BWW Exclusive: New Musicals at 54 Series - Jennifer Ashley Tepper Interviews Hunter Foster and Paul Gordon About SLEEPY HOLLOW
New Musicals at 54 is a series produced 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-sleepy-hollow-by-hunter-foster-paul-gordon/
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story written by Washington Irving and published in 1820. When did you start writing your musical version Sleepy Hollow and what was the initial inspiration for it? What stirs you about telling this particular story on stage?
HUNTER FOSTER: I started writing it back in 2008 as part of a commission from the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. I am a big Halloween fan. I love scary stories and the Headless Horseman has always been one of my favorites. My wife and I have been to the Headless Horseman Hayride many times, which is a fantastic Haunted House upstate.
As I started to explore the story more, I began to realize that there might be parallels between the fear that exists in today's world and the fear that existed in this small town in the 1700s. I always thought of the play as a response to 9/11, and the fear that this country has been living with since that day. And how we've responded to that fear in questionable ways.
PAUL GORDON: I started writing the music to Sleepy Hollow a little over a month ago because Hunter was kind enough to invite me in to the project. However, I must have been very stirred by the idea because I've already written more than half the score in a short period of time. That either means I'm very inspired or slightly full of myself. Probably a little of both.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: Hunter, your other current writing projects include Circus in Winter, which was seen at Goodspeed and a brand new show with Georgia Stitt. Paul, you currently have Daddy Long Legs off-Broadway and you're working on a million other shows! 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 2016?
HUNTER FOSTER: For many years, I thought that musical theatre was sort of stuck in a formulaic rut. I used to call it "paint by numbers" Broadway. You could predict exactly how the show would play itself out because musicals seemed to be following some sort of unwritten rule of structure, while Broadway plays were challenging, thrilling and willing to think outside the box. But slowly things started to change. Urinetown was a show that seemed to break convention, and then we had Avenue Q which did the same and won the Tony. And now we have shows like Hamilton and Fun Home which are unlike anything we've ever seen. Musical Theatre is really moving in an exciting direction, and I think it should keep evolving.
The challenge for writers in 2016 is the ability to get your material seen and produced. There's a tremendous amount of material out there, more than ever, so the challenge is: how do you get someone to take notice of you and your work? I feel like I've been lucky because I've met some really wonderful people who've taken a chance on me, and I've been able to get so much of my work produced.
PAUL GORDON: What excites me most is getting to tell a story through music. It's the art form of musical theater itself that literally thrills me. Discovering new musical ideas through character and story telling is addictive and delicious. I hope I can keep doing this forever - which brings me to the second part of your question - what are the challenges. I can only speak for myself, but the big challenge is that as a librettist, lyricist and composer, I have very little say where my work is produced. I rely on the relationships I've built over the years - but artistic directors change, taste is subjective - and I find myself with more musicals than theaters for them to play in. And that's frustrating. At the same time I'm truly grateful for all of the theaters around the country and around the world who have performed my work. I really do pinch myself every day. (After I curse the theaters that don't do my work).
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What was your first exposure to theatre? When did you know it was what you wanted to pursue as a career?
HUNTER FOSTER: I did a production of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown when I was 13. I knew that I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to add lines to it.
PAUL GORDON: When I saw my Junior High School production of Bye Bye Birdie. I knew at that moment I loved musicals and wanted to make them. I was also convinced that 8th graders were the best musical theater actors.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: Sleepy Hollow is in the great tradition of musicals that are dark and thrilling rather than traditional "musical comedy". When writing a show like this, how do you balance light moments and humor with the emotional heft and darkness of the story?
HUNTER FOSTER: You have to find humor in everything. Sondheim finds so much humor in Sweeney Todd, and that show is the standard-bearer for the horror musical. I always look for humor whenever I can, but the challenge is maintaining the tone of the piece. Our show is definitely dark, so you can't write shtick. The humor has to come from the characters and the situation.
PAUL GORDON: I always use humor to tell stories regardless of the subject matter. (Perhaps that explains why no one has asked me to musicalize Ibsen) In a show like Hollow, it's important to give the characters some wit and lightness - especially since this is such a dark tale - we needed to balance the tragedy with comedy in order to assimilate the message we are trying to convey to the audience.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: Paul, in addition to Sleepy Hollow, you have written the scores to shows like Jane Eyre and Daddy Long Legs which are also adaptations of beloved properties. In adapting these properties, for a stage musical, how do you determine what to keep and what can be excised?
PAUL GORDON: Great question. With Jane Eyre we learned the hard way. In our first few productions, John Caird and I basically attempted to perform the entire novel on stage. In trying to stay so true to the authors intentions, we created, at first, a musical that would be better read than seen. But through trial and error I/we gradually became better equipped to decide which parts of a novel to musicalize and which parts to leave out. As an example, with Emma, I decided that Emma's sister and Knightley's brother - who take up numerous chapters in the book, were unnecessary in the story telling and I believe I made the correct decision. In Sense and Sensbility, I killed off the mother and the youngest sister - again, I didn't feel the characters were necessary in telling the story I wanted to tell. When musicalizing a novel, the most important thing is to know which parts to leave out of your musical. Of course you may irritate fans of the author. I have no doubt that if there is a heaven and if I'm allowed in (doubtful) I'm pretty such that Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wild and Charles Dickens are going to beat the shit out of me. (But in a loving way...)
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: Hunter, you work as an actor, a writer, and a director. How do you feel being an artist in one field impacts your work in the other? Can you speak of an example where your experiences working in one capacity made your approach to a project different, while working in another capacity?
HUNTER FOSTER: I believe they all work in harmony. George Wolfe says you should know all facets of the theatre, and the more you know, the better you'll be as a writer or a director or an actor. It has definitely helped me. As a director, I can relate to actors because I've been there. I know what it's like to be insecure about yourself and what you are doing. So, I approach directing as being a "teammate" to the actor as opposed to being a "coach". I want the actor to make choices that serve the piece as opposed to choices that are just trying to make me happy. And being a director helps me see things as a writer that I never saw before, and as actor I have such a better appreciation for the writers, the director and the creative process.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: One of my favorite facts about George C. Wolfe is that he got his college degree in writing, and Tony Kushner got his in directing-and when they collaborated with each other on Angels in America, one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, they each did the opposite. You really should know all facets of theatre, so you can excel in each!
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 Sleepy Hollow? What artists do you find inspiring?
HUNTER FOSTER: I was influenced mostly by the movies that I grew up with, and the two directors that were my favorites were Stephen Spielberg and John Hughes. Spielberg was the ultimate director in adventure and Sci-Fi, and his movies were funny too! Hughes captured adolescence in such a hopeful and beautiful way. I wanted to write because of their movies. Such great story-telling. Also, the screenwriter, Lawrence Kasden who wrote "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Empire Strikes Back".
PAUL GORDON: I loved Man In The High Castle. That has nothing to do with writing musicals, I just wanted to mention that I really love that show. But back to your question. For me, I'm inspired the most by great composers. Besides the array of classical composers that I listen to, I'm a huge John Williams fan and I listen to his film scores constantly. John has a melodic sensibility that just kills me, but the harmony and counter lines he writes underneath his melodies dazzle and thrill me musically. Of course, I am a Stephen Sondheim freak -- who I discovered in college when I put the vinyl record of A Little Night Music and my life was forever changed. He's God. That's all I can say about that. But I'm also greatly influenced by the pop song writers I grew up with. Lennon and McCartney, Brain Wilson, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro and so many more. The great melodies of pop music from 1964 - 1967 still move me today. And then there are the new musical theater writers that I love. Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown and David Yazbek are brilliant and I hate them for being more talented than I am. But I love how they inspire me to do better. (Or on some days, just to simply give up and drink).
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: You have developed Sleepy Hollow with the Signature, a wonderful Tony Award-winning regional theater in Arlington, Virginia. 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?
HUNTER FOSTER: Eric Schaeffer and the Signature Theatre were so helpful in the creative process. Eric is such a champion of new musicals, and it was such a blessing to have started the show at Signature.
After the world premier at Signature, the show stalled -- as they sometimes do --and Sleepy Hollow was put away for a while, and I didn't think about it much. But, then you take the script out again many years later, and everything is sort of reset in your mind. You can see it with fresh eyes again. Then you bring on a new and exciting composer like Paul Gordon, and he looks at the piece and he offers such fresh and exciting new ideas. He writes a brand new score, and it's like starting over. Even though in many ways, the libretto has remained intact, having a new score has opened up so many new and intriguing possibilities.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What else are you working on right now? What are you most looking forward to working on in 2016?
HUNTER FOSTER: Oh my...so many things. I've never been so busy. It's really exciting, though. I'm writing a new show called The Circus in Winter that Joe Calarco is directing. We just finished a reading last week. I am writing a few things with Georgia Stitt, who is one of my favorite composers. We have a new musical that it is one of the most personal things I've ever written. I'm directing 5 things this year including Grease down in North Carolina where I'm collaborating with my wife, Jennifer Cody, who is choreographing; and I'm working on many other projects with other writers, as well as writing a few new things myself.
PAUL GORDON: I'm working on lot of projects at the moment, I'm happy to say. We just finished a run of Emma at TheatreWorks where it became the highest grossing show in their 48 year history. I'm lucky enough to have Daddy Long Legs playing off Broadway currently along with a production in Korea coming up in the spring. (We also just made a licensing deal on the show with MTI, which is very exciting). Sense and Sensibility recently won the Jeff Award for Best New Work for our production at Chicago Shakespeare last year and it will now move on to the Old Globe in San Diego this summer. I've been developing a Christmas musical with John Caird called Little Miss Scrooge which is a Dickensian mash-up of sorts. We hope to have a first production this Christmas. I hope it's okay to say this - it's not announced yet, but I'm working with Eric Schaeffer at the Signature on a musical called The Front, based on the film written by Walter Bernstein about the Hollywood Blacklist. (It starred Woody Allen and Zero Mostel) I'm really excited about the development of this project. I'm also developing a musical called Being Earnest BEING EARNEST, based on the Oscar Wild classic but set in London on Carnaby street in 1965 at the height of the British Invasion. I can't tell you the name of our director yet, but it is someone I have always wanted to work with. And I just recently completed a reading of a new pop musical called Death: The Musical. Oh, and I'm writing a new show with Curtis Moore called Juliet and Romeo. And occasionally, I sleep.
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?
HUNTER FOSTER: I've learned so much over the years working with such great artists as John Weidman, Doug Wright and Greg Kotis. I think the best lesson is to believe in your original idea and stay true to that. There are going to be so many influences from producers and critics that will take you away from that original inspiration, but hold onto what got you excited about the project in the first place. Whenever I feel lost, I always go back to that original idea.
PAUL GORDON: Patience. Patience and Patience. And work hard. And listen. That's one of the hardest things to do. When people come at you with thoughts, critique and comments about your work, just listen. Don't defend. Listen. Then get a good nights sleep, wake up the next day and see what thoughts and comments resonate for you. Art is subjective and we don't always have the same taste. That means there may be criticism that's valid, but it's simply not the way you see it. But stay open. And did I mention patience?
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What are you excited for audiences to see at Feinstein's/54 Below? What can they expect in the Sleepy Hollow concert presentation?
HUNTER FOSTER: This exciting new score and a fresh new take on this classic story.
PAUL GORDON: I hope we are able to give the audience a glimpse what the show will be. Since I'm new to the project, I'm looking forward to seeing "a first reading" of the show of sorts. I think the musical is really gonna knock people out and we're quite excited about having the chance to share it with a new audience.
JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER: What is your ideal future for Sleepy Hollow?
HUNTER FOSTER: I hope for a bright future, and that it's a show that gets done at theatres for Halloween every year. Forever!!!
PAUL GORDON: Fame, fortune and Tony Awards. Seriously, why not? Last time I lost to Mel Brooks. This time I'm hoping to beat Albert Brooks. I'm not sure he's working on a musical, but I would really like to beat out someone names Brooks.