BWW Interview: Scott Gilmour And Claire McKenzie, creators of HI, MY NAME IS BEN at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre
What impact can one man who has lost the ability to speak have on those he encounters every day? If you are Ben, the central character in the new musical HI, MY NAME IS BEN, which opens this week at the Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT the impact is greater than you might imagine. I had the chance to sit down with the duo behind the show, book writer Scott Gilmour and composer and lyricist, Claire McKenzie who shared a little about their creative process, their journey writing the show, and how they work effectively together to bring a musical like HI, MY NAME IS BEN to life.
BWW: Tell us a little about HI, MY NAME IS BEN. What's the show about?
Scott Gilmour: Claire and I are from Scotland and in 2016 and while weover here for another project, we read an article in the New York Times, an obituary of this old guy who lived up on East 74th street. He was in his late 80's and lived there in a single room for about 40 years. He was beloved by everyone in the neighborhood but he was a mute - he couldn't speak. He communicated with everyone using a notepad and pen. Claire and I read this and thought "It's a musical!". We actually met a lot of the people who knew Ben and did a bunch of interviews with the people who lived on 74th street that knew him. We were then invited to Goodspeed to take part in their writer's colony. We came up there with the article and a lot of blank paper and started doing research about Ben's life. It was once we got a sense for the story, we learned he wasn't a mute his whole life, we learned how he lost his voice, and then it became less of an urban fairytale and more about a guy who endured a lot, but was able to communicate in the loudest city in the world with just a pad and pen. It was when it started to feel more like a human story that we decided it was one worth telling.
What is it about Ben's story that you felt needed to be told?
Scott: I think the thing that struck us was once we started speaking with the people who knew him, it was his capacity to communicate and listen to others that felt unlikely in that part of the city. He managed to stop and affect people's lives just by paying a bit more attention that one normally would and its such a tiny thing, but the interaction between people felt like a lovely thing to explore.
Claire McKenzie: I think we were drawn by the challenge as well as the amazing story. We have our lead character who can't speak and definitely can't sing. Could that be a musical and is there a way to tell it? We found a way to do lots of songs, just not necessarily in the most traditional way. It has been a real challenge from a musical point of view finding those moments and finding its voice. We found out that Ben loved opera, so we thought that would give us permission to be quite theatrical with the story of his life.
In the materials for the show it states that HI, MY NAME IS BEN is a "modern-day fairytale about hope, friendship, and grief, before finally encountering a miracle. Themes that are important and relevant today as ever.
Scott: Absolutely. Those are the themes that transcend this extraordinary little tale. We spoke a bit about the impact we want to leave the audience with at the end. It is sharing his story, but partly the idea that you might listen a little better, or share a connection to others after seeing it.
Claire: Everyone has a story to tell and I think New York City is a really good symbol for that because there are so many people, and everyone has a story, you just have to stop and listen to it. I think that is what a lot of people did with Ben in the street, and I think that is something we would love for people to walk away with, that they might listen and stop and communicate with someone they wouldn't normally speak with after seeing the show.
It has to be a challenge to write for a protagonist who can't speak. What has that process been like? How have you addressed that challenge?
Scott: We began the writing here at Goodspeed, then took it home to Scotland to workshop, then we brought it back here for a reading, then home for a concert performance, now we are back to do the first production. Doing it on both sides of the Atlantic goes back to the story feeling universal. For us it's a story about a New York guy, that feels very rooted in location and place. But if it works for a random audience in Glasgow, then it is tapping into that human side that connects us all. I think finding a theatrical and physical language for telling the story was partly that. In this piece, often when Ben writes something, the person reading it emerges in song, that kind of thing, the transferring, is what helps with the charm and uniqueness of the piece.
Claire: And music is a language as well. We wanted to allow that to be very much a part of him as well. There are moments when he is on stage by himself and obviously can't speak, but music helps tell how he is feeling and what he is thinking at that point.
I think that is interesting. I have seen many musicals set in a particular place and it is hard to connect with the story, but to be able to use it more as a setting and allow the story to be told through the people and connections, that's great.
Scott: I think you are totally right. Oddly, I think sometimes by being super specific about the detail of location, time, and place it allows it to be more universal. You see it and say "I know that guy, but in Glasgow", it is not about general storytelling, but being super specific to allow it to feel like something you can articulate for the world that you walk around in.
HI, MY NAME IS BEN is based on a true story and you interviewed some of the real people in the play. What has that been like, trying to capture the story authentically, and more importantly, will they come to see the performance?
Scott: Absolutely. It has been key in making this that we not only had the information but the blessing from the people that knew him. All of Ben's family passed away and that is a large part of the reason he lost his voice. But the people we interviewed were the folk on East 74th street that knew him. The first person we spoke with was a neighbor of his, Joan, who was also a reporter for Newsday. She was extremely skilled at connecting us with the other people quite quickly. She has a bulldog named Clementine that she walks around in a stroller and Ben and her were really close. Joan is coming to see the show. Two of the most significant, though, were Ben's two closest friends, two Colombian doormen from next door, Juan and Jorge. They met in 1990 or something like that, and Jorge, didn't speak English and Ben taught him using his notepad. They formed an unlikely trio. When Ben passed away, the two went around and raised a bunch of money to give him a proper funeral. These were strangers that were connected by chance, but formed a true bond. Both Juan and Jorge are coming up to see a performance with their families.
Claire: They haven't seen anything yet. They wanted to have it that way. They wanted to be surprised.
So you are putting the show up in front of an audience on May 17 for the first time. What are you looking forward to the most? Is it seeing the show through these people's eyes?
Scott: Yes, totally. Claire and I have done a bunch of shows together, and have touched on some true stories before, but this is the first time we have connected with real living people that we worked with to extract the story. We are super nervous but really excited to see their response to it. One of the unique things about Ben that we were so taken by - Joan and these doormen and others, were just a bunch of people who lived on the street but as a result of knowing Ben are now a community. And weirdly just by us being weird Scottish writers who thought this would be a good idea for a musical, we are now connected to them as well as a result of this guy we never even met. Whenever we are in New York, we go to see them. It shows the extraordinary power of connections. It's a really lovely thing. So on top of all the things we normally feel when we open a show for the first time, honoring Ben's memory, it's another added treat.
You have written a lot together - how does the HI, MY NAME IS BEN experience differ?
Claire: I think in the best way, this experience has been a gradual process. We began it two years ago when we wrote the first few notes here at the colony. Then we would go back to Scotland, a few months would pass, and we would come back to it. That has only helped the process. With the guidance of Goodspeed and Dundee Rep we have had the time to slow down and take the time to go away and reflect on it, and that has helped the process. I have felt more prepared going into rehearsal than ever. We are still ready to change things and react, but we have been really prepared.
Scott: This is the first show that we are doing in America first. We have had other productions start in the UK and then come over here, but to do it this way around is fascinating. It's our first time experiencing how a musical is developed here. It is very different.
Claire - How would you describe the style of music for HI, MY NAME IS BEN and do you feel you have a certain "sound"?
Claire: I think depending on the show, the sound is a bit different. This show has been inspired by film music, which I love, because it is such a visual style, so I have definitely gone down that route. There are lots of other styles in there as well as that. A lot of his younger life is set in Iowa, so there is some folk-infused music. But there is a lovely jazz moment in New York, and lots of different styles creeping in depending on the characters singing. I have tried to treat it like one big score.
So, I want to talk a moment about your creative process together. How does it work for you two? Does the music come first, then the story? A little of both?
Claire: Usually we will sit together with the story and create the structure. On the whole, Scott takes the blank paper and puts words on the page, and then I try to put a tune to it. Sometime Scott can hear all of it. There are actually a couple song in this show where Scott heard the melody as well.
Scott: And Claire often has opinions on the words, so it is a lot of back and forth. That is how we have always done it.
You have been working on HI, MY NAME IS BEN for two years. How much has the show changed over time?
Scott: Oddly from the start this one has felt quite clear. In terms of the structure, give or take some switches of moments, it hasn't really shifted much since we first conceived. There has been a level of refinement that we haven't ever achieved with any of our other work. One of the weirdest things about writing the piece - we were still uncovering the story as we wrote it. We were still discovering elements of his life which completely changed the trajectory. So, yes it has shifted along with our research, but the heart of it has remained the same.
Claire: But we are still making rewrites. What's amazing about this production, is we can still make changes in the first few weeks of the run. It has never been on stage before - we have had a concert version - but it will be the first time we will really see and feel the show. From that, I am sure we will be tweaking and refining. It is really about getting it right. And the audience is a big character that we haven't had yet.
Who were your inspirations growing up, theatrically, musically?
Claire: For me, it has always been Leonard Bernstein. In my opinion, I don't think that WEST SIDE STORY has been surpassed. As I said, I have also been inspired by film music, like John Williams, and it is that style of writing that I am loving trying to put into musical theatre in some way.
Scott: I am on the same page as Claire, and am also a bit of a geek for film as well. I am also a massive video game geek and I am very influenced when it comes to the style of storytelling and music used in that as well.
Is there a song/scene/moment in HI, MY NAME IS BEN that you feel is your favorite?
Scott: Probably the first beat of the show. The show opens with blank stage and Ben walking forward with a big notepad and he talks to the audience through it. It is impossible to rehearse that. I am quite excited to see what that does to an audience to begin the evening.
Claire: I am really interested to have the audience to experience the "miracle moment" towards the end of the show. That would be mine.
HI, MY NAME IS BEN runs at the Goodspeed's Terris Theatre at 33 North Main Street, Chester, Connecticut May 17 - June 9. 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 on-line at www.goodspeed.org.
Bottom photo: Joel Rooks as Ben. Photo by Adrien Broom