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Student Blog: Keeping Up with A Comet - An Interview with Alex Wyse and Ben Fankhauser

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I was able to sit down (on Zoom) with the two co-creators and learn about the show before seeing it, which gave me some fantastic insight into the performances.

Student Blog: Keeping Up with A Comet - An Interview with Alex Wyse and Ben Fankhauser

Five years ago, in March of 2016, I saw Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. And of course, as a theatre kid, I had to stop at the stagedoor after the show to try to meet the actors and congratulate them on their performances. But that day, I had a special mission. Back in 2015 during my Newsies phase (which I've recently fallen back into, guess I'll never escape this show), I was obsessed with the character of David "Davey" Jacobs, played in the Original Broadway Cast by Ben Fankhauser (Newsies, Beautiful). Unfortunately, there's no real solo song for Davey in the show, except for a few parts of "Seize the Day" and a few other songs. I decided to rectify this by writing by own song for the character, in which Davey writes a letter to his mother about the strike. Ironically, Newsies actually ended up adding a song written in the style of a letter, "Letter From the Refuge," sung by Crutchie. And yeah, that song was definitely better than mine. Mine was very bad. Very, very bad. I haven't written a full song since then, just random song lyrics and bits of melodies. But being an overconfident 16-year-old I gave my song to Ben at stagedoor and expected a call from Alan Menken that never came. But hey, Past Me would hopefully be quite pleased with how things have turned out!

Along with my Newsies obsession, I was also fascinated with Deaf West's production of Spring Awakening on Broadway. The concept of choreographing sign language and using hearing actors as "voices" for the hard-of-hearing actors was absolutely incredible and I watched the performances dozens of times, in awe at the show. That was how I was introduced to Alex Wyse (Spring Awakening, Waitress), who played Georg. The show inspired me to learn more about the deaf/hard-of-hearing community and to learn some sign language so I would be able to interact with people at work that I would not have been able to communicate with before. Also, Alex's Twitter is an absolute gift, 10/10 would recommend following him.

And now, in 2021, the actors from two of my favorite shows have joined forces to write and star in A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet, a new musical off-Broadway. The show is "is everything you want the first new musical premiering in NYC to be: whip-smart and stupid funny, packed with songs as catchy as a jingle." I had the opportunity to see Regina Comet this past weekend and had such a fun time. The theatre is small so you feel quite immersed in the world of the songwriting duo and Regina Comet, played by the incredible Bryonha Marie Parham (Prince of Broadway, After Midnight). The show is about two songwriters who are trying to make it big in the music industry after writing jingles for different companies. They are invited by popstar Regina Comet to write a song for her new fragrance, named Relevance.

The songs from A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet reflect both Ben and Alex's love for musical theatre but still stand on their own as smart and funny. I particularly enjoyed "Conflict of Interest" and "Walk Away," two songs that change up the pacing of the show and reflect the inner feelings of the songwriting duo. I absolutely adored Stephanie Klemon's (Hamilton, In the Heights) choreography, especially her work with swivel chairs. As a writer who uses a swivel chair I relate to spinning around my room as I try to come up with a witty title or phrase. The show as a whole was incredibly relatable, particularly a moment in which Alex Wyse's character is just starting to "connect the dots" and is interrupted by Ben Fankhauser's character, causing him to swear in surprise.

When seeing Regina Comet, this was one of those unique instances where I got to speak with those involved with a show before actually seeing the performance myself. Normally I see a show, write down my thoughts about it, and use that experience to have a conversation with the cast and/or crew. But with Regina Comet I was able to sit down (on Zoom) with the two co-creators and learn about the show before seeing it, which gave me some fantastic insight into the performances.

Kat: So how did you first come up with the concept for A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet?

Alex: Well, Ben and I have been friends for a very long time - We've known each other since we were kids. And so we've done shows together as kids. And then, as adults, we were doing this show called The Flamingo Kid a few years ago, and having the greatest time. I think that really reignited our friendship and had us feeling like creative buddies together.

Ben: So after we closed that show, we were both in a period of unemployment, as actors often find themselves. Alex called me, saying, "I'm sick of waiting for permission to do my work. You know, I'm sick of waiting for auditions. I'm sick of waiting for the phone to ring. Do you want to do something together?" And I was immediately like, "Yes, please, let's do something together!" We talked about doing a concert of some covers that might develop a through line. How would we make it stand out from just any ordinary concert? Before we knew it, we had this story that very quickly turned into a three-person musical comedy. It was really a fun idea, something that we could see working Off-Broadway, and we just got to work right away. And this musical just poured out of us.

Alex: Ben and I were so interested in writing about friendship as well as being creative people and feeling stuck in your tracks when all you want to do is your own thing. And so we wrote about these three characters who are all experiencing different versions of that. Regina's at the top of her game, but at the same time she feels like she's at the bottom, because she's being controlled by all of her producers. We have these two friends who can't get a break and are looking for their moments in the sun. Through this experience, of all of them coming together - They're all forced to reckon with themselves and eventually find their way forward in unexpected ways. That being said, it's all done through a lot of laughs and a lot of jokes. Ben and I just wanted to make each other laugh and surround ourselves with people who were excited, creative, and wanted to experience something joyful. So that's what we tried to assemble - A room where that was possible.

Kat: So the goal was always a tone of a fun and creative environment. Did the pandemic influence that tone at all?

Alex: I'm sure it did. Ben and I wrote most of the show over Zoom with each other. We'd started shortly before the shutdown, but we really dug in when the shutdown was happening because we wanted to have something to wake up to each day that would bring us joy. I think the sadder the world became, the sillier we wanted to be. During the pandemic, we developed more of the character of Regina, who could be a leading lady and a black woman. And the story wasn't about her oppression or trauma - We wanted to give an avenue for a black actress to be as silly, fun, powerful, and vulnerable as she can be. I think pandemic really did influence us in that way. What do you think, Ben?

Ben: I totally agree. When everything shut down in the blink of an eye, really influenced the story of these two writers understanding that sometimes you have a project and you get fired, or it gets canceled, or everything shuts down. It shows how unpredictable show business and life can be. I agree with the way that we wanted to make Regina a rounded character that we want to see in today's musical theater. Our leading lady, Bryonha Marie Parham, is unbelievable. She's a dynamo - So talented. And she was helpful in the process of helping us find this character and giving her points of view. She's wonderful.

Kat: So she was involved in the character development as well?

Alex: I think Ben and I were always good about writing for ourselves, and we certainly wrote a full character before Bryonha stepped into it with us. But then with Bryonha working with us, we were able to tailor the character to her strengths, hearing her input about the places she felt like her arc was incomplete. And then Ben and I would help create those bridges for her so we could create this whole arc for Regina. She helped us find who Regina is because of her spirit. Yeah.

Kat: Was it difficult separating your own writing struggles from the struggles of your characters? Did you find it difficult to separate yourself and your character?

Ben: I found that it helped, honestly! We wrote ourselves, but a theatricalized version of ourselves. Drawing on what we know was always important for us. In moments where we would feel stuck, it would be easy to find those parallels with our respective characters and how they feed off each other. I definitely saw similarities in how we would write together and feed off each other as writers as well. What do you think, Alex?

Alex: Yeah, I think we didn't want to separate ourselves too much from these characters - We wanted to emphasize ourselves. And we wanted to find ways to make fun of ourselves, creating these broader musical comedy versions of us. We used what was in our toolbox. Instead of trying to separate ourselves, we really dug in, in a way that felt vulnerable, but exciting. Like, "What would the silliest version of me say to this situation? What would I want to sing about here?" So that helped.

Kat: What would you say were some of the biggest challenges having written the work and also starring in it compared to performing someone else's work?

Ben: Trying to know when to put on the actor's hat versus the writer's hat, especially once we were rehearsing. When you're inside a scene as an actor, it's hard to hear the whole thing from the outside as a writer. And so that's when our director, Marshall Pailet (Who's Your Baghdaddy, Triassic Parq), really came into play. He helped keep an eye on the big picture when we were in the thick of it as actors. There were definitely challenges trying to discern when to be creative and when to try to interpret what you've created. But with that comes a luxury that when something wasn't working, we as the writers were right there to brainstorm and figure it out, work on a better version of it.

Alex: And we're still doing that! We're still finding little tweaks - Last night we put in a new lyric. We've been running for a month so we've been living with the show, feeling how audiences react. For example, the initial impulse for me is always to make each line as funny as we can make it. Then you realize when it's in front of an audience that we actually need a ramp up to the jokes - Not every line can be a joke or we just lose the story. But we're getting better at creating those hills and valleys. I'd also add another challenge - I feel like I can't hide as an actor. Sometimes [in other shows] the text is protecting me and creating a shield, but Ben and I are the text [of Regina Comet]. And so this has been one of the more vulnerable experiences as a creative person in my life.

Ben: You're right, the vulnerability is real. When a moment's not working I'm like, "Oh God, is it the way I'm delivering it? Or is it the writing itself?" Trying to solve that stuff makes it a little bit more vulnerable. That's definitely true. Building on what you said, Alex, not only did we put in a new lyric, but we had a whole discussion with our leading lady about her arc and about her backstory. Having the luxury to have run a month already and getting feedback from the audience has opened up new questions for us. It's really nice to be able to have those discussions and not just feel like we've tied it up in a bow - It's living and breathing. It's a really cool thing to have this story that's constantly in flux.

Kat: So it was a conscious decision to not just like freeze the show?

Ben: We did freeze the show, we weren't changing blocking and other things. But there have been times when we're like, "Maybe a better thing to say here is this," just little things. Because we're the writers and creators, we have that luxury to be able to experiment. Normally when we're in a show as just the actors, we wouldn't be able to change things.

Kat: In previous interviews you've brought up Barry Manilow as an inspiration for the songwriting duo. Were there any other songwriters that served as inspiration for your characters, other than yourselves?

Alex: The main thing is that Barry Manilow started by writing jingles. And then he was the guy who "got out" and made it. So he becomes this beacon of hope for us in the show. And it's a fun thing to keep returning to, honoring the great Barry, or "The Big B" as we call him in our show. He represents the person we can identify with - We write jingles and we also just have our find our "Lola" (A reference to the showgirl in Manilow's hit song, "Copacabana").

Ben: We're also inspired by some of the musical theatre greats - Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin), Andrew Lippa (Big Fish, The Addams Family), Ahrens and Flaherty (Anastiastia, Once On This Island), to name a few. And Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Sweeney Todd), obviously. William Finn (Falsettos, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) is a big one for us. But this show isn't really about musical theatre - It's about trying to write a song, a commercial, and a pop star. Beneath that, however this show is a love letter to musical theatre in so many ways without ever talking about musical theater. This is for musical theater lovers. There are so many so many references to musicals that have inspired us without ever directly quoting things.

Alex: One of the lyrics that comes to mind is in "Regina Comet, Inc." when she, "Yes, I need your passion / And your miles and miles of heart," which a little call to Damn Yankees. Just little references without being explicit. But this was a show written by two guys that love Broadway so inherently, it's just it's in the bones. When you come see the show, you'll see on the set decoration there are Playbills and other notes, homages to different Broadway shows that our characters love.

Kat: Did you help with designing the set?

Alex: That was all Wilson Chin's (Passover, Cost of Living) idea. He had the remarkable idea to make the sets full of surprises and delights, built out of pieces of writing. The set is constructed from songs that didn't make it into the show, outlines, notes about chords, bars of music, lines that we need to change that then we crossed off, we kept adding more and more things to it. Also a shout out to Riu, our assistant set designer, who helped facilitate and decorate the set. And Riu was great about involving everybody - They asked every person in the theater what their favorite musical is and wrote it down on a note, sticking it to the set. Favorite pop star? Write another note and stick it to the set. And so the set is infused with so many personalities of people who worked on the show, which makes it even more delightful and personal. It's really cool.

Kat: What's your favorite song from the show that you've written?

Ben: It's hard to pick! Regina has a "midway" song called "The Girl Beneath The Lasers." It really speaks a lot to her character - Where she's been, where she's going, and how she feels stuck. It's got comedy and it's got heart, a really complex song. It's also very R&B and I love the way it flows. And it's also a song I don't have to sing in so I get to just sit back and enjoy it. Bryonha does such an amazing job. That's my favorite of the week.

Alex: I would fully agree with that - I really love it when I'm not singing. I like hearing other people singing, it's a nice break for me. If I were to pick something of my own, though, I think "Walk Away" is a really exciting song with the way it keeps building on itself. And I think it doesn't ever really let up and it keeps upping itself in tension. So I find that really exciting. It's difficult to perform each night but I am very proud of the way that Ben and I constructed that song, it feels like a rising heartbeat.

Ben: I'll add to that too. There's a really nice tension and release in that song between the 4/4 feel and the chorus opening up that I find really exciting - And Alex sings the shit out of it!

Alex: I'm speaking really just to some a piece of writing I'm very proud of that Ben and I did. I'm really proud of so many things. But the real joy is when I get to sit back, watching Ben do "Conflict of Interest" or Bryonha sing "The Girl Beneath the Lasers" or "Breaking News." Those are the real joyous moments when you get to take a moment and see somebody else live in a playground that you helped build for them.

Kat: Favorite line that you wrote? It can be from a song or just a line in the show in general.

Alex: I love the lyric that Ben sings in the bridge of "Conflict of Interest" - I think those are some of my favorite lyrics in the show. He says, "When I was young I believed / That every man met his mate / 'Cuse in all the old stories / That's the case if you're straight." I think that is so funny. As a gay person. I am tickled pink by that line.

Ben: Yeah, that's a good one. For me, I'm a poker player. And in "Walk Away," there are some great uses of poker terminology. Like, "Place your bets / Place your bets 'Cause I'm all in" or "We were dealt the perfect cards / And now you wanna fold / The winning hand we hold / So I gotta walk away." Those are some clever ways we used some of our hobbies to create the world.

Kat: Final question - If you could describe the show in one word, what would it be?

Ben: Delightful

Alex: Oh my god, I was gonna say delightful!

Ben: Awwww!

Alex: I hope it feels delightful. We want the audience to walk out feeling happier and sillier than when they walked in. That's what we want our audience to feel each night. And I think they do! You can come to our show and the pressure of the world can melt away. We can all laugh together and experience a really sweet story about friendship and finding yourself. And hopefully that happens through a series of delights.

Regina Comet is indeed delightful, just as Alex and Ben hoped it would be. I found myself leaving the show feeling a whole lot lighter, ready to enjoy the weekend and hum "One Hit Song" over and over again.

Thank you to both Alex Wyse and Ben Fankhauser for the great interview!

A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet will be playing at the DR2 Theatre at Union Square East until November 21st, 2021. The show is 80 minutes (half a Wicked) long with no intermission. Tickets can be purchased here. There is also a $39 ticket lottery that can be entered here!


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