BWW Interview: TREASURE ISLAND: Advancing the Art Form with New Work
"The main purpose of NAMT (National Alliance for Musical Theatre) is preservation of the art form. We are committed to keeping musical theatre moving forward and changing with the times. MSMT is a founding member of NAMT, and our decision to produce TREASURE ISLAND A MUSICAL ADVENTURE is our way of participating with new work."
The speaker is Curt Dale Clark, MSMT's Artistic Director, who is part of a panel of cast members from the theatre's East Coast premiere of the new musical version of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, which is currently wowing audiences at the Pickard Theater in Brunswick. Clark, together with actors Aaron Ramey, James Patterson, Michael Iannucci, and Gabriel Rosario spoke with BROADWAY WORLD's Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold on July 3rdin the second of MSMT's PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN program at Curtis Memorial Library.
Clark, who is the co-creator of TREASURE ISLAND, together with Marc Robin, kicked off the discussion by recounting their musical's long journey their musical before appearing in its present incarnation. "We began at the Drury Lane Evergreen Park in Chicago twenty years ago with a children's show that was very different. Chris Jones, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE's critic wrote that it was 'too good to be a children's show and should be expanded.' We took his comments to heart and started writing right away, and two years later we had our first full length version which played at the Eastlight Theatre in Peoria and at the Drury Lane. After that, we cut and cut and in 2008 and 2009 we produced the new version at the Fulton Theatre and Beef and Boards (Indianapolis). At that point people offered to buy the rights from us, but we were young and stupid and we had used our own money to produce it and weren't ready to let it go. Then Marc's career exploded, and it sat on a shelf for many years. A couple years ago, he said to me 'We have to finish TREASURE ISLAND, and that's what we have done. Many of the specific changes have included cutting and streamlining the work. "Marc's nickname as a director is Marc Scissorhands Robin, so I said to him, 'Look at this as if it were someone else's play.' When we started twenty years ago it ran two hours and forty minutes, and we now have a two-hour five minute show."
Patterson seconds these comments noting that material for his character Dr. Livesey has changed from the 2018 developmental reading to the world premiere at the Fulton to the MSMT production. Patterson tells how "Marc and Curt approached me after the reading and asked if it would bother me to cut one of my songs in the galley scene because they didn't feel there should be three ballads in a row. I said 'No, it's your story, and I am just honored to be part of it in any way possible'; this is all part of the process of developing new work."
Clark also shares some insights into how he and Robin began the creative process of adapting Stevenson's sprawling novel for the musical stage. "We began by graphing the book and using models for similar graphs by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe that show the rhythm of a work. Naturally, TREASURE ISLAND didn't exactly fit any other formula, but it gave us an idea of the musical structure. The novel is a lengthy one with lots of twists and turns and many locations. We stayed as close as possible to the book until we got to a place where we felt we couldn't, and the ending was one of those places. In our ending Long John Silver sings Jim's song, 'Miracles,' and Jim sings Long John's 'Someday,' and I think that makes nice bookends for the story."
The panel comments on the principal theme of the work: Jim Hawkins' coming of age story and his quest for a father figure. Iannucci, who plays Squire Trelawney, and Patterson who portrays Dr. Livesey, feel their characters represent two different styles of parenting of Jim. Says Iannucci, "We come from opposite ends of the spectrum. I am the cool, fun dad, who has no idea what we are in store for on this voyage, and James is the strict dad. He and I talked about how our characters, who are so different, came to be friends. I think the Squire is genuinely happy that the Doctor is getting to do something he always yearned for, and that they are getting to do it together."
Patterson continues these thoughts: My character wants to bring more structure to Jim's life. I think Dr. Livesey harkens back to an old style of parenting. I know many of my contemporaries want to be best friends with their kids, but I grew up in a family where parents made the decisions, and they were unapologetically authoritative about it. I never found that to be a bad thing. Livesey is looking out for Jim's best interests. This is not even his own child, and he has made a promise to Jim's mother, so he has to keep this boy on a tight leash." Patterson also feels that the Squire and Doctor are not the only parental figures for Jim in the story. "I think Jim learns something from everyone about what a human being should be and how an adult should behave, and he even learns from the pirates what not to be. By the end of the show, Jim Hawkins shows everyone that he has become more than a man; he is a hero.""
Both Iannucci and Patterson add that the twenty-year-old actor playing Jim Hawkins, Michael William Nigro, is a treasure. "You nailed it in casting this kid," Iannucci says to Clark. "He is so easy to love and so phenomenal to work with!"
Each of the panelists takes some time to talk about his individual characterization, and how each of these roles interplays one with another. Given the humorous, outrageousness of the character, Iannucci talks about the challenge of keeping the Squire credible and loveable. "A lot of what I do is informed by playing opposite someone as good as James. We just keep finding more and more details along the way; without him,my character wouldn't be as credible. We balance each other."
Ramey seconds this thought: "Between the writing and these two actors, you have musical gold. Their timing, their intonations, the musicality with which they say their lines and deliver those bits of humor is a honed, trained skill uncommon in our industry. It is such a treat for them to provide the levity of the play."
Iannucci confides a source of inspiration for the Squire's mannerisms: "I was watching a movie on TCM that had this crazy countess character, and I said to myself,'That's who I will be.' Marc and Curt weren't planning on that, but they kind of liked it."
Clark chimes in, teasingly: "We all affectionately call him Aunt Clara."
Iannucci, who gets to wear some of Costume Designer Ryan J. Moller's most elaborate outfits, also pays tribute to the role these costumes play in helping "me transform. A good costume designer really enhances your performance, Ryan is so imaginative, and I felt I had to fill those clothes."
Ramey, who inhabits the demanding role of Long John Silver, also cites Moller's brilliant way of costuming him to suggest realistically his one-leggedness. The challenge of having to perform on one leg has been a strenuous one for the actor. Ramey confides: "Ryan has done a great job of creating this 'apparatus' that hoists my right foot up behind me. Working like this has given me a new empathy for anyone who has lost a limb, though the longer you work this way, you begin to adapt. I am amazed that now I am less dependent on the crutch and can even use two hands." He praises Curt and MSMT for "the terrific job they are doing in taking good care of me with massage, physical therapy and acupuncture to help me keep my body in balance."
Ramey says he was drawn to the character of Long John Silver because "I like to play more complicated bad guys - ones who have a moral compass, even if it has gone awry in recent years. That's what I think has happened to Long John. When we meet him he has come into a life of plundering, and when he meets Jim he sees a reflection of his own childhood - of what he has lost. For some reason he doesn't want that to happen to Jim. He imparts what he can to Jim; Jim learns both good and bad from Long John, but I think it is actually Long John who takes more from Jim than the other way around. It's a testament to Curt and Marc's writing that by the end of the play you see the bad guy learn something and be better for it."
Mentioning the crutch scene in the stockade, Clark agrees, "We get to see some of things that have happened to Long John in his life that have caused his behavior, and I think that allows the emotion at the end to work. We often want to say this person is good, and this one is bad, but it is never that black and white."
But if Long John Silver is a morally ambiguous, deeply complex figure, some of the other characters are far more clearly dark and treacherous. Rosario plays one such pirate, Sly Dog Gribble, and he tells how he imagines this man's backstory. "In preparation for the role, I read UNDER THE BLACK FLAG, which gave me a realistic perspective on pirate life. Then I tried to mesh that with my character. Ryan [Moller] created for me an interesting costume. It was basically a onesie that made me look bare-chested and completely tattooed. I asked myself why he had so many tattoos, and I decided Sly Dog gets one every time he gets a kill."
Rosario also serves as the fight captain, and he explains how Fight Choreographer Joseph Travers staged the many thrilling sequences in the play. "Fight choreography is physical storytelling. Long before we got to the nitty gritty of staging the actual fights, we thought about the storyline. Then we divided the big fight sequence into five sections: the mutiny, pirates attack, pirates take upper hand, sailors take upper hand, pirates regain upper hand and apprehend the sailors. Then we paired [principal] characters and had the ensemble characters fighting around them. At the Fulton we had one incredible section with five fight guys doing amazing stunts, but there really wasn't any [narrative] point to it. The audience didn't recognize them as characters, and they wanted to see the people in the story. So for MSMT, we tried to take the explosiveness of that sequence and incorporate it into the plot."
As fight captain, Rosario is also responsible for the daily pre-performance fight call where "we run the sequences twice, one at half speed checking for any issues and then at performance tempo to make sure it is all good. I arrive early to check all the weapons and make sure nothing is loose or there are no metal burrs that could accidentally cut. I also oil and maintain all the weapons every week."
Ramey thanks Rosario for these meticulous safety measures, recounting an embarrassing episode at another theatre where as Lancelot, his sword broke. He notes that this is one more example of how this cast and creative team have worked so closely together. "Working with people of this caliber, sometimes moments occur which did not happen in the rehearsal hall. These can only develop when [we actors] get a sense from the writers and from fellow castmates that you can allow these moments to emerge over the course of the play. They are very subtle, but they add another layer of humanity to the characters and the story."
Clark concurs, calling these occurrences of organic collaboration and growth "beautiful moments." Asked what he and Robin see as the future of their creation, Clark answers with a mixture of quiet pride and a slight hint of nostalgic letting go: "MSMT and the Fulton will forever have their names on this show [as the original producers]. And now we are in the process now of letting another company handle the licensing for us. We didn't want to let it go fifteen years ago, and I am glad we didn't then because now I truly think it is ready - and we are ready - to let it find its way in the universe of musical theatre."
Photograph courtesy of MSMT, Olivia Wenner, photographer
TREASURE ISLAND A MUSICAL ADVENTURE runs at MSMT's Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME until July 13, 2019 www.msmt.org 207-725-8769