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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe
L-R John Dempsey, Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and Dana P. Rowe at the opening night of Signature Theatre's World Premiere Musical Blackbeard.
Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Today's subjects John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe are currently living their theatre lives as the writing team for the excellent swashbuckling World Premiere Musical Blackbeard at Signature Theatre. The production runs through July 14th in the MAX.

John (Book and Lyrics) and Dana's (Music) shows has been seen all over the world but you are most likely familiar with their many works that have been presented at Signature Theatre over the years. Past productions include The Witches of Eastwick, The Fix, and Brother Russia.

Their other works include a wonderful alternative to The Rocky Horror Show called Zombie Prom and Saved.

Independent projects include John co-writing lyrics for The Pirate Queen and Dana scoring The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde and See Jane Run!

If you are already familiar with John and Dana's work then you know that their stuff is always of the highest quality. In my opinion Blackbeard is their best work yet.

Read on to see what the process of creating a show fully staged on a pirate ship was like and why the idea of Blackbeard was so appealing to this team.

If you are looking for something to see with the whole family Blackbeard is definitely the show for you. If you want to see the show that could finally get John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe to Broadway then definitely grab some seats to Blackbeard at Signature Theatre before it sails away.

Who would you say were your biggest influences on deciding to become writers for the theatre?

D- In order of appearance, I would have to say Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lionel Bart, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. I was in a local high school production of The King and I when I was eight years old. Sitting on stage while Mrs. Anna sang "Hello, Young Lovers" and peering from the wings to hear "Something Wonderful" each performance moved me to a profound place emotionally. It wasn't until I was in a professional production of Oliver! a couple of years later, when I was ten, that I held the music to my chest during a vocal rehearsal and made a wish to have 'one of these' of my very own someday. You know, that crystalline moment when the joy of what you're doing combines with the spark of creative desire, and you completely ignore the probability of it ever coming true? That's the magic of being a ten-year-old, isn't it? I'm pretty sure we were learning "Food, Glorious Food!" -- and I do believe that was a life-changing wish for me. As I grew older, I discovered the musical score section of my local library and I would check all the musicals and sit at the piano for hours sight reading them. That's when I found Street Scene by Kurt Weill, still one of my all-time favorite scores, and then West Side Story and much later (just before college), Sondheim's Company. A full circle moment for me was when I had the privilege of meeting Lionel Bart. He was at the opening of The Fix at the Donmar Warehouse in London many years later. I was able to share the Oliver! story with him. What a lovely man he was.

John- Hands down Stephen Sondheim. Isn't that who everyone of our generation cites? Also, Leonard Bernstein. I know he wasn't a lyricist or book-writer, but he was first class storyteller. And there was a muscularity to the tales he told that I was drawn to as a child and beyond.

How did the two of you meet?

John: We were both going to Ohio State University at the same time. But we actually met doing a political fundraiser cabaret evening off-campus. Dana was the music director. I was the narrator. So technically, we didn't really do anything together on that project. Now, we're Frick and Frack.

Where do the ideas for your musicals come from?

Dana- They are most often born of conversations John and I have about what might be a fun sort of story to dig into; what would sing well and what would allow for interesting musical moments.

John- In this case, it was actually Eric Schaeffer's idea to do a pirate musical. I had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, having experienced the difficulties of doing a seabound show with The Pirate Queen. There literally hasn't been a truly successful pirate musical in 140 years. It's a daunting task. The funny thing is that now that Blackbeard is out there in the universe, it's the show I'm most proud of. It's very personal to me.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe
L-R Awa Sal Secka, Kevin McAllister, Chris Hoch, Christopher Mueller, and Lawrence Redmond in the Signature Theatre production of Blackbeard.
Photo by Christopher Mueller

Dana- Can you please talk about the musical style of your score for Blackbeard?

I loved adventure films when I was a kid - Indian Jones was my favorite. So, when the idea of doing a pirate musical came up, it checked all of my "musical boxes." Writing a musical with pirates, sword fighting, battles at sea, and magic was a delightful proposition. And there were apparently a number of famous female pirates - that really sweetened it for me musically speaking - being able to round out the crew's sound with both male and female voices. This story allows for quiet, melody driven moments, too. That's always happy making.

John- Can you please talk about your book and its take on Blackbeard?

Well, after Eric suggested turning the theatre into a pirate ship (this was a big selling point for me), I started reading up on various famous pirates. The one detail that makes it into every article and book about Blackbeard is that he used to twine lit cannon fuses into his beard when he went into battle. His hope was that his enemies would see him as some sort of mythic monster with a flaming beard. This appealed to me for two reasons: One, It's an actor putting on a costume, isn't it? And two, it suggested that he was insecure on some level. He wanted to be "more than". Don't we all? The idea of a man who wanted to be a myth appealed to me. It suggested an existential crisis in general and a mid-life crisis in particular. From there, it felt natural to follow him on a chain of quests. I instantly knew I wanted him to circle the globe meeting established legends from various cultures. It felt wonderfully overstuffed as a narrative and would give us a musical break from the "yo ho ho" world of sea shanties.

Dana- For many years your principal orchestrator was our dearly departed Michael Gibson. What do you remember most about working with him?

Oh, Michael was wonderful. He was an absolute joy and I really miss him on many levels. He mentored me through the entire Zombie Prom experience. What was especially outstanding about Michael was that his orchestrations presented the score like an expert framer presents a painting. Not too fancy, not too frilly, just right. He was a genius and a kind-hearted man.

My experience with David Holcenberg and Scott Wasserman on Blackbeard reminds me of working with Michael Gibson. David and Scott certainly have the same level of caring, artistry, and passion for presenting the heart of the score. I'm a very lucky composer.

John- Every writing team is different in their creative process. With you and Dana which comes first the music or the lyrics?

It's usually the lyrics. But it's not 100%. Certainly, everything starts with an idea. A story beat to build upon. Sometimes we start with the emotion of the scene (yes, even in a pirate musical) and work together from there just throwing out ideas. It's a fantastically collaborative process.

John- In Brother Russia there is a song called "Vodka" that was performed by our local powerhouse Tracy Lynn Olivera. It felt like you wrote it specifically for her because it showed off her many talents. Was this the case?

The song was written before we'd ever met Tracy, but you'd never know it, right? It played right into her comic and musical strengths. The original demo for the song was sung by Rosemary Ashe, who created the role of Felicia Gabriel in The Witches of Eastwick for us (and also created the role of Carlotta in Phantom Of The Opera). But with all due respect to Rosie and any others who've sung that song, it will always belong to Tracy. She's amazing; as a singer, an actress and as a friend. We love her.

Do you have a favorite song from one of your musicals?

Dana- Oh, that's tough! It's like asking me which one of my children is my favorite. I can't choose! I will tell you there are certain moments in our shows that still get me emotionally and I love that. There's a spot in "I Wish I May" from The Witches of Eastwick that always gets me "I close my eyes and there she is beneath the wrinkles and the scars. I'm still that little girl, wishing blindly on the stars." Something about that arrival gets me every time. There are several such moments in Blackbeard I'm happy to say - "To Be a Pirate" is especially moving and Kevin McAllister and the cast sing it so beautifully. That said, I do love the way "Into Legend We Sail" takes off in Blackbeard, too. Those two are quickly inching to the top of the leaderboard!

John- "Easy to Say" from Zombie Prom is certainly one of my favorites. I'm very fond of "Simple Words" from The Fix, "Waiting For The Music To Begin" and "I Wish I May" from The Witches Of Eastwick and "Crush Me" from Brother Russia. As for Blackbeard, I'm very proud of "To Be A Pirate", certainly. And standing at the back of the theatre watching Chris Hoch singing "I Took The Journey" will be one of my most cherished memories for the rest of my life. His commitment to that song - to the idea of that song - moves me to tears.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe
Dempsey and Rowe through the years at Signature Theatre.
L-R Marc Kudisch in The Witches of Eastwick. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Mark Evans and company in The Fix. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
John Lescault in Brother Russia. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Almost all of your musicals have been produced at Signature Theatre. What do you enjoy the most about watching a production of one of your shows at Signature Theatre?

Dana- Well, at this point coming back to Signature feels like home! I've become friends with the staff there, the actors, and the patrons alike. Over the years we've watched beautiful human beings meet at Signature while doing our shows, get married, and have children. That's really extraordinary when you think about it. Apart from those undeniable warm fuzzies - Eric Schaeffer and the folks at Signature know what it takes to do a new work. It's a massive undertaking on every level and they welcome the challenge with expertise and great heart.

What do I enjoy most about watching one of our shows at Signature? I think its knowing that I can relax and actually let it happen. It will have been rehearsed properly and the production standards are extremely high. I'd say that's a winning experience.

John- It's a very warm and welcoming community in terms of both the theatre staff and the audience. Eric is a superb Artistic Director. He's really primed the subscribers to be open to new things. In this day and age, most ADs are falling back on old favorites or small cast shows, actively training their audiences to be less demanding. Signature may be the only theatre of its size in America that is still taking massive risks on a massive scale. And the audience there is more than happy to take the ride. Working there is never anything less than a thrilling adventure.

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Deputy Director, Creative Content and Publicity James Gardiner for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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