In this interview with Extended Play, members of the original cast of "This Beautiful City" talk about the show's origins, Michael Friedman's legacy and the bittersweet experience of recording the new album.
IS THIS THE WAY IN?
IS THIS THE WAY IN?
IS IT THROUGH THE EYES
OR MOUTH, OR SKIN?
HOW DOES ANYTHING ENTER?
HOW DOES ANYTHING
I’M ALWAYS LOOKING FOR AN EXPLANATION
SOMETHING TO GET BEHIND
I’M ALWAYS LOOKING TO FIND
–lyric fragment from “Microcosmos”
Tell us a little about your R&D project and its inspiration.
Long story short.
I got struck by lightning when I was 15. (Or, had a serious electric shock that at least felt like a near-death experience.)
I had a brain condition I didn’t know about for years
I had seizures that I thought were panic attacks, then perhaps sacred visions.
Eventually, it was diagnosed as temporal lobe epilepsy.
You wouldn’t have known it to look at me.
I took medication, and it went away. I’ve never had another seizure.
Which is not, as I understand it, typical.
In 2010, I read Oliver Sacks’ “Musicophilia,” a collection of case studies about people with different neurological conditions and their relationship to music.
Notably, one case study focuses on a man who was struck by lightning and thereafter began playing piano.
Apparently the temporal lobe of the brain is more or less the area that “lights up” during certain ecstatic states, such as religious ecstasy or playing music.
I started playing music for people the summer I was struck by lightning.
I’m not saying they’re connected. I don’t know if they’re connected. I wrote songs before that. But still.
Epilepsy has been described as a literal “storm in the brain,” the body’s electricity gone awry.
I also became intensely religious – or, religo-curious – during my “seizure years.” I had a job reading tarot cards at a bookstore. A lot of my non-theatre college classes were in world religions. I formed my first band, and we had, like, an altar on the stage. I was the TA for “Magic in the Middle Ages.”
I also read descriptions of temporal lobe epilepsy in that book that made me say, “Hey, that IS what I had!”
I wrote my first musical, “STRUCK,” about it. It was done at HERE Arts Center and in the Ice Factory.
*Time passed. I did a lot of other things including becoming a Civilian*
I went to NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program on a scholarship to write book and lyrics.
I met David. He’s a composer.
David has Tourette’s Syndrome.
You wouldn’t know it to look at him.
We wrote a ten minute musical about depression and assisted suicide. As our FIRST assignment.
We also wrote other things that were exciting and discovered a pretty great rock/theatre songwriting chemistry.
We thought we might write our graduate thesis together.
David asked if I’d ever consider adapting “Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks.
We went to see Gardiner Comfort’s show about Tourettes and talked about how to musicalize experiences like that.
We talked about epilepsy and Tourettes and writing something about the brain. I mentioned speaking in tongues, Cassandra, Joan of Arc.
We were assigned different thesis partners (who were awesome!!) and didn’t write about the brain.
But we still want to.
In what ways are you allowing your own personal experiences to direct the shape of the piece (not just in content, but form as well)?
We recently had our first meeting with our director (Steve Cosson!), who said that he more or less feels like the show starts “with the two of you.” And that is true. I mean we weren’t sure where to begin, so we interviewed ourselves, as a first step. And whether or not we literally end up performing in the show, we’re definitely starting from our experiences with brains that have not behaved “normally,” whatever that means. Currently, we are band mates as well as former classmates, so, obviously, the show is both about music to a certain extent, and also it is what I think I unfortunately called a “rock odyssey” in the application. It’s certainly a natural move to write the show with a band in mind. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if we wind up being part of that band. Or being characters in the show. But then again, I’m writing this blog post, and David is on a plane, so we’ll see what he says when he reads this.
I originally said that the show would likely be a song cycle or a mostly sung-through piece, but as we’ve begun interviews and have unearthed some great text from those, it is morphing more into a classic Civilians show in my mind. It does not feel like a narrative book musical to me, or like a documentary, but more like, well, investigative theatre…an essay, a poem, an exploration. Time will tell.
Anything else we should know about how you are designing your investigative process?
We have been working in little bursts – David sends me scraps of music, I send fragments of lyrics, and I’m having fun collaging and re-purposing interview text.
I usually tend to write without more than a general plan in mind, following hunches and letting the piece reveal itself. I can tell you that so far we have been conducting and transcribing interviews. We have to date spoken to a retired Professor of occult and magical history, an acclaimed theatre director living with epilepsy, a poet with a degree in Science Writing from MIT, an herbalist/metaphysician, a music therapist, an actor who gave up his craft for god, and … each other. The more we talk to people, the more I remember how much I love working with found text as a lyricist… and the more I realize how many potential rabbit holes there are. I think it feels like we are honing in on the Central Question through the words of our various interviewees, and through the lens (delicately, exploratively) of the Greek myth of Castor and Pollux, who kept appearing in my mind the more dualities emerged from the material (starting with the obvious one of “the two of us”).
What has been the strangest or most surprising discovery in the process thus far? Any a-ha! moments?
I’ve learned that my big revelations this early in the process usually don’t translate when I try to write them out in, say, a blog post, so I’ll just say this moment from one of the interviews:
So you’ve heard it said that most of the cells in a human’s body are like not actually human.
I have not heard it said.
Assume I know nothing.
Oh man! This is good stuff!
(She explains the microbiome, which I, for whatever reason, did not know what it was, okay, probably most people do, sue me.)
…and, yeah. It’s frickin’ amazing. It’s insane how much of ourselves is, is probably not ourselves.
And yet it’s still our tastes, and our personality, and that is…
(a big pause)
That’s just so, like, not at all how we live.
Correct, but it is, in fact, how we are.
Rebecca Hart once accidentally won a comedy competition in Dublin, Ireland while appearing as musical guest (true story). She has been acting since her first stage appearance at the age of nine months and writing for only a slightly shorter time. Acting credits include SWEAT ( Public Theater Mobile Unit, dir. Kate Whoriskey), (NOT) WATER (New Georges @3LD); the short film JO (Play Mountain Productions-Woodstock Film Fest), and MIDSUMMER; a Play With Songs (Hartford Theaterworks – CT Critics Circle Best Actress Nomination), five productions at the Actors Theatre of Louisville including O GURU GURU GURU and Anne Washburn’s A DEVIL AT NOON (dir. Steve Cosson) at the Humana Festival…and of course THE GREAT IMMENSITY w/the Civilians at Kansas City Rep and The Public Theater. Composer/lyricist credits include GLORIA (Woolly Mammoth), Hard Spark’s THE CABARET AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2017 NY Innovative Theatre Award, Best Original Music w/Melody Bates), RIMBAUD IN NY and LET ME ASCERTAIN YOU: HOLY MATRIMONY (The Civilians @ BAM and Joe’s Pub), URIEL ACOSTA (Target Margin), and HOW TO BREAK (NY Hip Hop Theatre Festival and Spkrbox Festival, Oslo Norway). She recently earned her MFA from NYU’s The Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program and her graduate thesis musical IRON JOHN: An American Ghost Story (book & lyrics by Hart, book & music by composer Jacinth Greywoode) had a developmental workshop production at NYU’s New Studio on Broadway this past December. Her new album, The Magician’s Daughter, was produced by acclaimed cellist/songwriter Ben Sollee in Kentucky and by Ben Arons in NYC, and is available now. She is a regular at the Rockwood Music Hall NYC and will also play an upcoming concert at the Irish Arts Center on December 7. She is a part time tarot card reader, a very newly-certified yoga teacher, and a proud Associate Artist with the Civilians.
David Kornfeld (Composer/Writer) is a composer, lyricist, and coffee enthusiast residing in New York. He grew up frolicking in California’s wine country, received his BA in composition from Carleton College and his MFA from the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU Tisch. A co-founder of Underscore Theatre Company and the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, he has collaborated with numerous companies in Chicago, New York, London, and other fine theatrical cities. His recent musicals include HAYMARKET (Iris Theatre, Underscore Theatre; 2017 Jeff Nomination, Best New Musical), PR0NE: A HARDCORE, AMATEUR MUSICAL (Underscore), GROUNDS: A FRESH-BREWED MUSICAL (Actor’s Training Center, Midwest Fringe Circuit), and 57th NATIONAL MATHLETE SUM-IT, (Commissioned by CPA Theatricals; CMTF 2016, NYMF 2017, Published by TRW). He co-founded the Hip Young Gunslingers Big Band and organ quartet Jazzsquatch in Chicago, performs regularly with singer-songwriter Rebecca Hart in NYC, and is working on an album of children͛s music. www.davidkornfeld.com