BWW Exclusive: New Musicals at 54 Series - Jennifer Ashley Tepper Interviews Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner About 17 AGAIN
New Musicals at 54 is a series presented by Feinstein's/ 54 Below Programming Director Jennifer Ashley Tepper. Some of the 10 new and diverse musicals by a selection of today's most talented writers have had out-of-town productions, some have had workshops... now's your chance to be first to see them in NYC! Join us at New Musicals at 54 for one-night-only concerts celebrating each new show with songs, behind-the-scenes stories, and all-star casts!
Click here to learn more about the New Musicals at 54 series. Use code NEW20 when purchasing tickets to three or more shows in the series in a single order and receive 20% off tickets in the Main Dining Room or Bar Rail.
Tickets and more information: http://54below.com/artist/new-musicals-at-54-17-again-by-michael-weiner-alan-zachary-marco-pennette/
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: When did you start writing 17 Again? How did the job come about and how did you land it, with Warner Brothers?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: We were approached by Mark Kaufman of Warner Brothers Theatre Ventures a few years ago about the possibility of adapting their film 17 Again as a stage musical. We had already worked with Mark on our adaptation of his film Secondhand Lions so we knew each other well and had a great relationship. Sometimes we demo for a job, but in this case Mark offered it to us, and we're glad he did!
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: Amazing! For those who don't know, Mark Kaufman is the Executive Vice President of Warner Brothers Theatrical Ventures, and has been instrumental in bringing WB titles to the stage including most recently, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Misery, and The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time.
Tell us about what stirs you in telling the particular story of 17 Again on stage.
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: What drew us to the material was the concept of a guy who had it all in high school looking back at his life from a disappointed place in his mid-30s and wondering where it all went wrong. And then a fantastical journey of self-discovery that makes him realize that all the choices he made were worthwhile and he'd do it all again if he had the choice. We all have dreams when we're kids that aren't necessarily what our life turns out to be, and we really loved the idea of telling a story that explored someone struggling with unfulfilled expectations and realizing what's really important in life.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: I love a good musical that plays with the time continuum. What excites you most about writing for the theatre today? And on the flip side, what are the most significant challenges you feel that writers for the theatre face in 2015?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: Both of us have always been drawn to telling stories through song. We love the power and emotion that music can provide. When the story, characters and songs are all working together, and it's literally happening live right in front of you... that's a magic that only theatre can provide. So it's always exciting to work in that medium.
One of the most significant challenges writers face today is simply getting produced. It's so expensive and it takes so long to get a new show up on its feet that it's hard to make a living writing solely for the theatre. We've been lucky to have had one of our shows, First Date, produced on Broadway and we can honestly say that we learned so much just by going through that process. The only way to get better at the craft is to write and, even more importantly, collaborate with a team all the way through production. And because of the financials, that doesn't happen enough for writers.
And you can buy the original cast recording here!
What was your first exposure to theatre? When did you know it was what you wanted to pursue as a career?
MICHAEL WEINER: My parents took me to see a musical every weekend beginning when I was three years-old. We saw Richard Harris in Camelot maybe 15 times when I was 4 years-old, I think! We'd wait at the stage door and one day Richard Harris took us on a tour of backstage. I was hooked. I knew right then that I wanted to be in theatre.
ALAN ZACHARY: There's only so many times your parents can compel you to sing "Tomorrow" from Annie when you're 3 before you finally surrender yourself to the theatre. More than Sesame Street, I was raised on a steady diet of classic movie musicals and seeing Broadway shows with my family. I'm pretty sure my parents inadvertently hard-wired me for breaking into song.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: 17 Again involves the ways that decisions we make as teenagers can affect our whole lives. It's also part of the great tradition of stories-shows, TV, movies-that play with the time continuum to teach the characters what is important. Did you study the structure of any other teen stories, or "time-shifting" stories while creating 17 Again The Musical (other than the original film of course)? Were there tropes that are part of teen stories or time-shifting stories that you wanted to embrace? Ones that you wanted to avoid?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: We didn't really "study" any of the other teen-transformation stories. Both of us know Back to the Future pretty much by heart, and one thing we always loved in that story was Marty Mcfly helping his father as a teenager. In 17 Again, we get to play with that trope in the reverse... the 17 year-old version of the dad gets to help his teenage kids. It's not until he becomes their age and gets to know them that he starts to connect with them and realize the issues they've been grappling with. We definitely wanted to embrace the trope of getting to know your family, and yourself, in a whole new way because of a magical occurrence.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: You two are currently working on, or have worked on, projects in so many different mediums- a TV series for ABC, a live theme park show at Universal Studios, a Broadway musical, and on. What appeals to you about diversifying the forms you are writing in? How have you pursued so many different formats of entertainment at once?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: We love working on multiple projects at one time. It's exciting, it forces us to get work done, and it allows us to collaborate with a variety of incredibly talented people from whom we learn so much every day. Since we write both songs and scripts, we've been lucky to get to bounce back and forth between LA and NYC. Writing pilots for ABC, FOX, Disney Channel, etc. has taught us how to be better storytellers. What we've learned from those experiences finds its way into the songs and shows we're writing for theatre, and vice versa.
When it comes to writing for theme parks like Disney and Universal, it's been such a gratifying experience. You're creating a theatrical experience in these amazing places, often times getting to write for well-known characters who mean so much to people. And as an executive at Disney once pointed out to us, the shows in these parks are a lot of kids' first exposure to live theatre! It's a huge responsibility, and we always jump at the opportunity to do it.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: This is Megan Hilty performing from Twice Charmed, a show that Michael and Alan wrote for Disney Cruise Lines:
You met and began working together in high school! How has your collaborative process changed since then? What were your earliest projects?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: We both play piano, we both write lyrics and we both write scripts, so ever since high school we have collaborated on all those elements together. Our process hasn't really changed much. We take turns at the piano, we sit at a coffee shop and talk story and lyrics endlessly, we proof and revise each other's MIDI, Pro Tools, Finale and Final Draft files, and the list goes on.
Our first project was writing a screenplay and songs for an animated musical feature adaptation of the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. In the wake of the new Golden Age of Disney animated films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, we wanted to combine our passion for musicals and movies and write one ourselves. We were 17 years old and thought we'd get hired by Disney right then! Of course it didn't happen quite that quickly, but we ended up adapting that script into a stage musical, which landed in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival and got us our first theatre agent! Just goes to show you never know where things will lead!
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What musicals, plays, music, film, television, or other art do you consider most formative to your writing sensibility-both in your work in general and on 17 Again? What artists do you find inspiring?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: There are probably too many to name! In the world of theatre, we've both been inspired by artists like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Sondheim and shows as diverse as Les Mis, Falsettos, Rent, The Music Man and so many more. In film/TV, our influences range from Capra to Spielberg to Pixar, from classic films like Casablanca and Singin' In The Rain to modern classic TV series like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Friends. What really lights the fire for us is great storytelling, regardless of the medium.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: You have developed and presented 17 Again in several readings so far. What do you feel you've learned along the way that has been most valuable to the show? How has the piece evolved since you began?
Click here for the announcement about one of the readings.
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: We've had two official readings of the show in front of invited audiences, which have been extremely useful and enlightening. From a story perspective, we learned that we really needed to focus on the story of the family and the issues that our lead character discovered about his wife and children. In the first reading, the structure felt right but the heart of the characters' journeys felt a bit underdeveloped. We left that reading wanting to see more of the problematic family dynamic prior to our lead becoming 17 Again, so we could really understand and invest in what he was up against. Similarly, the issues that his son and daughter were grappling with at school felt a little cliché, so we looked to deepen those characters and their arcs.
We also realized that we had the opportunity to employ a device you could only achieve in musical theatre - the 17 and 35 year-old version of the lead character sharing stage time and interacting with each other. We wrote a new song for them for the second reading and it seemed to work extremely well as it reminded the audience that the two actors of very different ages were in fact the same character.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What else are you working on right now? What are you most looking forward to working on in 2016?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: In terms of theatre, there's Secondhand Lions, which had a successful world premiere at the 5th Avenue Theatre a few years ago. There should be another production announced very soon. We're working on a new musical with bookwriters Jon Tolins and Rob Cary called Take The Lead, which tells a story inspired by famed ballroom dance instructor Pierre Dulaine. We're also developing an animated movie musical with a production company at Warner Brothers as well as a TV project with Zachary Levi, who starred in First Date.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What is the best advice you've received or lesson you've learned as a writer? What do you wish you could tell younger writers and/or the younger version of yourself?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: Don't write or focus on just one project for years!!! Create a hundred projects because 10 of those will get produced and 1 will be a hit. Don't self-edit too soon or you won't finish anything. Let your first draft be bad but complete. Then rewrite.
Say "yes" to offers more often than you say "no." Oftentimes it's not about that particular project but the people you end up meeting by working on it that lead to something you never could have expected. By saying "yes" to Secondhand Lions, we've been able to work with Rupert Holmes, the brilliant bookwriter on the project, and Scott Schwartz, our fantastic director. And that show led to 17 Again because of our relationship with Mark Kaufman at WB. And now we're not only getting to write a show that's really fun and exciting, but we're working with phenomenal talents like Adam Shankman (director of the Hairspray movie) who is directing and choreographing, and Marco Pennette (TV's Ugly Betty & Mom) who's writing the book - both of whom have taught us a lot about comedy.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What are you excited for audiences to see at Feinstein's/54 Below? What can they expect in the 17 Again concert presentation?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: First of all, we LOVE 54 Below. It's a first-class space and we're honored to present 17 Again there in this amazing series of new works. We're going to present a good portion of the score in concert form - taking the audience through the story so they understand what's going on - but mostly focusing on the songs. We'll have some great performers who people will definitely know... we've been so lucky to have two amazing casts for our readings and some of them will be joining us. All in all, it should be a fun, energetic and uplifting night... just like the show!
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What is your ideal future for 17 Again?
ALAN ZACHARY AND MICHAEL WEINER: We just want to share what we've created with audiences. 17 Again should appeal to adults as much as it appeals to teens - as it's really about a man who gets a second shot to make things right with his teenaged kids and wife. So wherever the future leads - be it Broadway, a tour, schools, or anything in between - we're just excited for people to come and have fun and hopefully even be moved by the show.