Hometown: Metuchen, NJ
Current Town: New York, NY
Q: Tell me about your operetta that's being workshopped soon.
A: Actually, it’s not a workshop—we're getting a full production in Portland, Oregon, with a 35-piece orchestra! Story of an Hour is based on a short story by 19th century writer Kate Chopin, who is probably best known for her novel The Awakening. I wrote the libretto and Michael Valenti composed the score.
I'm so happy Michael asked me to work on this project. His music is lush, and the story is both stark and subtle. Josephine must tell Louise, her sister, that Louise's husband has died in a train crash. When she hears this, Louise goes through a surprising emotional transformation—an awakening, really—that ends in a shocking way.
Chopin’s tale is just three pages long, so we expanded it by developing the relationship between the sisters. We also created a specific time and setting. That's because the operetta, while it stands alone, is also part of a three-act evening called A Christmas Trilogy, and each act takes place on Christmas eve, in the same mansion in Bath, England. Act I is an opera set in the 1700s, with a libretto adapted by Michael from a 17th-century play. Act II—our piece—is an operetta set in the 1800s. And Act III, set in the 1900s, is a musical comedy, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, and music, of course, by Michael. So it's one set, four actors, three centuries, three styles of music theater.
Q: How is writing a musical or opera different from writing a straight play as it relates to your working process?
A: As a playwright, I'm completely in charge. Which is great…and kind of scary. But having a collaborator means having a co-creator, critic, and cheerleader right there with me during the dreamy, vulnerable parts of the process that as a playwright I have to face alone. Plus, it means I have someone else who’s as jazzed about the project as I am, someone to please, someone to argue with. All very useful.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I'm writing lyrics to an original musical set in Ghana. This time I have two collaborators—Jennie Redling is writing book, and Phillip Palmer is composing the music. Jennie lives nearby, but Phillip is now living in South Africa. So that means lots of MIDI files, PDFs, and Skype instead of sitting in front of a baby grand and turning the pages. The story is about a 16-year-old girl from a small village who wants to become a teacher, and it involves sexual slavery and AIDS. Which may sound a little depressing. Yet the show is actually high energy, filled with joy and humor, not to mention great music and a powerful story. I’m excited to be immersing myself in a culture and in rhythms so different from my own.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My dad wrote for television and theater. He loved what he did. That alone was influential. When I was twelve, Dad was writing, directing, and producing a kids' program for NBC called The Everything Show. He asked my sister and me to read his scripts and tell him what we thought. (He paid us a dollar a week for the privilege, too.) He said to us, "My friends will tell me, 'Sure Don, great, it's great.' I count on my family to tell me the truth."
I took this responsibility very seriously. I saw my ideas and suggestions make their way to the show—my ideas, on TV! After that, I always assumed I'd end up living in New York, writing scripts. Recently, I had two scripts of my own produced for a kids’ TV show. I wish Dad could have seen them.
And when someone asks me to edit his or her script, I still see it as an honor.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Almost anything if it's done really well. One of my all-time favorite pieces is Love's Fowl, which is an opera for adults about Chicken Little, sung in Italian, with subtitles, and performed entirely with tiny puppets built on top of clothespins. It's hilarious, and oddly moving. I also love intense, spare productions of classics, like David Cromer's take on Our Town. Then again, big, bold, stylized theater with huge production values—like the opening sequence of The Lion King—well, that just sends me. Stop me now—I could go on and on.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: If you're not already an actor, take an acting class. See and read every kind of theater you can, even if you think it's not a style that interests you. Find a good playwriting teacher. Finally, allow yourself to write terrible first drafts. You can always fix them. And they may not be so terrible after all.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Story of an Hour, music by Michael Valenti, premieres May 22 in Portland, Oregon: http://portlandchamberorchestra.org/wordpress/buy-tickets/american-feast.
Understood Betsy, a family musical, with music by Mary Feinsinger and additional music by Robert Elhai, opens July 9 in Columbia, Missouri.