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Playwright Chip Deffaa to Have Four NYC Runs This Year

Most playwrights would be happy to have one script of theirs produced in New York in a year. "Theater Boys"--which opens tomorrow, September 21st at the 13th Street Repertory Theater--is the third show by ASCAP award-winning writer/director Chip Deffaa to open this year. And as soon as it opens, the prolific Deffaa plunges into rehearsal for his fourth production of the year, "The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue" (set to open at the 13th Street Theater on November 9th). Two more shows of Deffaa's, "Mad About the Boy" and "The Two Matts," are already slated for production in early 2015.

During a break in rehearsals at the 13th Street Theater-where Deffaa has become the theater's most-produced playwright, a defacto playwright-in-residence--Deffaa jokingly "blamed" his productivity on legendary, Tony Award-winning Broadway star Carol Channing.

"She's my favorite person in this business, and one of the wisest people I've ever met. She always says: 'Create something every day.' And she says you have to train yourself to work every day, without worrying about how you might feel, or letting various fears-which sabotage so many people--keep you from realizing your potential. You do the work that you love, and you do it every single day. What's the reward? The reward is that-throughout your whole life--you're doing what you love," Deffaa notes. "Like many of the things Carol Channing has taught me in the past 20 years, it's both simple and profound."

"Theater Boys"--with book, music, and lyrics by Deffaa--is actually dedicated to Channing, whom Deffaa has often thanked in his 15 published plays and eight published books. She's even contributed a cameo recording to the show. Deffaa finds the tireless 93-year-old Channing to be inspiring. "She gave me the idea for this show," he says. "I'm writing her a note now, and am having every member of the cast sign it." "Theater Boys" is that rarity on the current theater scene--a wholly original musical, not based on any film, play, or book. "The show wrote itself very quickly. I took a longer time to cast it," says Deffaa. "I wanted actors who were not just talented and hot, but also very likeable-actors whom the audience will like, and whom I like-which is important to me, if I'm going to spend weeks rehearsing daily with them. I like the people in this cast tremendously. I really enjoy spending time with them."

The cast includes Michael Czyz, Joseph Spitale, Philip Louis Calabro, Danny Coelho, Sam Donnenberg, Hawkins Gardow, Joris de Graaf, Andrew Lanctot Taylor Martin, Will Meredith, Ben Orlando, Ken Adams. Deffaa is directing. Richard Danley serves as music director; Alex Acevedo and Tyler DuBoys are co-choreographers; Peter Charney is assistant director.

Edith O'Hara, the 97-year-old founder/artistic director of the 13th Street Rep, who has been proudly presenting Deffaa's work in recent years, intends to present more of Deffaa's work. This fall, Deffaa's "Theater Boys" will run in repertory with Deffaa's "One Night with Fanny Brice" (starring Chloe Brooks) and Israel Horovitz's "Line," now in its 40th year at the theater (the longest-running production in New York). Upcoming plans include both more shows about the roots of show business (one of Deffaa's specialties) and more contemporary work by Deffaa. And the "Theater Boys" cast album will be released October 17th, with a celebration at the theater.
"Theater Boys"-the biggest and most ambitious offering at the 13th Street Repertoty Theater in years-is a gay musical. And it is playing at the very theater, O'Hara notes, where gay musical theater was more or less born. In 1974, O'Hara presented Bill Solly's trailblazing gay musical "Boy Meets Boy" at the intimate 13th Street Rep. The following year, O'Hara transferred the show-the first big hit gay musical--to the larger Actor's Playhouse on Seventh Avenue. There it racked up a 463-performance-run--unprecedented for a gay musical; productions in LA, London, and other cities followed.

The theater hopes Deffaa's new show will likewise, in time, find its audience. Previous Off-Broadway shows of Deffaa's, such as "George M. Cohan Tonight!" (originally produced at the Irish Repertory Theater) and "One Night with Fanny Brice," (originally produced at St. Luke's Theater) have found audiences in many cities in the US and abroad, from London to Seoul. Deffaa is hoping "Theater Boys" might eventually find similar success. "All of these shows started small. You can try out a show anywhere; the important thing is to just get it in front of an audience. The audience-as the late master comic George Burns taught me-will let you know what works and what doesn't work. And you tinker with the show. Eventually, over time, a show finds its following. But the work is the real reward."

Deffaa has a reputation for working quickly. His musical play "George M. Cohan: In His Own Words" (published by Samuel French Inc.) was written in just three weeks, during rehearsals-while Deffaa was overseeing 25 other productions for his own "Chip Deffaa Invitational Theater Festival" on 42nd Street. Deffaa was running from rehearsal to rehearsal, passing out pages of the script as he wrote them. Deffaa's sister, Deb, who co-produced that theater festival with him, commented: "He set that script on paper down on paper in just three weeks--but he'd been writing it in his head for years."

Indeed, Deffaa-who's now written six different shows about Cohan (all of which have been produced)-wrote his first report on Cohan when he was just nine years old, for his third grade teacher, Miss Marge Doremus at Richard E. Byrd Elementary School in Glen Rock, NJ. Years later, when he won an IRNE Award (Independent Reviewers of New England) up in Boston, for one of his Cohan shows, it was Doremus he thanked.
"I'm very lucky. I've had some wonderful teachers and mentors. The late composer Jack Gottlieb-who was Leonard Bernstein's right-hand man and intimate friend-offered guidance all my life. He baby-sat me as a child, steered me towards the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when I became interested in acting as a boy....and remained a valued mentor until his passing a couple of years ago. Okey Chenoweth, who directed me when I was 14, remains a valued friend today; it means more to me than he realizes when he comes to see my work in New York.

"I've learned great things from Thommie Walsh and Tommy Tune that have helped terrifically. My favorite professor at Princeton, Irving Dilliard-to whom I dedicated my book 'Blue Rhythms'--fortunately, talked me out of going to grad school; he said I was a natural writer, and I should just go out and start writing, anywhere I could get a chance; things would fall into place. And they have. I love what I'm doing!"

Deffaa wrote for The New York Post for 18 years, covering music and theater under editors Matt Diebel, V.A. Musetto, and Faye Penn; and he wrote for Entertainment Weekly (under editor David Hajdu) for ten of those years, too . "I just try to do things that interest me," he says. "I really enjoy my work." By choice, Deffaa spent his one day off from rehearsals in the past week, in a recording studio, recording Giuseppe Bausilio-from such Broadway hits as "Newsies" and "Billy Elliot"-for a project Deffaa is developing with filmmaker Max Galassi, whom he considers a young genius.

"Creating shows and songs are the most fun of anything imaginable. It's such a joy to go out to my favorite lake; write a song, like 'Maybe'/'Sweet Tea'-a double song, performed in counterpoint in 'Theater Boys,'; and then get to see wonderful performers bring it to life. When Michael Czyz, at today's rehearsal, began casually tap-dancing (choreographed by Tyler DuBoys) to one melody I'd created, while Taylor Martin sang the counter-melody, I was near tears; you imagine these moments, and then terrific performers realize them. And your song lives.

"I usually write shows with specific actors in mind. I wrote 'The Seven Little Foys' for Michael Townsend Wright and Beth Bartley, and I was lucky enough to have them co-star in the first New York production; I wrote my Cohan shows for Jon Peterson, who's starred in shows in London, New York, and on tour; and I am lucky to have him still playing Cohan for me, out on the road, today."

But the performers one writes shows aren't necessarily available when the shows are produced, Deffaa notes. "I actually wrote 'Theater Boys' for Seth Sikes, who'd previously starred in my show 'Yankee Doodle Boy.' And he did the original demo recordings, with Santino Fontana. But he's busy with other projects right now-he'll be singing at 54 Below, in a show directed by Lisa Lambert on October 22nd, and I'll be there cheering-so I held auditions for the role, which turned out well."

But Deffaa loves it when artists he's written for are available. "I wrote 'The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue' with some very specific talented performers, such as Emily Bordonaro, Michael Kasper, and Missy Dreier in mind. And am lucky to have them in the cast now. But I'm always finding new talent. I'm sure I'll be writing parts in future years for some of the talented newcomers I've found in the past year or so, like Michael Czyz, Tori Weaver, Philip Louis Calabro, Maite Uzal, Danny Coelho, Alexandrea Tocco,.Jonah Barricklo, Matt ZanFagna....."

However, just having talent is not enough. "Carol Channing has always stressed, you look for people with the right spirit, work ethic, reliability. The best performers I've worked with over the years, like Matt Nardozzi-who's worked in Hollywood and on Broadway and has won a Young Artists Award, besides doing shows with me-are always on time, and arrive with a great attitude. And if someone's got the right work ethic and spirit, as well as talent, we'll work again and again. I've worked for more than a half-dozen years, for example, on projects with music-director Richard Danley, assistant director Peter Charney, choreographer Tyler DuBoys-talented, reliable people; I'd trust 'em with my life.

"I like performers who start digging into a script or score the moment they get it, before even waiting for rehearsals to begin," Deffaa says. "Of my current cast, I'm giving Mark Andrew Garner the Brandon Pollinger Award for Most Motivated Understudy or Swing. I hired Mark as just an understudy, but he's been so conscientious and enthusiastic about everything-from learning lines and dances, to finding us colorful clothes for the show, from Tagg-that I've bumped him up to a real role in the show. And now, I've got to get back to rehearsal-and back to getting cast members to add their signatures to a note we're sending to Carol Channing. Wonderful woman! And then, right after this show opens, we start rehearsals on the next show-'The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue.'"

If anyone wants to know more, the 13th Street Repertory Theater will offer talkbacks--in which audience members can ask any questions they like of writer/director Chip Deffaa and his actors-after the following performances of "Theater Boys": Sunday, September 21st at 3 p.m; Thursday, September 25th at 7 pm; Sunday, September 28th at 3 p.m.; Thursday, October 2nd at 7 pm; Sunday, October 5th at 3 p.m.; Thursday, Oct 9th at 7 pm; Sunday, October 12th at 3 p.m; Thursday October 16th at 7 p.m.; Thursday, October 23rd at 7 pm; Sunday, October 26th at 3 pm. For more info, go to www.13thstreetrep.org


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