Imagine if the authorities told you that you could no longer use certain letters, like "e's," or "g's," or "r's," or "t's," in your speech or your writing. How would you communicate? What if your name was, say, "Greta?" How could you introduce yourself or know if people were talking to you?
That's the dilemma faced by the good folks of the fictional island nation of Nollop, whose leaders begin to outlaw specific letters of the alphabet as each letter falls from a major monument. The story of these Nollopians, and how they adjust and react to these government edicts, is told in the new musical, "L M N O P," which is now receiving a fully-staged workshop production at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris in Chester, Conn., through August 18.
The musical is by the composing/writing team of Scott Burkell (book and lyrics) and Paul Loesel (music and lyrics), who were inspired by the 2001 novel by Mark Dunn called "Ella Minnow Pea," which is the name of the central character of the show, along with an alliterative connection to the musical's own title.
Although this may seem like an odd topic for a musical, each of the writers claim that the first time they read the book, they knew it was begging to be musicalized. "When Scott first gave me the book," Loesel expalins, "I felt it was singing to me. The musical opportunities jumped right off the page." He noted that certain lines in the novel seemed like song titles or song lyrics and that they were both moved particularly by a sequence in which a number of women must hum in order to complete a hymm.
Loesel admitted that he was also attracted to some of the themes of Dunn's work. "The idea of freedom of speech, freedom of choice and how a governmental body tries to control its citizens all resonated with me," he explains, "as well as the story of the people's fight to regain their freedoms."
Working to dispel any concern that "L M N O P" sounds too serious, he quickly adds the musical is designed as, first and foremost, entertainment. "We want to make you think a little bit while you're tapping your toes," he stresses.
For Burkell, the story appealed to his interest in word games. "I like words and wordplay," he explains, citing the challenge of writing a script in which more and more letters become prohibited as the musical progresses. "It certainly challenged my word geek," he adds, "especially when we got to 'd.' For some reason, not being able to use 'd's' was horrible, but it led to a breakthrough. We learned to create a new language and a new way of speaking that allowed the characters to continue to communicate in a clear but clever way."
"The thesaurus became my best friend," Burkell laughs, but as a result, both creators discovered that, in his words, "that there's a richness to our language that we don't regularly tap into. We were forced to look at other words that do the trick."
This raises yet another concern. Will the audience have a hard time following the show? "Absolutely not," Burkell quickly jumps in. "There may be a few words here or there that they can't immediately figure out. There's nothing wrong with learning a new word anyway, since the context is apparent. I think the audience will enjoy the challenge of seeing how the characters figure out how to communicate without certain letters and may even be a step or two ahead of them."
Also essential to the success of the show is the participation of an astute and game cast. "An actor can't go up on his or her lines and improvise," he explains, "unless they can quickly remember not to use the forbidden letters. They can't paraphrase, because the audience is listening to hear if any of the banned letters are employed." As the revision process has continued through the Goodspeed rehearsal process, Burkell adds that the cast themselves are some of most diligent 'policemen' who are quick to point out when he has accidentally included an outlawed letter in a rewrite.
As the plot requires more and more letters to be eliminated, the creative team had to face the difficulties of still writing enjoyable and understandable songs. This process is even more complicated than one might think at first since most songs, of course, must include believable rhymes. But both expect that audiences will enjoy some of the more creative and clever solutions.
Loesel describes the score for the musical as being inspired more by classical music and art songs, since the island, separated from other countries, is still steeped in a classical music tradition. As a result, the on-stage orchestra consists of an unusual mix of strings, brass, and percussion for such a small band.
"L M N O P" marks the second full-length musical collaboration between Loesel and Burkell, who have been writing together for almost 20 years. Their earliest collaborations consisted of writing songs for a number of Broadway-based singers like Kristen Chenoweth, Rebecca Luker, Marin Mazzie, Jason Daniely, Stephanie J. Block and Liz Callaway. Their initial shows consisted of compilations of their songs in several revues, some of which can be heard on their CD, "(Sorta) Love Songs." Their first book musical was called "The Extraordinary Ordinary," with an original story, that has been performed several times in New York and Philadelphia. For their second show, they wanted to do an adaptation from another source, and after a lengthy search, they settled on "Ella Minnow Pea."
Although the musical was previously workshopped in a student production at the University of Michigan, the team are thrilled for the chance to work on the musical again at Goodspeed with all the access to and support from the Goodspeed's resources. "It's a blessing to be part of a larger team," Loesel indicates. "I now have a full team who can quickly incorporate our changes into a script and make sure that all those who need to quickly receive the new copy."
Burkell echoes that sentiment: "It's great to know that a whole team is behind you scheduling rehearsals and coordinating meetings, so that we have a chance to focus more closely on improving the show itself."
"It's amazing what you can accomplish in this environment," he continues. "We re-wrote a song the other day and changed part of the opening. It's been a plus to work with such smart and adaptable actors who are our teachers as well." With his own acting background, Burkell recognizes the importance of listening to his actors as the show takes life, although, he grins, he and Loesl reserve the final decision for themselves.
The two creators stress that there is indeed something for everyone in the show. They not only cite the music, singing and dancing, but think that people will be challenged to play along with the wordplay, appreciate its underlying message about freedom, and enjoy the romance, which also exists in the show.
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