BWW Interviews: Aaron Alon, Justin Doran, and Brad Goertz talk BULLY, A NEW MUSICAL and its Concept Cast Album
In recent American culture, bullying has reached new heights and gained a lot of power. It seems like the word and programs implemented to stop bullying are inescapable. Sadly, it also seems that these prevention programs are largely ineffective. In Houston, Texas, a skilled group of talented professionals are embarking on a creative venture that may or may not answer some questions we all have about bullying. BULLY, A NEW MUSICAL, conceived as a film, has a score, lyrics, and book written by Aaron Alon. The goal of the project is to get people talking in hopes that those conversations will be reparative, meaningful, impactful, healing, and begin to reexamine and even create new solutions to the problem of bullying. Recently, I sat down with writer Aaron Alon, director Justin Doran, and actor/singer Brad Goertz, and discussed this new musical film in the making and its upcoming Concept Cast Recording.
BWW: What was the inspiration for the musical BULLY?
Aaron Alon: I was trained for about 10 years as a classical composer, and in my classical music I often take on social issues, everything from child abuse to the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When I was trying to think of something for a new musical, I did what most new musicals do and thought about adaptations and things like that. Then I thought, "What's something that really matters to me? What's something that feels important to me right now?" The bullying that people experience in schools and in life, as young people especially, is something that had been something weighing on my mind for a long time. There of course had been a lot of highly publicized suicides over the last several years that brought more national attention to it, but it's a longstanding problem that I think really deserves some attention. Not just focusing for a few days on an individual incident, but looking more globally at what it's like for everybody involved and all the different parts of the community.
Justin Doran: Wow! (Aaron Alon Laughs)
Brad Goertz: That was deep.
Justin Doran: Yeah! Really.
BWW: BULLY is currently being prepared as a film musical. Did you ever think of making it a stage musical?
Aaron Alon: Yeah, we've talked about that, actually.
Justin Doran: Yeah.
Aaron Alon: One of the hopes I have, and I think Justin [Doran] can speak to this too, is if it's successful and well received as a film musical, I would love to see it happen. It would have to be rewritten as a stage musical, but I'd love to see it go on as a stage musical. Because I saw this as an important social issue, film and distribution through the internet felt like a really good medium to try and get this a wider audience, try get more people to see this and engage with it, and start a dialogue about it. Eventually, I really would hope it would go on to stage productions.
Justin Doran: I also think if we have it digital [Pauses] more kids are going to see it. They're not going to come to the theatre. I mean, look around at the audiences. They all look like us. Those kids who really need to hear this message, they're going to tap into some digital content before they buy a ticket, find their way, ask their parents for a ride to the theatre (Brad Goertz Laughs) to sit there. What are they going to say? "Hey, dude. (Laughs) This is like my story on stage. I get bullied because I'm gay. Come with me to the theatre!" (Brad Goertz Laughs) There are just so many sort of things surrounding that that are difficult to bridge for a kid.
Brad Goertz: It's a little more accessible.
Justin Doran: Yeah. This is something that when you see it, I think, you can say "Oh, I identify with this." Right? I mean, everybody got bullied. I imagine so. (To me) Did you get bullied?
BWW: I did.
Justin Doran: (To Aaron Allon) Bullied?
Aaron Alon: Yeah.
In the script the kid, not to give away anything--it happens pretty early on--but the kid finds a gun. In Texas, you can go into anybody's house, open their kitchen drawer, and you're like "Is the silverware here? Where are the guns?" Right? There, so it's pretty accessible. It's quick. And in those moments [being bullied], I remember, in those years, I thought, "This will end my world." Everything was so earth shattering in those decisions, and you don't really understand the finality of that. It wasn't until I was in my late twenties that I thought, "Oh my gosh, I could actually die." (Laughs) And what happened after that? I mean, I partied pretty fast and loose there for a while. So, taking your life as a middle schooler or high schooler, you think, "Yeah. This is doable. I could do this." And, you know, you've got all that stuff going through you, and you think "Yeah. I'm yeah..." (Pauses) Everybody entertains that thought, don't they? Like what would it be like to off yourself.
Brad Goertz: Yeah. My experiences were a little bit different as a young kid. My sister, who is seven years older than I am, actually attempted suicide when she was 16. So, I had an early experience with seeing somebody try it. It affected the way I thought when I started to get bullied in junior high. I did not take the same path as my sister because I saw where it led her, but it still deeply affected me, being treated that way.
Justin Doran: Yeah, and it's so much of your own self worth, at that age, is what other people think of you.
Brad Goertz: Mm-hmm.
Justin Doran: And maybe it's the same now, we're better at masking it. (All Laugh) A lot of it is that way.
Brad Goertz: That's why we do theatre. (Laughs)
Justin Doran: Right! Exactly right! We need that validation somewhere! So, when I read it, I thought, "Thank God! The writer put him taking his life early." Because we knew it was coming, right? We saw that, and it was still a little bit shocking. How those ripples affect his family and those other kids, I thought that the characters were written pretty true to life. Those parents that meet with the principal, I know those people. Those people live in my neighborhood.
Brad Goertz: Yeah, that's what I really appreciated about the script. Each family had it's own distinct set of dynamics that are really prevalent in today's society. Different ideas are instilled in the kids, like when they are watching behind a corner as their parents' fight and all these different scenarios, which pretty much every kid has experienced now.
Justin Doran: Yeah. I thought that a particularly touching scene was when Tommy approaches the kid at the bus and accidently tears his shirt because he's trying to get away. He actually reaches out, but not in public. (Pauses) Right? There's nobody else around because Tommy, one of the bullies, is afraid of the horde turning on him for fear that they saw the two of them together. He says, not in front of his friends, but off in private, "Hey, I know you're gay. Don't worry. Just try and hide it better." The extent of his cowardice is pretty extreme. The fact is that he does it off to the side so that the tide doesn't turn and they don't take him down as well.
Aaron Alon: I think it's cowardice and bravery, in a way. He doesn't have to come forward at all to him to him. To my mind, anyhow, he doesn't have to come forward to Sam. He doesn't have to warn him.
Justin Doran: He doesn't, but (Pauses) I think it's a pretty cowardly move. I do. To say, "Hey, I want to assuage my own guilt about perhaps what's going on with you, but I'm not going to do anything to affect a change. And, I'm not going to do it so anyone hears our conversation. I'm not going to tell anyone about it. It's just going to make me feel better." It sure as hell doesn't make him [Sam] feel any better. He was frightened it was going to happen again. I think that's cowardice.
Brad Goertz: Yep. I see that.
Aaron Alon: Yeah.
Justin Doran: Well, that's a longer debate. (All Laugh)
BWW: What has the writing process for BULLY been like?
Aaron Alon: I came up with an initial script, just really a very rough first draft. I'm a big believer in the adage "writing is rewriting." So, I came up with a very rough first draft. There are always people you can show it to that will tell you how great everything is, but really you want to show it to the people that are going to give you honest feedback. So, one of the first people that I showed it to was actually Justin [Doran]. I showed him a very early draft, and he let me know that it wasn't really working yet. And he was right. I revised and revised, and kept on revising it. I tightened the story, completely re-envisioned a lot of things, and came back to him with another draft of the script. At that time, I think it was far more effective. I continue to revise as time goes on. I was just telling Brad [Goertz] that one of the singers on the demo recording, Amanda Passanante, when she read the script said, "It was a beautiful script, I was crying at the end, but I did notice that in this one scene with my character, she sings this, and I don't think she would do that. I think she would do this." I went back and rewrote the lyrics for a verse of two, and said, "Yes! That's it!" What a great help and a great insight, for someone to be identifying with their character and to give me feedback that I can then use. I'd say it's been largely a continual revising process that we're still going though, and I'm so privileged to work with so many smart and talented people that can give me that kind of feedback.
BWW: We've touched on this a little bit already. The plot of BULLY is very current and topical, which should give it wide appeal. What do you hope your various audiences will take away from the project?
Justin Doran: Well, how about I go on the low end of the spectrum? If nothing else, it will be a way to have that conversation. Maybe the kid will say, "Hey, Dad, you know, I've heard you call those guys 'fags' before, and, look, that's pretty hurtful." Or, "Hey, you know, I think I'm like one of those kids that bullies other kids. I'm like one of those mean kids at school." Or, "That has happened to me." You know, you see an insight into everybody's home life, a little bit. There's some issues in everybody's family. Nobody comes across as perfect, clean, or really as a hero in this thing at all, except, maybe, the dad. The dad is a pretty good guy. I think that maybe it'll start some conversation as a catalyst for conversation. If that's the minimum that happens, then I think you can stamp success on that.
Brad Goertz: Yeah, I'm picking up a little bit on the earlier conversation on it. It's something where this script has so many elements that everyone can identity with at least something. For instance, struggling with working in a school system, knowing that things are happening underneath their noses that are not really being addressed in a proper way.
Justin Doran: Yeah. They don't have the tools to address it. They know it's happening, but what do we do?
Brad Goertz: Yeah.
Justin Doran: We did what we were told to in the handbook. We reprimanded these students. The teacher comes back and says that was a vacation for the punished students, and now they're cooler than ever because they got expelled or suspended and had these days off. That perpetuates it.
I love the fact that in the script it's written that the camera pans past a banner that read, "Erase the Hate." It's really a reference to "No Place For Hate." You can have all the banners you want, you can have it be a "No Place For Hate" school, but, really, that undercurrent is still there. You're just saying we don't want to do this in public. But really, what are the tools that you're giving these educators, as Brad stated, to do something about it? And, in one of the scenes, and I think it plays well, there is no buy in from the family. "No place for hate, okay. We won't hate here, but when you're not looking, right, what our kids do is one thing, and the kid actually deserved it. He looked at my kid in the shower." That's so ridiculous. How do you prove that? (Laughing) Straight guys look at each other in the shower. They're a bunch of dudes showering together. What are you supposed to do? (All Laugh) It's an impossible task, right! Right?
Aaron Alon: Yeah.
Justin Doran: So, I think Brad hits the nail right on the head there when he says that these educators don't have the tools they need. I mean, what are the tools? We can't say. I mean, how do you deal with something like that?
Brad Goertz: What's the best or most appropriate way to handle it? And even on the other side of it, when they mention the vigil, the principal says "Don't glorify this kid who committed suicide by having this vigil."
Justin Doran: Yeah, martyr him! I think is the script's wording.
Brad Goertz: So, yeah. That's another interesting aspect to have to handle appropriately.
Justin Doran: Right.
Aaron Alon: The press interests me in this too. There's always this question about the press who comes in and they're there for like a day. They have a song "The More It Bleeds, The More It Leads," a play on the famous "If it bleeds, it leads" tagline from newspapers and things like that, but who are the real bullies in this? Is it the bullies? Is it the parents of the bullies? Is it the press who comes in and descends like vultures on everyone else? Who do we blame? Who do we help? I don't know that the script necessarily gives answers, but I think it's asking important questions. With the 24 hour news cycle, we're so interested in those quick, cut-and-dry answers, that I think that that's...
Brad Goertz: Not the Jodi Arias trial.
Aaron Alon: Exactly! (Laughs) But we want those quick answers. We want to get in and out. Just how often do you hear even follow up on stories in the news? I've had many times where I've wondered, "What happened to those people?" That story's left incomplete for me, but it's no longer hot in the news. So, I hope that we expose enough to open the door for questions and for this conversation that Justin [Doran] and Brad [Goertz] were talking about. That we realize these issues are complex and are going to require us to invest more than that day of intense anger and mourning. We have to broaden this into a larger conversation.
Brad Goertz: The anger and mourning, that's a key part for what I was able to identify with with Mr. Bradley. When my mother committed suicide, my initial reaction was anger. It still is to this day, almost two years later. I'm still angry about that. I can't believe she did that, so that's one thing that is really key for the father, and it's just a typical response to that sort of death.
Justin Doran: Yeah, and these are all things that nobody likes to talk about. All of these things. It's hard to talk about bullying, even if you're the parent of the kid who's the bully. It's hard to talk about, as a parent, if your kid is getting bullied. It's sort of like it's a reflection on you. Your dander goes up, right? So, it's embarrassing on both sides. I mean, how do you talk about suicide? Everybody, no matter who you are, has been affected by either a friend, family member, or somebody that has taken their life. Really, there's no good way. I mean, what do you say? How do you talk about that? There has to be some sort of impetus for that discussion, and I think (To Aaron Alon) your script does a good job in providing that.
Aaron Alon: Thank you.
BWW: As you continue to fine-tune the writing, you have started recording a concept cast album for BULLY. What motivated this decision?
Aaron Alon: Well, we want to get the work out there. We want to get people interested in it. Films are very, very expensive endeavors. If we're going to be applying to grants, if we're going to start getting people to take an interest in this project, even if we're going to harness the power of micro-donations on sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Go Fund Me, we really need people to see what this work is about. We want them to see sort of a mock up scene from the film, we want them to hear some of the music, and we've been very lucky in getting some of the most talented musical theatre performers in Houston, so we're able to say "Look, we want to do this, and we want to do this right, with fantastic talent across the board, but we're going to need help to do that." So, Thunderclap Productions, our company, has every intention of producing this, but we will need help to make that a financial possibility. So, to a large extent, I think this is about getting the project out there and getting people interested in it.
Justin Doran: And it's not an untested format anymore, with musicals on screen. I mean, look at GLEE, look at SMASH, or any of those things where people are sitting around like this and then all of a sudden break into song. It would have been unheard of 5 or 7 years ago, but now the path is sort of cut for you. People know what to expect. I think pervading the mainstream and a digital release is a great way to grow an audience.
BWW: The concept cast album features some of Houston's finest stage talents. How did you cast the concept album?
Brad Goertz: Rusty pipes.
Justin Doran: (Laughing) Yeah. (All Laugh) Well, I think, Aaron (Alon) has an A-List that he goes to, and people really enjoy working with him on his projects. In terms of care and feeding creatives, he is very kind, a great listener, and bright. The stuff that he writes is really good, and he sometimes tailors that stuff to the performer. It seems to me (To Aaron Alon) when you're writing that you have somebody in mind. (To Brad Goertz) And how often do you have, as a performer, someone write something for you? (To Me) Usually, you're trying to fit yourself into someone else's box, but I think that he hears this local talent, these voices, while he's composing and putting things together. Of course, I didn't write it, so it's completely conjecture. (Laughs)
Aaron Alon: It's all true, actually.
Justin Doran: In terms of casting it, we wouldn't go in other direction than with the cast we already have. And it's tricky. I think we should probably mention in terms of the financing and things like that, the sooner the money comes together, the sooner that we can do more than just the one sort of promo piece that we're going to work on. Also, as people's schedules get busy, people move, and live happens, it becomes increasingly more difficult to keep the people who these parts were written for and composed for together. Isn't that fair to say?
Aaron Alon: Absolutely.
Justin Doran: So, maybe someone will read your article and then want to write a big fat check. (Aaron Alon Laughs)
BWW: That would be fantastic.
Justin Doran: Yeah it would.
BWW: I'm hoping that's the case.
Justin Doran: I am too.
BWW: When I saw this pop up on Brad (Goertz)'s Facebook, I thought, "That sounds awesome." I couldn't believe no one was talking about it yet. I knew I had to get it up on BroadwayWorld. I had to help get the word out there.
Justin Doran: Well, it's just ready now, I think.
Aaron Alon: I mean, we're just...
Justin Doran: (Finishing Aaron Alon's Thought)... just past the incubation period.
Aaron Alon: That's right. I mean, the recordings are going to start popping up late this month, early next month. We're hoping to film sometime next month, if we're able to get everything together by then. So, yeah, you're coming in right at the beginning stages of it coming into fruition, which is nice.
BWW: Good. So, what has it been like recording the music for the album?
Aaron Alon: It's been really exciting, actually. When I've done demo recordings before, it's always been just piano and voices. This time we decided to go a different route. We wanted to give people a better sense of what this might actually sound like. Now, if we end up with a huge budget to work with, fingers crossed, maybe I'll be able to orchestrate it for a small orchestra or something like that. For this, I used six very, very talented musicians, including some doublings. We went into Wire Road Studios, recorded the instrumentalists, and over the last several weeks and we're continuing to, we're recording the vocalists coming in and over-dubbing on top of those recordings. Brad [Goertz] was one of our earliest ones to record and just did a beautiful, beautiful job with his songs. He did just amazing, fantastic work. So, I think we're going to end up with some demos that will really give people a sense of "Wow, this is going to sound like a Hollywood movie," but with singers who are great actors instead of actors who sing.
Brad Goertz: I agree. It was a fun experience working with Aaron [Alon] in the studio, and that studio in particular was a good environment. We had good communication, I think, from inside the room to inside the sound room. Aaron's really good about giving the direction of how to tweak it just to make that one phrase sound the way he envisioned it. It's easy to incorporate his instruction.
Aaron Alon: Thank you. One of the great things about working with very talented musicians, singers, directors, and actors is that they will bring things to your work that you didn't know were there. That's always exciting. I remember when Brad was recording, I gave him one simple direction for this one verse. He sang it, and I went "Wow." (Laughs) It was just amazing. It was so well done. That's such an incredible pleasure and delight.
It's been the same experience when I worked with Justin [Doran] in the past. Justin is my favorite director in Houston. Not just because of the final project, which is always incredible to see, but it's always amazing to watch a rehearsal of his in progress. Sometimes you see people making art or doing something in the arts and you think, "Wow, I could really learn from them. That's really amazing. I need to try some of those things." But other times you see people who are so incredible at what they do that you just think, "I don't even know why I would bother. (Laughs) I might as well throw the towel in now." It's like when I saw LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE, I thought, as a playwright, "And, I'm done." (Laughs) When I see Justin direct, and I've had limited directing experience, I just think "Wow. I don't know how he's doing that." So, it's just really amazing. We have such a great team put together for this.
BWW: We've touched on this already, but this project seems like a true collaboration with everyone involved. Tell me a little more about the collaboration process.
Justin Doran: We're right on the cusp of that. This is where we all put our heads together. Right now, we've all been operating fairly independently at bringing the book, the score, and the script together. But, I think we're just about to jump off there. So that's when we all get in the same room. Right now, it's been everyone to their own separate spaces. We'd come together for elements of the project, but now we all have to get together. Is that fair to say? I mean more work has been done on the music than on any of the visuals of the project, and that's where I come in. So, I've just been observing from a far.
Aaron Alon: Justin [Doran]'s comments on the script have certainly been helpful, as have been comments I've gotten from the actors and other composer, lyricist, and book writer friends of mine. I'm a big believer in sharing your work with people you know are going to give you really deep, penetrative constructive response to your work. I've gotten those and made great major changes and continue to. It's definitely a collaborative process. Everybody involved with this has been willing to collaborate and has been helpful. They're all talented and smart people, which is a great place to be.
Brad Goertz: Which is a testament of how it is to work with you because in a lot of situations, you can't say that to the person who wrote the music. They don't want to hear that, but Aaron [Alon] is not that type. He is very open and willing to listen to all the perspectives.
Justin Doran: Yeah. There's very little ego, which is really nice.
Aaron Alon: Thank you guys.
BWW: With such notable stage talent singing these roles on the recording, are there plans for a staged concert of BULLY?
Aaron Alon: There is now!
Justin Doran: Yeah, that is a good idea! We could use it as a fundraiser.
Aaron Alon: We're already got the recording of the instrumentals.
Justin Doran: That's right. That's a really good idea.
BWW: I'd go. (All Laugh) To see that cast on stage together, I'd be there. I'd think a lot of people in Houston would feel the same way.
Justin Doran: Fantastic.
Aaron Alon: Although, I will say, as busy as this group of talent is, one of the nice things about doing a recording is you can have different people come in at different times, so getting everybody there on the same day can be, you know...
Justin Doran: Logistically challenging.
Aaron Alon: Yeah, logistically challenging.
Justin Doran: There's Monday night.
Aaron Alon: Yeah. We should definitely do that!
BWW: In your experiences so far, what have been the best aspects of creating a film musical?
Justin Doran: Well, it has to be people like Brad [Goertz]. (Brad Goertz laughs) That's my go to answer. No, I'd say the people involved. That's who you're going to spend a majority of your time in the room with, and that's what makes it fun. Just the whole collaborative nature of it. You get to party. You get to kind of joke around and see good work up there. I would have to say, first and foremost, the people doing it. Also you know that everybody, when they sign on to a project, is in full support of what that message is, so it's nice to be around a lot of likeminded people who continue to, as Aaron [Alon] said, to tell you the truth, challenge you, and then you are awed by their talents. I think that it would have to be people for me.
Aaron Alon: I've enjoyed every part of this so far. I might have to jump on that bandwagon though. I have to say that Thunderclap Productions does pay all of the people involved with the demo recording, but they're getting paid for a demo recording. They're not getting paid much. They're doing this because they engage with the work, and it's just exciting to see all of these smart, incredibly talented people come together. It's an honor for me to have my work come to fruition at the hands of such gifted people.
Justin Doran: And they're practically doing it for free. They're not getting paid nearly what they're worth.
Aaron Alon: Not by a long stretch. Really, it's not about the money. It couldn't possibly be. (Justin Doran Laughs) Like so many of the great actors and singers that we have in Houston, they'll do community theatre productions where they get paid nothing because they love the work and they believe in the work. I just love working with these people. They're great people, and they're so good. I can write more advanced work that way. I can write it and know that if something doesn't work, that's on me (Laughs) because I'm getting the best possible treatment of my work possible. That's a real gift.
Brad Goertz: And it's not about the money, okay. (Aaron Alon and Justin Doran Laugh) But the thing that excites me about it is that there are so many aspects in the story that need to be out there, the conversations that need to be had, and there's really nothing like this out there now. That's kind of what's exciting to me, is to be able to get these issues out there. To see this family react like that and have them be able to relate to somebody in the audience. When Aaron [Alon] started telling me who had been able to secure for the other roles, that made me even more excited. So, just getting together with the people, seeing them together in the studio, and going, "Yeah, that's gonna be great. That's gonna be fun."
BWW: What have been the most difficult aspects?
Aaron Alon: I would say the most difficult aspect has been funding. We have interest, we have talent, we have a project that's sort of on the cusp of being ready to go, but coming up with the funding needed to produce a high quality independent film, where the production values of the film will do justice to these really talented people and this great team we have put together, that's been a real challenge. We were very fortunate to get a grant from the John Steven Kellett Foundation to help with this demo recording, but films are just obscenely expensive, and we really want to make a fine one. To my mind, that's been the most challenging aspect so far, getting the word out and getting funds raised for it. We're hoping that the release of these demo materials will help with that.
Justin Doran: Yeah. Funding and scheduling.
Aaron Alon: Scheduling, yeah. (Laughs)
Brad Goertz: I haven't had any difficulties yet.
Justin Doran: Gold. (All Laugh)
Aaron Alon's BULLY, A NEW MUSICAL's concept cast recording will be released soon. It features some of Houston's most noteworthy talent and will be worth listening to for that reason alone. For more information about BULLY, A NEW MUSICAL, please visit http://www.bullythemusical.com. Also, if you feel moved to make a tax-deductible donation to support BULLY, please click here.
Photo courtesy of Aaron Alon.