BWW Interviews: Dynamic Duo Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel Talk Creating LMNOP, A NEW MUZICAL
On the tiny fictitious island Nollop in the vast fictional land of LMNOP, A NEW MUZICAL, there stands a proud monument to the written word: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." How inscrutable. How profound. How profoundly inscrutable.
But then! The letters begin to surreptitiously fall from the island's precious monument. Thusly and rightly, government officials begin to ban the letters one by one. (It is also possible that the letters coincidentally fall, but government officials know it can't be poor urban planning or underfunded city maintenance and upkeep).
As the days go by, more and more letters fall, and the islanders are able to express less and less. In the end, it is up to Ella Minnow Pea, our plucky young heroine to rally the town and fight for the tyranny of the alphabet and against tyranny of the alphabet. Or more simply, to fight for the right to be tyrannized by the alphabet and not their government.
BWW: How does it feel to be doing this production at TUTS Underground?
Scott Burkell: It's great to be having our show done and to have a production of it. We always learn so much when we see the show up on its feet, and certainly a real live production with costumes and everything tells us even more. We feel grateful to be able to see the show in this state. Not the state of Texas. [Laughs] In this state of development.
BWW: [Laughs] I completely understand. You collaborated with the Houston-based production company Third Coast Creative, so I want you to talk about that. But first, could you tell me about the road from inception to now? I know that you had a workshop at the University of Michigan, but could you fix the timeline for me?
Scott Burkell: The first production of the show, the first time the show was up on its feet, was at the University of Michigan. That was in 2008 or 2009. By a strange quirk of fate - how do these things happen - Deborah Stavis, the president and founder of Third Coast Creative, happened to be in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She saw the show and contacted us. That started this relationship. She's become a very good friend. In terms of supporting our work both financially and from an emotional place, she's been such an angel in our career. It's something that you hope and pray for as a writer. This musical is great, but not so great if it's just Paul and I in the living room singing it to ourselves. But it's just so rare to find someone nowadays who will support you and put money behind you. Getting it out there, that's a very difficult leap. And we realize how lucky we are to have these opportunities. That's very much tied to Third Coast Creative. They've been with the show all along in its development and continue to be right there beside us. They're one of the reasons we came to Houston, actually.
BWW: So the musical, LMNOP, is an adaptation of Mark Dunn's novel Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters. Why this novel?
Paul Loesel: Scott and I had been looking for something to adapt after our first musical, which was an original story. So we looked at some novels and didn't agree on a couple. Then Scott read [Ella Minnow Pea] and had a very strong reaction to it. When he passed it on to me, within a few pages, I knew too that this was the one we wanted to adapt into a musical.
The big question I always ask, when I see something that's been turned into a musical from either a film or a book is, does it benefit from being a musical? Does it gain anything from being a musical? Why are these people singing? Why didn't they just leave it alone? This piece, because it dealt with big emotions and big themes, [we thought] that it really would benefit being sung. Then there were just so many opportunities within the book. We could both see, not only how it would make sense as a musical, but also how we would structure it. And just more specifically, we were both attracted to what the novel said. We were attracted to the story and--
Scott Burkell: -- its themes and its underlying messages about choice, and things that are certainly resonant in the time that we live in.
BWW: I know you adapted the story, but I want to ask about the characters you created.
Scott Burkell: We varied from the book. In Mark [Dunn's] book, characters actually kind of mirror each other. There are two young heroines or two mothers. There's two of everything. We knew right away that we were going to lop off half of those characters. [Laughs] Mark is very understanding, because he's also written a lot of plays. He knew it was going to be a different beast than his novel. And he's been very supportive of most of the changes we've made.
BWW: What about Ella Minnow Pea?
Scott Burkell: It's funny. In his book, although it's named Ella Minnow Pea, it's Ella's cousin Tassie who is the more interesting character and who is the one who sort of solves everything. So we actually gave a lot of Tassie's qualities to Ella. I've always meant to ask Mark about that, but that will come at another time. [Laughs]
BWW: Ella sounds great.
Scott Burkell: Ella is one of these great roles for an actress. A young actress has to rally the whole town together. She gets to be romantic. She gets to be, I hope, funny. She gets to be smart. She gets to be petulant. She gets to be many, many things all in one role. And she gets to sing a lot.
BWW: What are some of the challenges of writing the book for this piece?
Scott Burkell: The language keeps shrinking. My letters kept going away, so my choices kept going away. And my vocabulary became limited, which was incredibly frustrating at times. It still is as we're doing rewrites right now. If I had a dollar for everytime I said "I don't have any letters," I'd be rich. In that way, it's a huge challenge to write this, but I love words. One of the things that attracted me to the book was that I wanted to take on the challenge. [I thought] what will this be like, and can I do it?
BWW: Sometimes artists need limits. It makes them better. For example, comedians not being allowed to curse on Letterman. Do you think that the limitations in that respect make the piece better?
Scott Burkell: I do. I think you're right. I think sometimes structure and form can sometimes really free you up in a weird sort of way. Restrictions, in this case taking away letters, make you get to the essence of what you really want to say. That's a weird dichotomy about our human experience. When you put us behind walls, we somehow become free-er. It's very weird. I can't explain it. It does seem to be the case.
BWW: Paul, I read that you wanted a touch of classical music and art song influences in LMNOP. What is the reason for that?
Paul Loesel: I just felt that this community of people who isolated themselves, and were all about arts, language and, I guess, more refined things would be attracted to refined music, like classical music. And that maybe all of the musical choices would be based on that. Obviously, we're in musical theatre, and I write in a contemporary musical theatre style. But I feel like I've layered in some strains of classical music or, most notably, art song form.
BWW: Was it difficult in any way? Trying to meld the genres?
Paul Loesel: Yes, hopefully the style of the music in the show has its own flavor to it. We're in fable/allegory land, so it needs to be slightly not of this world.
BWW: Yes, you've said that you want to create a unique sound for the world of LMNOP. What was your process for that? What did you surround yourself with to make that happen?
Paul Loesel: It's a kind of osmosis of what I am attracted to personally. I listen to everything. In my classical world, I love everything from [Igor] Stravinsky to Björk. Scott and I are actually huge fans of Björk. [We Laugh] She obviously is her own kind of creature that melds pop and classical music herself, so I think that was a huge influence for me. She can have contemporary sound in her drums and her percussion. Then layer on massive amounts of strings. That's actually not what our score is. We don't use any kind of electronic percussion or anything.
In our world, it would be musical theatre melded with some classical elements. That goes into the orchestration of the show, which is done by Lynne Shankel. Instead of a more contemporary musical theatre sound of piano-based, drums, guitar, etc., we're going with piano-based percussion, cello, violin and french horn. It's the two other strings and the horn that give it the element of classical music also.
BWW: Scott, what did you surround yourself with when you were writing?
Scott Burkell: A thesaurus. [We all Laugh] Really, the thesaurus did become my best friend. Going [to it and saying] "there has to be another way to say this that doesn't have a 'D' in it." [Laughs] It actually made my vocabulary much bigger and more self-assured. There's so many words that we don't use. It's kind of fun. Also, I wanted the show to be smart. I wanted the show to reflect how intelligent I think this island is. It's very wordy. I'm sure you can ask the cast, as they curse me, how many words there are. [Laughs] But, if the worst thing that happens is somebody leaves this show and has to go look up a word, great! [Laughs] I'm tired of things being dumbed down for all of us. Why not rise to the challenge a bit?
BWW: Since it is a political piece, what do you want people to come away with at the end? Do you want them to be questioning? Do you want this to be propaganda? [Laughs] What are you looking for?
Paul Loesel: With anything like this, you want them to question their beliefs. Maybe question why they believe what they do, and how strongly they believe it. It makes us think. If people leave this show and it starts a discussion about change or choice, I think that's so exciting. I don't want to go to a show anymore and have my first thought when it's over be "Where are we going to go for dinner?" I want this to open a discussion. I feel like this musical is about something. I feel like so much of what I see is not about anything. And there is a place for that, but your diet has to be more than dessert.
Dessert is everything. Don't let anyone stop you from eating as much of it as possible. But have you tried brussel sprouts that have been baked to a crisp in oil, salt, and pepper then sprinkled with thin flakes of parmesan cheese? Heavenly. So eat your theatre vegetables and ascend to the skies with LMNOP.
Performances of the TUTS Underground production LMNOP are from April 7 - 19 at The Hobby Center, Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby St. For tickets and more information about LMNOP and TUTS Underground, visit http://tutsunderground.com/.