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Room to Room: A Musical's Journey from NYMF to MetroStage

While Altar Boyz and [title of show] have gone from the New York Musical Theatre Festival (aka NYMF) to off-Broadway and Broadway, respectively, Rooms' journey has been a bit more meandering. After several readings and workshops, Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon's two-person rock musical opened under Scott Schwartz's direction at the 2005 NYMF with Natascia Diaz and Jeremy Kushnier as the struggling Glaswegian musicians who travel the world to find their artistic home. This month, Rooms finally made its formal premiere at MetroStage in Washington, D.C., reuniting Schwartz and Diaz and introducing newcomer Doug Kreeger to the project.

In a way, the journey of Rooms from Festival to Washington mirrors the journey of its two young protagonists. In the show, two young musicians strike sparks first as artists and then as lovers, but, with personalities and styles that alternately complement and contradict one another, they find fulfillment elusive. Similarly, Rooms' development has been gradual, incorporating the talents of many artists over many years. Schwartz has been involved with the project for five years, and Diaz for three.

The NYMF production of Rooms reunited Schwartz and Diaz, who had worked together previously on Jonathan Larson's tick, tick... BOOM. Diaz had appeared in Goodman's Bright Lights, Big City, and was eager to work with the composer again. After pulling off a convincing Scottish accent in her audition ("They were, like, 'Perfect! Maybe she's a wee bit tan for it, but there's all kinds of Scottish people!'" she recalls with a laugh), she was cast as the vibrant and wild Monica. Schwartz, on the other hand, was invited by Goodman himself to work with the developing musical. "I was instantly intrigued, particularly because it was a two-person musical," he remembers. Tick, tick... BOOM had featured only three actors in its cast, and Schwartz was eager to see how a musical would work with only two performers. "[I wanted] to see if it could be done, how it could be done, what lessons were learned from tick, tick... BOOM that could be applied, [and] what new lessons would be learned," he says.

With Jeremy Kushnier playing the more introspective Ian, the musical opened at NYMF in the summer of 2005. "[NYMF] was this enormous labor of love," Diaz recalls. "The combination of Paul's amazing music and the amazing writing style and Jeremy's and my chemistry-- it was like a little bit of heaven every day. Nobody cared if we ran into overtime. Nobody cared that we weren't getting any money. There were so many points of the collaboration that were so perfect, and so much that was just joy. It was a very joyful experience."

Schwartz agrees that the production "went very well, but we saw that there was still more work to be done. Particularly, the first two-thirds of the show were working very, very well, and the audience response seemed to bear that out, but then the last third of the show there were some story problems." After the Festival, Goodman, Gordon and Schwartz began further developing the piece, adding songs and shaping the musical into something ready for a formal production. The show played for two nights at the Zipper Theater in 2006, where Schwartz was finally satisfied that the structural problems had been addressed. "What we've done is try to refine the story, make it more complicated, make it truer and realer, make sure that they way in which the story is being told is clear," Schwartz explains. "It's been a constant process of revision and refinement, but the goal has always been the same."

Diaz uses similar words in her descriptions of the musical's development. "The strokes of colors are not so bold and obtuse," she says thoughtfully. "The journey of the show is much more clear. Songs have been cut and added, moments have been cut and added... It's interesting, trying to figure out what kind of pegs in the storytelling you need at any given moment: when the show drags, when it needs to pick up, information we're missing. I think it's much more refined now."

For Diaz, who has made a name for herself in dance-heavy roles like Anita and the Spider Woman, playing a wild Scottish rocker gave her a chance to stretch her dramatic wings. "Monica is, like, this wacky, crazy, spastic, dreamy Scottish girl, and it's a lot of fun for me," Diaz says, and adds that she feels a certain connection to her character's energy. "She's always, like, 'Go go go go go! Gotta make it! Gotta be a star! Gotta fly higher! Gotta find the next thing!' She's always gotta keep moving, and what's beautiful about the relationship with Ian is that he shows her a different dimension of life. And he makes her realize that there's more than one way to look at art and at life and at your desires and at creativity."

"I think that the theme of Rooms can be summed up by its title," Schwartz says. "It's about an emotional and philosophical conflict between two worldviews, which comes down to: how do you live your life, and how do you find love and happiness? Do you find it by constantly putting yourself out there, and trying to, in metaphorical terms, see every room in  the world-- through movement, through constant interaction, by basically being very extroverted-- or do you find it by creating one place for yourself and staying in one place and building a room in which you can stay?" 

Both Schwartz and Diaz have great respect for Paul Scott Goodman, and his unique style of musical theatre. "The music is just amazing," Schwartz says. "It's so exciting to hear these great singers perform these amazing rock songs. It's really thrilling to me. Every day I get to listen to it, and I want to keep that the focus of the show. And so nothing is represented realistically in the show. No 'rooms' sets. It's all done simply." Diaz agrees that Goodman's style is more fantastical than realistic, and describes his work as "very witty, very touching, very poetic... I just love Paul's voice as a writer. He has such an innocent and special look at how to write musical theatre. It's almost like Scottish 'def poetry'! It's awesome!"

And both Schwartz and Diaz have nothing but praise for Doug Kreeger, the new Ian in the production. "He's a really remarkable talent, and I'm really excited to be working with him," Schwartz says. "He's an amazing, amazing actor and singer." Playing his love interest and partner every night, Diaz can be somewhat more rhapsodic. "Doug is a sweetheart," she says energetically. "He's a darling, darling, darling dear, and he's a great up-and-coming performer. We managed to find some beautiful moments that are still being discovered."

Like the young rockers who need to travel the world before they find their home, Rooms' journey is far from over. This fall, just after closing at MetroStage, it will transfer to Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, where it will run until the end of October.

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