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[interview] With Pressgrove, Blackwell, Bell and Blickenstaff

As the fifth New York Musical Theatre Festival starts its second week, it seems appropriate to look back at one of the Festival's greatest success stories from its inaugural year. Back in 2004, BroadwayWorld posted the first review of an innovative new musical that celebrated the art of making art. [title of show] started out at the tiny-- and now defunct-- Belt Theatre, moved to Ars Nova, picked up a cult following at its perpetually extended run at the Vineyard downtown, and finally made it to Broadway four years after that first Festival. On a stormy Thursday, Hunter Bell, Heidi Blickenstaff, Susan Blackwell and Larry Pressgrove sat down with BroadwayWorld to talk about the journey from NYMF to Broadway, talking over each other and finishing one another's sentences. Jeff Bowen and Michael Berresse were not available at the meeting.

JTF: Where did you all come from, and how did you get into theatre?

Larry: I grew up on a farm in Kansas, milking cows and plowing fields.

JTF: You're kidding.

Larry: Nope. And my parents had cast albums and I listened to them forever and ever. And then in high school, I got into plays, and I'm like, "I'm home."  And my sister [Janet] played Helen Keller in a production of The Miracle Worker I saw, and I was just amazed... So ever since then, I got hooked, and I discovered theatre and went to college for music and was an actor for a while, and it came together as a music director.

JTF: Where did you go to college for music?

Larry: I went to Wichita State. And it's really great, 'cause there isn't a lot to do in Wichita, so I did everything. I was in band, orchestra, marching band, choir, operas, and I did plays and musicals as an actor. So I got all of the experience. I even stage managed La Traviata!

Hunter: I grew up in North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. North Carolina for elementary school, and then my parents separated and I moved to Atlanta to go to school. So when I was little little in North Carolina, I did community theatre and my dad came in and out of New York City a lot, and then when I moved to Atlanta, my mom taught at this great private school (Woodward Academy), and they had a really good theatre program, and I totally fell into that crowd and loved it. And my theatre teacher and dance teacher took groups in and out of the city, and we'd come to the city to see Broadway shows...

Heidi: I am from Fresno, California. Like all of us, I was a kid that was fascinated by musicals, and put on shows in my backyard with my brother and cousins and was certainly completely obsessed with Annie. I think I got it into my head that it was something I could actually do [when] my mom took me to see a dinner theatre production of Oklahoma!. There was a little girl in that, and I was, like, *gasp* I could be that girl! And so suddenly it became a reality, and I begged my mom to [let me] try to out for the next play, which was Hello, Dolly!. So I did that, and they had a really nice children's group there that was associated with that musical theatre, and that's Dan Pessano, who we mention in [title of show], was actually my mentor at that theatre, and then later played Daddy Warbucks to my Annie. But I sorta grew up in that dinner theatre in Fresno-- Roger Rocka's Good Company Players. And I went to a performing arts high school at the same time that I would do the shows on and off at Good Company Players, and there were a lot of kids at that time who did that, including Audra McDonald, Andrea Chamberlain, Duane Boutte, Sharon Leal, Sarah Uriarte Berry-- a lot of kids that would later come to New York and have really nice careers. So I went to a performing arts high school in Fresno, and from there I went to Duke University and got my degree in Drama, and then literally packed a U-Haul and came to New York and star ted auditioning and was really lucky to get a national tour very quickly. I did The Who's Tommy very quickly out of school. I think I waited tables for six months and then I got that job, and then spent my twenties touring and cutting my teeth doing everything from really low budget musicals to really high-budget, headed-to-Broadway musicals that never made it. And then I got lucky enough to start working on Broadway.

Susan: I was born in Dayton, Ohio, and quickly moved to rural Ohio, and I was fortunate in that my parents had a lot of cast albums and also would find ways of bringing culture to us or bringing us to culture, whatever was available in the community... Then, when I was old enough, they let me start auditioning to do community theatre, things like that, and-- I remember watching Sesame Street and thinking, "Wow, I could really be one of those kids!"

Heidi: I could really be one of those puppets!

Susan: I remember watching soap operas and being, like, 'that's not good.' When I was really young, thinking, 'That's not real.' And then, high school, I went to an incredibly small high school, so it was really easy to get cast in shows. I played Anita in West Side Story. That was fantastic... Then I went to undergrad and graduate school for acting-- I went to undergrad at Wright State University in Dayton, and then I went to study the classics at the University of Minnesota, which was a theatre program for the Guthrie Theatre, where I was a member for two years after that. So I'm more like, believe it or not, a classically trained actor.

Heidi: She's better than us.

Susan: No!

Hunter: She's better than thee!

JTF: How much of [title of show] is real?

Hunter: ...Playwright/cartoonist/writer Lynda Barry coined a great word: autobiofictionogrophy. And it totally applies, and I love it, because we didn't set out to write a documentary. We set out to write an original musical comedy. And I always say that the seeds of all of it are real-- the seeds of conflict have been put in a nice, tight, shiny, hilarious 90-minute package. But all of those seeds are real. Some of the seeds have been manipulated, and shoved together and rearranged...

Susan: Everything in this story is true except for the big honkin' lies.

Hunter: If I was making a documentary or a program for television, I would feel a different obligation to that. So I never worried about James Frey, A Million Little Pieces. We wanted to write a fun musical that was moving and interesting. But those scenes are real. They are taken from our lives.

Heidi: And also, I do think that the boys wrote this, and it was subsequently developed, so that eventually, as it started getting more and more produced and we had the commercial run at the Vineyard and we moved here, it was always in their mind that other people do it. It's not like we have to play these characters forever. I mean, all of us play concentrated versions of ourselves. But my character absolutely makes choices in the 90 minutes of the play that I would not necessarily make. And I think probably all of us could speak to that, in some small way or another. Because they are characters. They are characters that have to live and breathe and have a complete journey in the 90 minutes that people are watching.

Hunter: They have their functions in the show. Like, Heidi is an outsider who doesn't know us. And you know, obviously, the challenge now is we know Heidi well now, and at the beginning of this journey we didn't. And I think it did evolve over time... It has become a play based on these lies.

JTF: What is the Stacia story? [Heidi's character was named Stacia at NYMF, but not after.]

Hunter: Stacia Fernandez was a friend of ours. Jeff had worked with her doing Anything Goes and toured Wisconsin, I think, and we wrote Susan and Stacia in very early on because they were around and we liked them. So Stacia did readings of it at Manhattan Theatre Source, off-off-Broadway. We did a couple nights. Our friend and producer Laura Camien had a series-- she presented and curated a few nights of original plays and works at Manhattan Theatre Source-- and she said, 'Look, no matter happens with the festival, why don't you guys come to us when it's written.' And we were like, 'You're on!' And that gave us a deadline and a goal, and, sure, we'd get to jump around in front of fifty people in folding chairs. And Stacia played herself, but after that incarnation she got another job in another show that she wanted to do, and the schedule conflicted with the festival. So there's no good dish. She's an actress who definitely had other projects that moved on. A mutual friend of ours, Ryan, knew Heidi--

Heidi: --and had seen the show at MTS and knew that Stacia was leaving. And Ryan, who is my very very close friend, thought that it would be worth me coming in to see if it might be a good fit. And Jeff and I had done Tommy together, and Jeff knew me and knew that I wasn't a crazy person, or at least I was crazy in the same way. And so Jeff thought it might work, too, so I came in and I met Susan and Larry and Hunter and Michael, and we sang a little bit and read a little bit and it didn't take long at all. It felt very natural. It was a very good fit.

Hunter: And so Heidi played Stacia at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. And one person came up and said, 'Was she playing Stacia Fernandez?,' 'cause there were some elements of Stacia's life.

Heidi: And I was definitely playing her. She had an entire list of conflicts and inner human issues that I had nothing at all in common with. And so when the show moved on and we were optioned by Kevin McCollum, and he was encouraging us to develop it and Hunter and Jeff were writing it and then we went to the O'Neill Center, that's when the executive decision came about to let Stacia go and let me be me.

Susan: And you have to remember when we performed the show at the Festival, it was just about that three-week developmental period. We hadn't met [Heidi] yet. So it started from the inception of the idea to the mailing of the script to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. And that occurred with Stacia. So at the time, it made sense for it to be Stacia, but what we learned very, very quickly at the Festival is that nobody reads their programs, and nobody knew who we were. So there was a joke about-- we talk about what we want to be named, like, 'I wanna be called Tulita Pepsi,' and the character of Stacia, played by Heidi, said, 'I would like to be called "Heidi,"' and I said, 'Heidi's a dumb name!' I thought it was the funniest thing in the show, but [I realized], 'People have no idea who we are!' They didn't know that we were playing ourselves, and so for a lot of people, it was lost on them, that these people, Jeff included, were playing themselves, but I was playing a character. Most people didn't really even question that, and then it became a very natural progression for me to start playing myself, and for us to let Stacia's issues go, and to let my issues come in.

JTF: How did you develop what had already been written for Heidi to play?

Hunter: I feel like it's a writer's dream to be able to collaborate with the actors. I came from an acting background. I had been in situations, creating original material, where I felt like sometimes there was ego involved with the writer-- I mean, I guess you have the people that you have to bounce ideas off of and create an original work, I'm like, all you've got, a) to make my life easier, and b) it's more fun... I would write scenes and we would workshop them, and the great thing was that they were game. I would take a Susan and Heidi scene, I'd sit down and they would read it, and they'd be like, 'This is what would naturally come out of my mouth,' And my goal is, hopefully, to make it sound like we really talk, to make it sound natural. And I can't get caught up in [details like], if I wrote, 'Look at that painting,' if Heidi wants to be, like, 'Hey, there's a painting! Look at it!' Whatever was the most immediate. So the idea is the same that I created, but I wanted it to come in the most natural way, because I think in the long run, an audience can sense that... So I was happy, as a bookwriter, to utilize smart, funny, talented people who are willing to collaborate with me.

Heidi: And there were also times where I think there would be some things you felt particularly strongly about... because the play has to get from here to here, so I need yo u to say it specifically this way, but that's the beauty of this group of people.

Susan: Also, once you've had more time in the process, had an opportunity to, for instance, write a meditation on some of the things you talked about last time you got to how you behaved as a little person, how you came to be who you are, and then Jeff Bowen could take that and sort of read it and put it through his fuzzy barbershopped head so it could come out as 'A Way Back to Then.' So I think that's when we had more time with you then you've had more time to share your story.

Larry: It's like when you have that arts and crafts table and they put out pink and purple construction paper, all that kinda stuff, and then everybody has the same pieces, but everybody takes those pieces and puts them together in their own form. And that's what these guys did: Heidi laid out aspects of her life, but Hunter constructed them as a dramaturg. He just happened to use those pieces of construction paper as his material, as opposed to a totally fictional character. But he still had to put them together into an arc, and that's what I loved seeing, when we would have these jam sessions where we'd talk about issues, and Hunter would go away, and he'd come back with his own very Hunter-take on how to put those together.

Heidi: And Jeff, too. That's exactly how 'A Way Back to Then' was born, because it was born out of a pre-write that I was asked to do, essentially about my little person dreams of being here, which we all have-- and it's so funny. I was very specific, and I felt very vulnerable giving it to him, because it was like a journal entry. And I remember he and I sat down together, and I read it to him-- I was not comfortable with him taking it-- and then at the end of our jam session (for lack of a better word), he said, 'Can I take this,' and I felt so odd giving it to him, because it was very personal. And then he had the audacity to put it in a song! And once the song was written and we started developing it, I couldn't get through it. Without exaggerating, it took me at least a month for me not to cry. It was beautiful. It was just so cathartic, and I felt very vulnerable, and I felt so odd being so safe, but the payoff is that I got a Facebook message today from a girl swearing that it's her story. And I get that all the time. People say-- and I think they identify with all of us, with 'Die, Vampire, Die,' with certain aspects of the different moments in the show-- they say, 'You are me. It's as if I am up there.' And I get goosebumps thinking about it, because it's not everybody's jam, which is so fine, it's great if people aren't going to get on the ride, but for people who do, and it means something to, it really blows my mind how specific we got, and we though that maybe we might alienate people with that specificity, and really, we've touched something that is much more.

JTF: What were the original four songs for the demo, and how did they develop into the current score?

Hunter: The four original songs were 'Two Nobodies in New York,' 'Ground Beef in a Cup,' 'The Wall' (which became 'A Way Back to Then'), and 'Lies Lies Lies.' Two of the songs were from a piece that Susan and Jeff had collaborated on that was called Retarded Girl: The Musical which is actually a much more beautiful and gentle and smart and funny and wonderful piece than its name might suggest, if you read this in print. But the piece that Susan and Jeff had created, and one section of the show at NYMF, was us doing a table reading of that material to see...could we recycle any of that material... Of course, hilariously, we decided, 'That's not appropriate to use. We won't use this.'  ...

Susan: But the finale music at the end is the music from "Ground Beef in a Cup." I have always loved that song.

Heidi: That's what I auditioned with, when I first came in to sing for these monkeys to see if it was a good fit. They had given me the demo and the script that they had submitted to the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and I read through that script, and was like, 'What in the world is this? But I like it. I don't know what it is, but I know something's in this show...'

Larry: The festival called them and asked if they were serious.

Hunter: We called Kris Stewart back and said, 'We are,' and we met at a little cafe in midtown and explained what we were trying to do, that it was a serious endeavor. We loved it, and we thought it should be a musical.

Heidi: I think something that's unique about this group of people is-- and I did not know any of them except Jeff, going in-- but my strong friendship with Jeff is what made me completely trust that whatever it was, it was gonna be fun. And I think that that is kind of the bedrock of understanding between all of us-- and Susan says this all the time-- the fact that we get to do this with our friends is sort of the biggest bonus of all of this. The fact that we got into the Festival is miraculous. The fact that we got to keep developing it is more miraculous. And when we got to Ars Nova and Stephen Sondheim came-- all of the stuff keeps getting more and more unbelievable, but the tie that binds us is a very real friendship, and a trust that makes it all the more sweeter that we get to continue being on this journey with people that we genuinely care for very deeply.

Larry: I thought you were also going to say it was the love of the play. 'Cause that was one of the things that was kind of hard for me. I had just come off the road with Les Mis, and as music director, I was corralling this huge orchestra and a big cast, and was a little bit of a task master. But we would have these music rehearsals, and I would be, like, 'We have to get down to work!' And it took me a long ti,e to realize that the play is part of the work. And so now that we do the warm-ups every night before the show, we're warming up, but at a certain point I try to change the warm-up to just having fun, and see if I can get anything that might spark somebody to do something funny, and they all just start bopping around. And that is more useful, in some ways, than anything.

JTF: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to other struggling artists?

Susan: I don't feel a sense of responsibility. I guess I just feel a sense of awe and disbelief, almost amazement. I'm just amazed when people come to see the show or write to us after they've seen the show-- these strong, positive, inspired responses that come back. I've done a lot of shows, and I've never been in a show that has solicited these reactions from people. It's an amazing connection to have with someone, and I'm so happy to be involved in something that provides that service to people. I know that there were people in my life that have provided me with that level of inspiration-- Lynda Barry, John Cameron Mitchell, Steve Martin-- but to be that for somebody else is amazing. And strange. And novel.

Hunter: I'm proud of it. I think I'm definitely shocked by it, and I like it... We made something up that satisfied us, that we loved. The fact that it moved or inspired anyone in the smallest of ways, like, 'I wanna teach again, and I haven't been teaching,' or--

Susan: 'I want to take singing lessons.' 

Hunter: And the fun part is doing this piece now in the Internet age and the Facebook age, and not only do we get face time with people at the stage door, which is super nice, but because we make ourselves accessible to friends and fans, it's actually really inspiring and awesome to go home and get an email... like 'I saw the show last Monday, and I can't stop thinking about it, and it rocked my friends, and I want to bring them back.' To get those letters in real time-- and a lot of them blow my mind, and make me quite emotional and quite proud-- is a super bonus.

Heidi: ...Like [Hunter], it has shocked me on a daily basis that people are connecting with the material as strongly as they are. And I don't feel that I have to or that it's a chore, but I really enjoy communicating both at the stage door for however long people would like to talk, or-- thank God for Facebook! We are unusually accessible, I think, because we are so grateful for what success we have had, and our fans can find us on Facebook and we will write back to them. And I think a lot of them are shocked that we actually [say] 'I remember you from the stage door! Thank you for whatever!' It blows my mind! I think it truly, truly is very unexpected and just really lovely. And I was that kid. I was that kid, and I see myself in a lot of those kids, that way their worlds are rocked, and I remember having my world totally rocked by listening to Sunday in the Park with George or Patti LuPone doing Evita or Andrea McArdle singing Annie, and that changing my life, and then to actually be able to connect with that person and have five minutes or an email exchange is so meaningful to me, because I just know how much that would have meant to me as a kid. And so if I can reciprocate that in some way, and make somebody feel good, or--

Hunter: If they want to be a writer-- a lot of these kids are, like, 'I have a play, too,' and I'm like, 'Good, keep writing and producing.' I want them to be the next generation. And some of these young people-- if you're fifteen and you're writing a play and [title of show] makes you finish your play-- I love it. I love it. I love it. And I love that it has been been a small impact-- an actual impact on someone deciding how they spend their time.

JTF: Last question-- Have you all finally quit your day jobs?

Susan: I work 30 hours a week at my 'job.'

Larry: I'm doing this full time.

Heidi: I've been lucky enough to always do this, but I'm an actor, so I do workshops of other shows, and I'm shooting a national commercial tomorrow, and I'm that actor that's just hittin' the pavement. But [title of show] has made things much easier. It's great.

Hunter: I have not gone back to my day job. All my bosses came to opening night, and that was super special, and I think they're excited for me and hoping on some small level that I don't have to come back, either. So for the moment I'm enjoying that. It may happen that I need to do that, too, but for now I can have a little salad days and appreciate this moment. I hope that can continue for some time.

[title of show] -- the original new musical that began previews on July 5 and opened at the Lyceum Theatre (149 W. 45 St.) on July 17 -- will conclude its critically acclaimed run at the Lyceum on October 12, but they haven't closed yet! They are still working hard to pack the house (and then rock the house) at the Lyceum! There's lots of fun ways that people can help keep the [title of show] dream alive! Check out their blog to learn how you can help!

Photos by Carol Rosegg, Peter James Zielinski and Linda Lenzi

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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...)