicate completely physically and not worry about my script. There’s some other physical moments in there too but I don’t want to give too much away…

Madeline O’Hara is our director and I absolutely love working with her. Both she and I have worked very closely with director Gabriel Barre (Maddie was our A.D. on “Forever Deadward”) and this is the first time I’ve worked with her where’s she’s completely taking the reigns. She reminds me very much of Gabe when she directs (probably the highest complement I can pay to a director,) while still having a very unique, confident voice and I’m just having the best time working on this show with her. This is probably the hardest musical you could ever have to do a staged reading of (seriously, a huge part of the storytelling is completely physical, and circus related – the opposite of the vocabulary you have for a staged reading, not to mention the locations in the show range from a circus tent, to an ethereal limbo, to two characters literally standing amongst the stars. YOU try directing those moments with ten actors on a tiny stage stuck behind music stands.)

This show is a beast.

Speaking of that, we had our first band rehearsal last week!

First band rehearsals, unless you have a multi million dollar budget, ten assistants to your composer and M.D. who can do all the copy work (meaning imputing music into a computer program called Finale, or simply transcribing – not copying the music at Kinkos…) and weeks to rehearse your musicians, band rehearsal is both incredibly exciting, and utterly terrifying. There’s simply not enough time.

But hearing the music with all the arrangements for the first time is a truly glorious experience – and the arrangements Evan has come up with are stunning. I know it sounds very trite coming from one of the writers, but this is a cast album I would listen to every day (seriously – I already do so with the rough demos, and not just because I need to learn my songs, but because I really love the music.) C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien said that (forgive me for horribly misquoting) one of the reasons they wrote the Narnia Chronicles and the LOTR books was because no one was writing the kind of books they wanted to read, so they just wrote them themselves. I feel similarly about “Lyra” in a way. With “Lyra” I’m working to write the show that I’ve always wanted to see – I guess it means we’re at least coming close if I want to listen to the music incessantly.

But there is a flip side to that. And the flip side is that in order for the music to be as unique and complex and beautiful as it is, it’s also has to be hard as hell. It’s the rules. The musical circle of life lol. (That’s not to say that all beautiful music has to be hard, but usually unique and complex do go hand in hand with hard.) Even I, who wrote the lyrics and have been living with some of these demos for over a year, am being challenged by the music, and am drilling it on all of my off time. It’s subtle. There are parts that when you listen to them you think they’re a piece of cake… then you try to do it. Not so much. And that can be compounded by the fact that songs always sound totally different when you hear them with a band instead of a piano. For example, I have a song in the show (it’s a brief moment) that opens with a cool little vamp. It’s one thing on a piano – it’s another thing when it’s on a bass. Sounds freaking fantastic, but you just have to kind of mentally readjust.

Our band is ridiculous. Seriously, these guys are amazing. I doubly admire instrumentalists for their ability to sight play a chart. You would never send singers into a full music rehearsal just expecting them to perfectly sight read their parts – but that’s exactly what’s expected of instrumentalists every day. All of our musicians are awesome, but personally I’m very excited for my good friend Robin Lai to be working with us. Robin and I met when he came in as our drummer on “Forever Deadward.” Since then we’ve formed a band together, and Robin even produced (and played on) the spiffy “Lyra” demos you can listen to on our website ( It’s just great to have talented friends in the room. And I’m looking forward to getting to know the rest of the band better.

As I write this I just finished “assembling my book.” Basically that means combining your script and score in the manner most helpful to you for whatever reading you’re doing. Usually you take out the pages that have lyrics on them and replace them with sheet music for that song, but sometimes it can be complicated if there is dialogue overlap, etc. Evan’s done a beautiful job incorporating the dialogue into the score proper, so that’s not as much of an issue on this show. Personally I like to keep my book as minimal as possible for a reading- esp. a staged one. I like to be so familiar with a show that I can really be out and acting, instead of feeling like I always need to look down to keep on track. Also, because for a good portion of the show I can’t speak, I don’t really need my book for a decent amount of it, but then when I do I suddenly have to flip a bunch – so the more I can minimize that the better. I tried doing the run through yesterday without my score at all, and it went fine, so what I decided to do was just use my script, and write in what my intros are just in case I need them (several of my songs transition between 12/8, ¾, and 4/4 which, depending on how they’re played, can sound very similar so writing something like: 3 and ¾ measures of ¾ is actually really helpful, and all I really need.

Now you might be thinking: “Hey! She wrote the book and lyrics, why does she need to use her script at all?!” Well, sort of yes, and no. I actually have most of the show memorized – but for uniformity sake I need to take my book up with me for every scene I do. However, sometimes memorizing your own work is HARDER then memorizing something by someone else, because in addition to the draft you’re performing, you also have every other draft you’ve ever written in your head. Seriously – yesterday at rehearsal I said a line without glancing at my script only to be corrected by our stage manager. The line I said was totally the right line – three drafts ago. Sometimes muscle memory can actually screw you up. Not to mention I don’t want to accidentally forget my blocking, which part of the music is a vamp vs. a hard entrance, etc. without a lifeline. And I actually use my script as a prop in places.

We did our first full run through yesterday. I’m actually pretty impressed with how tight Evan and I have gotten the show at this stage of the game. A typical musical runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with an intermission. Currently “Lyra” is (give or take) about 2 hours and 20, 25 minutes with an intermission. Typically at this point in development you’re desperately trying to figure out how to get your two-hour second act down to an hour fifteen. But then again the fact that we’re so tight now could mean that there’s an important moment we haven’t realized we’re missing yet…

Speaking of that, especially since this is the first time getting the show up on its feet we’re still very much doing rewrites. A couple days ago I did a big cut on a monologue one of the characters had and this morning I suddenly realized that there’s a big dramaturgical moment that we’re missing in act 1. Ultimately I think it maybe needs a bigger rewrite, but I rewrote one of the early scenes today and I think it at least does a decent patch job for our purposes (with only a week to go we don’t have time to write whole new numbers, teach them to the band and cast, and restage them before our first performance on Thursday.) But a few lines in a scene isn’t a big deal. It’s actually one of the reasons for actors carrying scripts with them – so that the writers can keep making changes up until the last minute and the actors don’t have to be stressed about memorizing new material at the eleventh hour.

I’m trying to take care of myself and deal with my exhaustion much as possible. It’s hard because the creative team literally doesn’t get breaks during the rehearsal of a new musical. Every time the cast goes on break it’s time we desperately need to have a meeting, do a quick rewrite, etc. Our stage manager is having to make sure we all remember to eat. Food kind of ends up being the last priority on the list (poor Maddie had her lunch sitting next to her for hours yesterday and literally only got like two bites in.) Between physical exhaustion (despite it being a reading my body is actually getting really tired – come see the show and you’ll understand why…) and my mind not turning off I’m not sleeping great – sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the song playing in my head (lol wanting a soundtrack I was obsessed with – be careful what you wish for…)

We’re having lots of laughs in rehearsal. Which is actually really important when you’re working on a dark, primarily serious show (there are comic moments, don’t worry…) It’s helpful to counterbalance the drama with silliness. For example nothing breaks the ice the first time you run a kissing scene like accidentally banging your chin into your partner’s shoulder. (If anyone asks, I totally planned to do that to break the tension in the room. It was planned. IT WAS PLANNED!) I’m also still cracking up over an accidental misreading of the line “…and apparently some restructuring of my employees” as “…and apparently some resurrecting of my employees.” The hilarity was that, given the person speaking, the line still totally made sense.

Someday, after “Lyra” has won all the Tonys, I’ll become ridiculously wealthy writing a parody of my own musical…

Tomorrow officially begins “Hell Week.” We have to kind of just hang on to the speeding train until we close on Sunday. And then it will be over. For now. I’m sad already.

Next Monday is my first rehearsal for “Hamlet.” Oy.

I really hope you can all come to “Lyra.” It’s going to be a great show. I love it so so much, and am having a blast getting it up for the first time!

Also, we’ve been uploading interviews with the cast and creative team. Check the one that are up already below. And Thank you Dana Goldberg for the stunning animation!

Shereen Hickman, Judy

Ilana Gabrielle, Nymphet 1/Amelia

Craig Sculli, Pierrot

Friday, September 4, 2015

"Lyra" - Final Music Rehearsal

Photo by Craig Sculli 
So today we had our final music rehearsal for “Lyra.” We’ll be working on music of course as we continue on, but today was our last day to just learn music before we start staging the show, where the focus will be on blocking and acting choices. We’ll have to try and sneak some music polishing time in whenever we can.

We had a whirlwind morning. Evan finished the music to the final song he needed to write at 2am, so we learned it first thing good old-fashioned sight singing style. There are lots of awesome, intricate rhythms that I will be drilling as soon as this post goes up. Getting the final song was actually kind of sad in a way. Of course Evan and I will be doing lots of rewrites on the show, but for now all the music is written. Which means no more Christmas mornings getting new demos from Evan to look forward to in the immediate future.

This song was a HUGE rewrite from our last draft. We basically threw out an entire scene and song, and started from scratch. The new song is much more effective story telling wise, and adds a much needed beat to the show. It’s also one of the only times Lyra and the Illusionist actually sing together, so it’s a moment that’s been building for a long time, and feels quite cathartic for many reasons. It’s pretty much the only time I really get to belt in the show, and I’m really going to enjoy that – although the moment poses an interesting technical challenge. In the show (as in “The Little Mermaid”) SPOILER ALERT! Lyra loses her voice. Basically I’ll be completely silent for a huge chunk of time, and then suddenly have to do awesome belty song. Keeping my voice from getting cold will be hard, especially since I don’t have any time to re warm up off stage. Talking with the musical director about possible solutions.

Also not a big fan of the title of the song. Evan and I are brainstorming alternatives.

After that our musical director taught another song that’s new to the show. This was another moment Evan and I scrapped and started from scratch on. It’s super fun, and I can’t wait to hear it with the band.

Then we did a sing through of Act 1. It’s a very odd experience to hear your score sung out of context, and completely technically. Music rehearsals, for writers, kind of become like a giant mental rubrics cube. These are all the things going through my head during a music rehearsal:
1.)   Do the lyrics in the score match the lyrics in the script? If not, which one is correct? Must consult with Evan. (Immediately send him a text even though he’s sitting a foot away from me so as not to disrupt the rehearsal.)
2.)   Do I regret that lyric change I made? Maybe there’s something better… let me brainstorm…
3.)   Are the notes being sung the same notes on the demo?
4.)   Are the notes on the demo the same as the notes in the score?
5.)   If the answer to either #3 or #4 is “no” – then why not? Is there a typo in the score? Did the demo get recorded incorrectly? Did the singer read the music wrong? And of all those options, which one actually sounds better?
6.)   Imagine this rock song currently being sung with just a piano being sung with a full band before you decide the vibe of the song is off…
7.)   I’ve heard this song so many times I can’t actually tell if it’s good or not anymore…
8.)   Oh! That sounded really nice! And moving! I’m kinda good at this whole writing thing!
9.)   I’m terrible at this whole writing thing. They hate the song. I can tell. Don’t ask me how, I just can. I mean, they complimented the music. And the other singers. But they didn’t say anything about the words. That means they think they’re awful and I should never put pen to paper again…
10.)                  Wait, I forgot something. What is it?! I know it was important….Oh. Food. Did I eat today? No. I should probably get on that…

And that’s for every note and every word of every measure of every song. You have to have such a ridiculous memory that you can look at a score and instantly tell if one tiny word is different from what you know it is in the script, or one note is different from the demo. You don’t get time to go back and cross-reference.
Oh yeah, and Evan also has to be making changes in Finale...
But I love that stuff. I like mental gymnastics. Working on all the intricacies can give you a kind of fantastic artistic high.

And it’s actually one of the reasons why I, on the right occasions, love being in my own work. Everyone always talks about needing to step away from your work to really see it (and yes to that, and it’s an incredibly valid point.) But sometimes being on the inside can show you things you never would have seen otherwise. Often I can FEEL when a beat is wrong from doing it more then from being on the outside just observing. I find it fascinating that at the dawn of theater – way back in Ancient Greece, there was no distinction between being the writer and a performer. It was just a given that the writer of a show would perform in it as well. I’ll get more into this in a later blog post but, while wearing more then one “hat” can certainly go awry, when it’s done for the right reasons I think it can often be a huge plus to a work.

The character of Lyra was actually one of the hardest roles I’ve ever written. Which shocked me since I adore “The Little Mermaid” and very much connect to the character. But, especially when you take her out of the realm of literally being a mermaid, she suddenly has to walk a VERY fine line between falling into being a ridiculously dumb ingĂ©nue, and a bratty girl who acts idiotically impulsively. Right in between those two things is a glorious character who is both beautifully innocent, and fiercely intelligent and, in a loving way, fights to be active in a world that wants to keep her anything but. In my first draft of “Lyra” the character of Lyra sounded fine. It was only when I took on the role, and read it out loud at a table read with a group of amazing actors that I knew, from the inside, that Lyra was drifting dangerously into the doe eyed passive girl camp. I wouldn’t have realized it to the degree I did unless I had intrinsically felt the, well, wimpyness in the beats the script was asking me to play. I could FEEL what I wanted to be doing – and that instantly informed the rewrites I did. I’m really good at looking at the big picture. Being in a piece forces me into the intricate details.

So, after our sing though most of the cast was released, and the creative team took a break. Then our wonderful Young Lyra came in to work on her song. She sounds fantastic and just brings the song to life. As older Lyra I have to sing a reprise of the song later, and I took some notes on her vocal choices and style so I can hopefully reference her performance in my own.

Then Young Lyra left, and Evan and I got to spend a little time together debriefing. When you get into rehearsals you don’t always get a lot of time alone with your collaborator – you’re always meeting with the whole creative team, and then often going away on your own to get your work done. It’s nice to have some time to just check in with your collaborator one on one.

Then I had a phone meeting with my fight choreographer for an upcoming production of “Hamlet” I’m doing that starts rehearsals the day after “Lyra” ends (I know, I’m insane.) And I may be interrupted from writing this any minute to jump onto a phone meeting with Evan and our musical director to talk about todays rehearsal and set up a game plan for Sunday, and heading into next week. We’re off tomorrow, which isn’t really a day off since I have to prep for Sunday. But I’m hopefully going to have a little time with some friends to relax a bit.

I’m so excited for you to see this show. I’m really proud of it, and am already sad thinking about the next couple weeks coming to an end.

On a side note, as I continue this blog, please let me know if you have any questions you’d like me to answer.

P.S.  We did a little vlog interview with one of our cast members today (we’ll film more in the coming days,) and he was teasing me about “stumping him” with the questions I asked. I said he should read this blog and prepare REALLY good questions to try and stump me when it comes time to film my vlog interview.

So, hi Craig! Bring it on!

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:

You can also follow us on:

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.