Haverty & Russ and Their Musical Journey to iGhost
The Los Angeles based writing team of Adryan Russ and Doug Haverty is getting ready to celebrate opening night of their newest musical, iGhost, May 20th at the Lyric Theatre. Russ provides the music, Haverty the book, and they work together on the lyrics. It's a partnership that goes back to their meeting years ago in Lehman Engel's legendary writing workshop.
Haverty says, "Lehman was our instructor. It was his last year on the planet and it was our first year doing that workshop. He ran the BMI workshop in New York and then he came out to LA to see if there was interest in doing it here. The plan was for him to come out every three months and do a concentrated week of workshops. He wasn't sure if anyone would even come, but at the first meeting 300 people showed up. We were in a rehearsal hall on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and he was flabbergasted. Then he asked if we were all crazy. He told us to march downstairs and buy a lottery ticket; that we had a better chance of winning the lottery than writing a hit musical. Well, we're still writing, and he's a big part of the reason why."
"Our very first project was a play Doug had written in 1984 shortly after we met," adds Russ. "Doug asked me to do the theme music for his play In My Mind's Eye so I wrote a song called 'In My Mind,' which we later recorded." That play is currently available through Samuel French.
Another early project was their award-winning off-Broadway musical, Inside Out, about six women in group therapy. It also grew out of the Lehman Engel workshop. The Group Rep in North Hollywood mounted the first production of the musical and it was scheduled to run for five weeks but kept extending until it ran for an unexpected 5-l/2 months. That was only the beginning.
According to Russ, "The Colony Theatre happened to be doing bonus productions for their subscribers at the time and Barbara Beckley was looking for a musical for one of the slots. Inside Out was chosen for the series, Scott Segal directed it, and it ended up being very well received by their audience. Later Barbara was in New York where she ran into a friend at the Village Theatre who was looking for a musical specifically for a cast of women."
Haverty remembers, "Barbara said the magic words - we just did this and our audience liked it. Well, they called and said they wanted to do it in June," adds Russ. "We thought they meant June the following year, but they meant a month later." Haverty continues, "It's ironic. Barbara hardly ever goes to New York and she hasn't been back in years. Those are the magical coincidences we love."
Up next for the longtime writing partners is iGhost, a contemporary twist on the Oscar Wilde classic The Canterville Ghost. American college student and budding young painter, Virginia Otis, goes to London on a work/study program and encounters Simon, the Canterville Ghost, in search of his lost love Lucinda. He may scare everyone else but he doesn't scare Virginia, who strikes up a dangerous and unlikely partnership with Simon to right some wrongs of the past.
As a child, The Canterville Ghost had long been one of Russ' favorite books. Unbeknownst to her, Haverty had also been a fan of the book. Years later, they saw a notice from Stages in Canada saying that they were looking to commission writers to turn the story into a musical. The pair submitted an outline and four songs and was awarded the commission. In the end, Stages didn't go ahead with the project but Haverty and Russ decided to finish the show anyway.
"That was about 6-7 years ago and the story has evolved quite a bit from its earliest version," says Haverty. "Originally the whole Otis family came from America and Virginia was only 8 years old. We decided to age her so there could be a love interest and we discovered that we had to get her to London quickly because that was where the real story was happening."
"It was a conscious decision to set the story in contemporary times and for good reason," he continues. "One of the main themes is connectivity. The two ghosts are estranged to the point that they can't even hear or see each other so Virginia tries to get them together. The question becomes, how do you connect things that have grown apart?
"And we compare Bluetooth wireless wizardry with ghosts because, when you think about it, they're not any different. There are signals of music, text, pictures, and words zooming around the room right now. People are picking them up on their laptops but we can't see them. You have to have the right receiver to pick up those signals. So why would it be any different for ghosts? We assume that when ghosts are haunting the same space they talk to each other but that's not always true. They can be on different signals."
Russ adds, "There is a point in the show when the ghost actually reaches for a signal to create a connection with Virginia's computer so he becomes a ghostly device that links the two worlds."
iGhost has been through a series of developmental readings; the last one in June of 2009 as part of the Los Angeles Festival of American Musicals at NoHo Arts Center. It was there that an old friend of Haverty's, Bonnie Snyder, who was also a member of the Lyric Theatre Company, saw the reading and had the idea to connect the writers and the Lyric's artistic director Dorrie Braun. They set up a meeting and much like it had happened for Inside Out going unexpectedly to New York, iGhost was quickly slated to open on the Lyric's spring schedule.
Another stroke of luck happened when director Jules Aaron had a break in his schedule between International City Theatre's recent production of Southern Comforts and his upcoming Broadway workshop that begins in July, so he came on board to helm the new musical in the interim. "Jules and I have worked together since the early '80s when we did the first reading of In My Mind's Eye at his theatre downtown, the Los Angeles Performance Unit," Haverty says shaking his head. "We go back a long way."
Aaron also directed Inside Out at Laguna Playhouse after it came back from New York, as well as Haverty's play Could I Have This Dance at the Colony Theatre. "I've worked with Jules as a dramaturg on a number of other plays and he is so knowledgeable. On iGhost he has involved himself in every aspect of the story. He knows every element of it. His vision of the show is very heightened and theatrical so we are presenting it as a stylized musical."
The duo is also proud of the work the cast has done on their behalf. "New musicals take an amazing amount of commitment and flexibility from everyone involved," says Russ, "and our actors do us proud. Our three principals are Rebecca Johnson as Virginia, Zachary Ford as Trevor and Peter Welkin as our ghost, Simon. Lyric Theatre artistic director Dorrie Braun plays our other ghost, Lucinda, and Bonnie Snyder is Mrs. Umney, the housekeeper. Her husband, Mr. Umney, is played by Paul Zegler.
Finding actors is tricky but Haverty and Russ say they have a method. "We actor shop!" Haverty laughs. "I'm an Ovation voter so we go see a lot of shows. We saw Zach at the Lyric in Little Women and he was terrific so we got his contact information immediately. Adryan saw Rebecca in Zanna Don't in Silverlake and Peter had been part of another reading Adryan had previously worked on.
Russ adds, "We have a fabulous ensemble too that includes Andrew Appel, Erin Carter, Kayla Dillman, Courtney Freed, Matthew Frow, Tyler Milliron, and R. Scott Thompson. Allison Bibicoff is our choreographer and Richard Berent is our musical director. Richard is also doing the orchestrations, which is particularly exciting for me, because he's done them so well."
The "why" of writing is different for every artist and for these two longtime collaborators, it's as natural as breathing. "For me it's like therapy," says Russ. "I cannot not write. There is something about the writing process that feels like an amazing accomplishment - especially when you can make something challenging work - and when you write a song, give it to an actor to learn, and he or she sings it and it becomes real. That's my idea of a natural high."
Haverty adds, "I started out as an actor and then I started writing things I could act in. As a writer, it's like being all of the parts. When she gets a laugh on that line, I get a laugh. When she made them cry at the end of the play, I made them cry. There is this creative energy that happens when a play works that is so rare. Little moments have a huge satisfaction level. I go to every show of ours because every performance is different and I want to experience that energy with that audience and that cast. Says Russ, "We both love sitting in the middle of the audience and feeling their response to our show because the audience is half of what happens in any presentation."
There is plenty more to come from these two talented writers. Adryan's interactive children's musical The Ugly Duckling is currently playing at Theatre West. In August, Doug's world premiere comedy Next Window Please opens at The Group Rep, which he describes as "Teller Line...it's like A Chorus Line but they're tellers working in a bank that goes through a merger and half the jobs must be eliminated. The pair also has ten songs written for a new historical musical that is waiting in the wings and another musical that was part of the Disney/ASCAP workshop.
For now, they'll be toasting the theater gods after their sold-out opening night of iGhost and sitting somewhere in the audience learning more about their musical's journey.
Tickets for iGhost are on sale at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/169940 or by calling 626-695-8283. Performances will continue through June 18. There will be post-show talkbacks with the cast and creative team following the Sunday evening performances on June 5 and 12 at 7pm. The Lyric Theatre is located at 520 N. La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, 90036. www.LyricTheatreLA.com.
iGhost is part of the Fourth Annual Festival of New American Musicals.