To an outsider it may have looked like a typical vacation rental. Several bedrooms, a compact kitchen, an open living room and dining area, a huge flat screen TV on the wall. But when Stacey Luftig, Phillip Palmer and Jennie Redling arose one cold February morning, they knew that leisure time was not on their agenda. Instead, they were looking forward to a full day of intense collaboration as they continued their work on a new musical they are writing, “My Heart is the Drum.”
The team were spending a week at the Goodspeed Musicals’ attractive, home-like Actors’ Village along with 46 other established and burgeoning composers, lyricists and librettists as part of an innovative residency program devoted expressly for musical theater writing. Now in its second year, the Johnny Mercer Writers’ Colony aims to foster and develop the next generation of musical theater talent. The program was developed in collaboration with the Johnny Mercer Foundation, which honors the memory of the legendary composer, lyricist and producer by encouraging and supporting the discipline of songwriting in the tradition of the Great American Songbook.
For four weeks each year, in January and February, writers have the opportunity to be immersed in the creative, stimulating environment of the Goodspeed campus to devote a substantial amount of concentrated work on a new musical theater piece or an existing work-in-progress. The creative teams also benefit from the input from the Writers’ Colony faculty, which this year included composer/lyricist Jonathan Brielle who served as Producer in Residence, Michael Bush as Dramaturge and Clifford Lee Johnson III as Resident Dramaturge. The writing teams also have access to many of Goodspeed Musicals’ resources, including the Scherer Library of Musical Theatre and the Max Showalter Center for Education in Musical Theatre, which Luftig calls "one of the best musical theater libraries in the world."
One advantage for the team working on “My Heart is the Drum” is the opportunity to physically work together, side by side. “We’re a team that is physically diverse,” explains Redling, who is the librettist (or book writer) for the show. She's also an award-winning playwright (the national Stanley Drama Award), a screenwriter, and the recipient of the BMI Jerry Harrington Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement as a librettist. “Our work schedules and lives frequently keep us from being in the same location, let alone the same continent” she continues, “so we find ourselves communicating by Skype or through conference calls and emails. “Just the thought of being able to all be together was so appealing.”
Luftig, who is the lyricist for this show, agrees. After being part of the Writers’ Colony for a few days, she explains that “we’ve been able to get into the rhythm of working together in a dedicated environment that we wouldn’t have been able to had we been working back in New York.” A librettist, lyricist and playwright, Luftig wrote the lyrics for off-Broadway's "That's Life" (Outer Critics' Award) and her operetta "Story of an Hour" has been performed by the Portland Chamber Orchestra in Oregon. Her play "Jinxed" took first place and won the Audience award at the Dayton Playhouse Future Fest.
The idea for the musical grew out of composer Palmer’s experiences in his job as a Foreign Service Officer with the Agency for International Development (USAID), which is part of the Department of State. He is responsible for implementing programs to foster economic opportunities in some of the world’s poorest countries and has lived and worked in Haiti and Africa. He wanted to show the restrictions that are placed on young girls in many African tribal societies and how those traditions ill-prepare these young women for life in the larger urban centers. At the same time, he wanted to demonstrate the innate resilience and strength that these young women can call upon in order to steadily progress toward a better life.
A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Palmer has also studied traditional drumming and choral music in Ghana and South Africa. “I have always been interested in African music,” he explains, “and I used my time living in South Africa to really explore the musical culture.” He describes the score for “My Heart is the Drum” as pulsating with high-energy rhythms and rich vocal harmonies, that in his words, “takes the elements of African music and merges that with a Broadway sensibility, while remaining true to the culture of the country.”
The three collaborators recognized the theatricality of this concept which would also include such elements as the presence of ancestor spirits, the traditions and rituals inherent in South and West African cultures, and opportunities in costuming and choreography. “It’s important to remember,” Redling is quick to point out, “that this is at heart both a coming of age story and a love story that we believe has broad appeal.”
“My Heart is the Drum” also distinguishes itself in that it is a totally original musical, quite a rare bird these days, not based on a previously existing book or film or play. The creators acknowledge that this may cause some concerns down the line, particularly in the marketing of the show, but they are confident that they are including the right elements. As Redling indicated, “we’ve got a story with great emotional resonance,” and “good songs that regardless of the style tell something universal about the characters.”
All three have been members of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop in New York at one time or another, but had never really met each other until Palmer went out recruiting collaborators for this show. They have some concern that they may be criticized for being three white American writers doing a musical about Africa, but as Redling assures “Phillip has been immersed in the culture for many years” and the team has been so careful to respect the culture, including feedback from cast members and others during readings to assure that they are not misappropriating the culture. “We don’t want to rely on stereotypes,” adds Luftig, “but reflect positively on the characters.”
Luftig also detailed another of the benefits of the Writers’ Colony, something called “Check In,” in which all of the teams get together at the end of each day to talk about what they have created, how they perhaps have addressed a problem they discussed at a previous day’s “check-in,” and to perhaps share a new or changed song or a newly added scene for their particular show. “We can get feedback from the other musical theater artists present and from the artistic team for the Colony,” she says. “In this type of environment, you’re never completely isolated. To have all of this musical theater talent around actually writing musicals, it’s nice to know that they’re facing the similar challenges that our team is facing.”
By sharing a cottage on the Goodspeed campus, Luftig explains that, working on a song, “we can work on it here, polish it, get some feedback, sleep on it, talk to our dramaturge the next day, and evaluate it again.” For example, Palmer outlines, “by working together we realized that we needed to have a song for our main character at a highly dramatic point so she can convey her inner thoughts. Thankfully, Jennie’s book is like working on rich soil, so Stacey and I were able to adapt some of those words into a song.”
While being in a Writer’s Colony overlooking the Connecticut River may sound pastoral, the collaborators never lost sight of what they are in East Haddam to do. “We know we have six days and a lot of stuff to get through,” Palmer adds, with Luftig quickly chiming in that their week “is going by very quickly.”
But they definitely are pleased with this opportunity to work face to face “in this safe little community,” Luftig states. They are pleased to know they are in great company with the other teams who spent some time over the four weeks of the Colony (depending on their scheduling availability) who included a Pulitzer-Prize finalist, the artistic director of one of off-off Broadway’s most daring musical theater companies, a national best-selling author, a past winner of the Ken Kesey, an award-winning musical arranger for Stevie Wonder, a violin and piano prodigy, a Tony-nominated actress and a world-renown Ojibwe and Oneida Hoop Dancer and Storyteller.
There were even several teams familiar to Goodspeed audiences, including Scott Burkell and Paul Loessel who are continuing their work on “LMNOP” which had a workshop staging last year at the Norma Terris Theatre, and the team of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, who were represented by a workshop production of their “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown” at the Norma Terris several years back and attended the Colony to work on a new show, “Unbound/Republic.”
For futher information on the Johnny Mercer Writers’ Colony for Musical Theatre at Goodspeed Musicals, visit the Goodspeed website at www.goodspeed.org
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