BWW Interview: Daniel Zaitchik - Kleban award winning creator of DARLING GRENADINE at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre

BWW Interview: Daniel Zaitchik - Kleban award winning creator of DARLING GRENADINE at Goodspeed's Terris TheatreWith an array of musical influences including musical storytellers like Billy Joel and Tom Waits, French classical composers and gospel music, Daniel Zaitchik's sound was bound to be unique. This recent Ed Kleban award winner brings his new musical DARLING GRENADINE to the Goodspeed's Terris Theatre beginning August 18. The musical, which centers on a jingle composer, Harry, his girlfriend, Louise and their life in Manhattan tells its story with a contemporary but classic MGM musical feel. I had the chance to sit down with Daniel and talk about his inspiration for the show, the creative path it has taken (including a recent workshop at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center), and his own creative process.

BWW: Tell us a little about DARLING GRENADINE. What's the show about?

Daniel Zaitchik: DARLING GRENADINE is a contemporary love story that is told with a bit of a throwback/nostalgia quality. The general plot deals with a commercial composer named Harry and his relationships with his girlfriend Louise, who is an actress, and his brother, Paul who is a bartender. He has a dog who is also named Paul (which is confusing until you see the show!) It is a bit of a slice of life told with a stylized/MGM-like quality. I would say how the show has a more cinematic feel than a theatrical feel.

BWW Interview: Daniel Zaitchik - Kleban award winning creator of DARLING GRENADINE at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre
Daniel Zaitchik and director Kristin Hanggi discuss the show on the first day of rehearsal. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

So sort of like La La Land?

It is interesting the synchronicity of that film and this show. There are some similarities in that DARLING GRENADINE calls to mind older films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg while also calling to mind films by directors like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry or Woody Allen.

What would you say inspired you as you created this show?

The music informed what the show was going to be. I had been writing a collection of songs that all had a certain quality that was very different from my other music. There were similar themes and a similar style, which was sort of a "contemporary standard" style - an old-fashioned quality, but dealing with contemporary things. I had maybe three or four songs like that and they all felt like they were part of the same story and then I started to develop the story and wrote more in the same world. Basically, the inspiration was a question - Could I write a musical that had all the charm of old-fashioned musicals but also was authentic and current and true and dealt with difficult adult themes.

And as Harry, the main character is a composer, is the subject matter auto-biographical?

In some ways, yeah. It is definitely the most personal thing I've written because of that. We have some similarities. I originally played the role in the first workshop, so certainly we were very alike back then. The more I have worked on it, the further and further Harry goes away from me, but yes, the seed of the character came from me.

BWW Interview: Daniel Zaitchik - Kleban award winning creator of DARLING GRENADINE at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre
The Cast of DARLING GRENADINE Photo by Diane Sobolewski

I know DARLING GRENADINE was developed at Connecticut's very own Eugene O'Neill Theater Center last year, right? Can you tell me a little more about that experience?

That was my third time developing a show at the O'Neill and it was definitely the most rewarding experience. I think it is the best place on earth. You are given two weeks to do nothing but work on your musical in a completely safe environment where everyone knows that it is a testing ground. So that was a huge step forward for me with this show. That was the first time I wasn't also in it, so I could actually see it for what it was and start trimming away. I tend to overwrite - for me it's always about cutting the fat, not writing more. So it was about trimming down a three and a half hour show into something more appropriate. Every reading was different. You do four readings and each time I tried new things. I didn't leave with a perfect show, but I left knowing what work was still needed.

How much has the show changed over time?

It just keeps evolving. Maybe someone could have seen the first reading and then seen the Goodspeed production, and they may not even notice. But moving a number, cutting a song, or moving where a song is placed in an act completely shifts the trajectory and the flow. To me, it has changed immensely while the heart of the show has stayed the same.

What's the collaborative process been like with the creative team on this show? Have you been working with the same people over the life of the show?

I wrote the show for an actress named Emily Walton. She has been playing Louise the entire time - it is sort of tailored to her. So, she has been along for the ride. Kristin Hanggi, who is directing has been with it from the beginning as well. Besides me, of course, that is the core that has stayed the same.

And you won a Kleban award for the lyrics to DARLING GRENADINE. What was that experience like?

That was a real take-your-breath-away kind of phone call. I really wasn't expecting it and it couldn't have come at a better time. It was incredibly encouraging. It has been so helpful. The award is given for the work you will create. So that has allowed me to focus on this piece for the last few months. Every time someone says "keep going" it is really appreciated.

I am sure you get asked this all the time, but what comes first for you? Music? Lyrics?

It all happens at once. That is generally how it works for me. A song sort of reveals itself, the lyrics and the music at the same time. I don't think I've ever sat down and written lyrics to a song without knowing what the music was. They grow up together.

BWW Interview: Daniel Zaitchik - Kleban award winning creator of DARLING GRENADINE at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre
Daniel Zaitchik in Rehearsal for DARLING GRENADINE Photo by Diane Sobolewski

And did you always want to be a songwriter?

I only hooked into what I am meant to be doing a few years ago. I've touched on a variety of different things, all in the same world. I was always a pianist and a songwriter but then I was an actor. It took a long time to hone in on exactly what it was I am supposed to be doing, and I think it is specifically to write music theatre.

Who were your own musical inspirations growing up?

I was not one of those kids who grew up listening to musical soundtracks. Although I performed in it, and enjoyed it, it wasn't my biggest thing. I was influenced by a strange combination of things. I was a classical pianist, so I was really influenced by that kind of music, specifically French composers. At the same time singer-songwriters that are based in storytelling like Billy Joel, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits. So there was a mixture of this singer-songwriter energy and this classical music energy. And then, everyone in my house listened to a lot of music, and we listened to a lot of gospel as well. However all those things combined is how I ended up who I am. Some produceer once said the music in DARLING GRENADINE sounded like Billy Joel-meets-Gershwin, which I took as a great compliment.

You've been a singer-songwriter and have performed with your own band. How would you say writing for yourself in that setting, or for the band differs from composing a full-length show like this?

I don't think lyrics matter as much off-stage. The way that most people listen to songs, I don't think they listen to the story. So, it's a challenge. I guess when I'm writing for myself as a singer-songwriter, things can be more veiled and things can be more personal. It's really just about fulfilling something I want to fulfill and if people like it they like it and if they don't it doesn't really matter. With theatre music I need to make sure the first time someone hears a lyric, they understand what's happening. You don't have time to be vague or abstract. So clarity of storytelling is the focus.

Is there a song/scene/moment in DARLING GRENADINE that you feel is your favorite?

There is a song called "The Kettle Song" which Emily, who plays Louise sings. Every time she sings it, I just stop what I am doing and listen. It's not because of my writing but because of her performance.

BWW Interview: Daniel Zaitchik - Kleban award winning creator of DARLING GRENADINE at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre
Bryan Fenkart (Harry) and Emily Walton (Louise) with Phillip Huber (Paul, the Dog) Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Ok, so Harry is a jingle writer, so do you have a favorite commercial jingle?

I can't say jingles are my favorite form of music, if you can even call them music. Jingle writing is actually a dying art form and that is sort of a part of this piece,which takes place today but has a throwback quality. The thing we keep referencing is the "Ba Ba Ba Bop Bah" from McDonald's which is barely a jingle - it is only a few notes - but made someone a lot of money. So that is one we talk about a lot.

As a young composer and writer yourself, do you have any inspiring words for other young people out there who think they might want to take a shot at writing or composing?

Do other things. I don't mean don't do it, I mean also do other things. I think one of the problems that I have seen happen with artist friends and myself when I was younger was focusing entirely on your art. But if you want to be a person who has anything to say, go out into the world educate yourself, learn about other tiopics and write when you are doing other things.

DARLING GRENADINE runs at the Goodspeed's Terris Theatre at 33 North Main Street, Chester, Connecticut August 18 - September 17. Curtain times are Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available through the Goodspeed Box Office (860.873.8668), open seven days a week, or online at www.goodspeed.org.

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