Peter Mills: Off-Broadway's Golden Boy

Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for such composers, lyricists and librettists as Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Irving Berlin to present a new musical every season. But after the Golden Age of Musicals faded away and the cost of producing a show soared, the delay from page to stage grew, and years (if not decades) can pass between new works from talented showsmiths.

Happily, Peter Mills has revived that antiquated tradition, and every year, Prospect Theater Company Peter Mills: Off-Broadway's Golden Boypresents a new musical from Mills’ (and wife and partner Cara Reichel’s) pen. His most recent musical, Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, based on JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, is entering its final week at the 59E59 theater complex; previous musicals for Prospect have included The Pursuit of Persephone, The Rockae, Iron Curtain, Honor and his only score to get a complete studio recording, Illyria.

“I look for an idea that excites me,” the Fred Ebb-award winner says about his creative process. “And the reasons why something excites me usually arise from a combination of ‘Hey, I don't think I've seen a show like that before’ and ‘Hey, I'd be a good person to write that show.’ In other words, I look for an original idea that I feel qualified to write.”

Almost all of Mills’ musicals are based on pre-existing stories, whether history or the classics. Honor and 
Illyria, for example, are adaptations of Shakespearean plays, while The Pursuit of Persephone is lifted from a moment in writer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life. “I think about how the things that I admire in the source material could be translated into musical form,” he says. “Sometimes this means trying to find a rhyming lyric that lands the same joke as a certain line of Shakespeare; or sometimes it means trying to capture the wild, savage energy in a Euripidean choral ode in 1980s rock music.”

“In the case of my latest show,” he continues, “I thought an Appalachian setting and bluegrass music would be an especially good way to translate the dark, dark comedy of The Playboy of the Western World. Bluegrass songs are often about murder and mayhem, and yet they maintain a surprisingly jaunty tone—much like Synge's play!”

To find the right sound for each show, Mills seeks out different musical influences that are appropriate for each story. “I tend to immerse myself in different styles of music and actively try to be influenced by them,” he says. “I guess I'm a dabbler by nature, at least musically. I have an ear for imitating...That may sound artistically lowbrow,” he muses. “But I think in musical theater it's often useful for composers to be able to pastiche various styles of music.”

As for the lyrics, and his Porter-esque rhymes, Mills says that he sometimes creates entire songs around one rhyme. “Early on, when I'm looking for song ideas, sometimes I just write down words that would likely be used in a lyric and see whether there are any interesting rhymes. In my latest show, the plot is set in motion when a young man hits his tyrant father with a shovel. So at one point I wrote down ‘bludgeon’... and ‘curmudgeon’ sprang to mind. And there was the whole plot in a nutshell! It was too perfect. I thought, ‘Oh, I have to use that somewhere... even if it's not really appropriate to have Appalachian folks using words like that!’"

For 2006’s Iron Curtain, an old-fashioned cold-war comedy, Mills tried a different approach, contributing lyrics to Stephen Weiner’s music and Susan DiLallo’s book. “It was a very easy, painless collaboration because I think we shared the same sensibility for what kind of songs we were writing,” he says. “Steve's music for that show is what I might have hoped to write if I'd been the composer. I say ‘hoped to write,’ because I found that Steve had such a remarkable ear for the particular musical world we were living in with that show... a kind of nostalgic golden-age-of-Broadway sound. He was incredibly fluent in it, and could spin out endless melody so quickly! That's the exciting thing about collaboration; and of course the trade off is that sometimes your partner doesn't see it quite the way you do. But since my last experience collaborating was such a positive one,” he adds, “I have no doubt that I will do it again sometime soon. And most likely I'd serve as a lyricist again, since I feel like that's where I'm strongest.”

Peter Mills: Off-Broadway's Golden Boy
Mills began composing while earning his undergraduate degree at Princeton University. As a member of the school’s legendary Triangle Club, the largest undergraduate theater group on campus, he had the opportunity to write for their annual original musical. “Usually it was a revue show, and the songs were very wacky, comic and, well, sophomoric,” he remembers. “After the first year, I was hooked, and I ended up writing some thirty plus songs for Triangle: things like, ‘Stairmaster To Heaven’ or ‘Glasnostalgia’ or ‘Cheese’—an homage that featured a list of 26 varieties of cheese. My junior year, Triangle actually attempted—and pulled off rather well, I thought -- a book musical. That was really exciting for me to work on.”

Prospect Theater Company grew out of Mills’ and Reichel’s years at Princeton University, where they were both involved in the student theater scene. “In the beginning, there were five of us who had been friends and done theater together during college,” he recalls. “In 1998, we were all a few years out of school and had landed in New York City. Some of us were still doing theater in various capacities. I, f'rinstance, was playing classes at AMDA and taking on various music directing gigs. But all of us were itching to do more, to work together again, on projects of our own choosing. Among the five of us there were talents and interests that seemed to mesh nicely. I wanted to write, of course. Cara, my wife, was eager to direct. Melissa Huber was interested in arts administration (and later went to Yale to get a degree in it). And so we thought we'd give it a try.”

In the ensuing ten years, Prospect has produced numerous original plays and musicals, and has earned a reputation as an innovative off-off-Broadway company. “Certainly the budgets for our productions have grown steadily over the years, to the point where we just this season moved onto a new production contract, stepping up from the showcases we'd been doing,” Mills says. “But I'd say that the growth of our producorial know-how has been even more dramatic. I'd also say that, over the years, we've shifted our focus increasingly towards new musicals. Early on, a season might have been a new musical by me and two classical plays. More recently, a season might be three new musicals, one of which would be by me. I'm pleased to see Prospect move in this direction; my hope is that we'll make a name for ourselves as a company that does exciting new musical theater.”

Writing a new musical every year and helping to run a theater company does not leave much time for revising existing musicals, or taking them to other venues beyond Prospect. “With any show of mine, I always hope that I'll get a chance to go back to it and work on it further,” Mills says. “In the case of Illyria, I've had the chance to do that with each of the various readings and productions it's had since it premiered in 2002.” The musical was produced and recorded by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and a cast album is available. “Thanks to that, I regard it as my most finished show. Whichever show generates a further spark of interest from the world, that's the one that I'm likely to work on. At the moment, one of my shows is under option,” he adds, “so I'm hoping that will mean a chance to revise it and, yes, bring it to a wider audience.”


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From This Author Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox is a lifelong theatre addict who has worked as an actress, a singer, a playwright, a director, a lyricist, a librettist, and (read more...)

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