Let’s Write a Musical — Death, Where is Thy Sing?

By Ernest Kearney  —  Let’s Write a Musical, which played the McCadden Theatre at this year’s Hollywood Fringe, is a show of contradictions, commencing with Director John Coppola’s usage of slender enactments in its staging that makes for a charming presentation of Playwright  Lawrie Chiaro Smylie’s work while veiling the magnitude of her ambitions.

How ambitious?

A work that celebrates life in defiance of death; skews the coronach’s keening into toe tapping tunes; tells an anguished tale of what’s lost in life’s twilight that echoes with promise of what the future brings. To escape what tomorrow holds a couple turns to the past and finds, there, salvation for their tomorrows to come.

A work embracing six of the nine muses. (1)

That’s ambitious.

The dynamics of seeking a solution to life or hopes for the future amid the follies and mistakes of the past is a time-honored motif whose pursuits have brought such diverse results as Oedipus blinding himself and Scrooge accepting Bob Cratchit’s invitation to Christmas dinner.

A couple, (Bil Dwyer and Patricia Gillum) are confronted by his diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.  As a coping method they decide to undertake writing a musical, and the scenes shift between the ravages of the disease and its treatment to the lighthearted whimsy of a boy meets girl musical fairy-tale.

Two young struggling cub reporters, the rambunctious Gus (Cameron Gilliam) and the more serious-minded Blake (Luke Wall) meet their match and potential love interests in a pair of equally young and equally struggling waitress, the vivacious Shirley (Chloe Zubiri) and wide-eyed Olive (Rachael McLachlan).

The optimistic outlook in the singing and dancing of such snapping numbers as “Batter Up” and “Poopsie Whoopsie” is intruded on by the harsh reality of failed procedures and the couple’s growing despair of the inevitable.

Smylie has produced a solidly constructed and intelligently conceived little musical.  The songs are smartly crafted and reflect the type of variation in style that accounts for why successful musicals succeed.  Coppola, who also served as choreographer, has done well by both the play and his cast.

The ensemble is a talented one with Zubiri and Gilliam winning top honors as the “Personality Kids.”

What hampers this staging is in some ways what allowed its production to be realized.

The running time is an hour, perfect for a Fringe project, but I’m not sure an ideal time for Let’s Write a Musical.  It’s rare I ever say this, but here it is: the show needs more time.

Not talking Ring Cycle here but pass the hour’s boundary, most Fringe productions wisely keep.

Smylie has backed off from allowing the “real” couple to engage musically in the show they are writing, and there is impact in that choice and reason.  The romance in the musical they are working is not their story of theirs; but soon they realize the extent to which their lives and the musical are in harmony.

It is when those two worlds of the show overlap that the tension and drama the piece requires is generated.   As it is, those worlds seem disjointed and the dramatic resonance muted.

Perhaps this disjointedness is accented as well by aspects of the venue in which it played.  The McCadden Theatre allows a split-level staging, and the decision to anchor each of the show’s narrative in one is understandable.  However, locking the “real” couple on the upper level isolates them from the drama as well as the audience.

The separation of the two forces at play works to rob the story of the urgency that propels it, while undercutting the power of the revelations arising when the aspects of the reflection and the reflected merge into a single image.

In Follies, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman manage to overcome this challenge by having the central couples of that piece confront their former selves on the condemned stage which was the site of their original follies.  Smylie needs to achieve and maintain the force of a similar fusion.

For all the show’s charm, this spatial separation and the time restriction work towards dimming the brightest aspects of its potential.

Another element of the show which would possibly benefit from more development is the character of Archie (Dana Kelly), grandfather to one of the waitresses, who is the source of the solution to the young lovers’ dilemma and supplies the “eleventh hour number”; but neither the character nor the concept behind him has been fully woven into the play’s fabric.

Of more importance is the deeper integration of the older couple; theirs is the story, the musical is their journey, and you can’t separate those who are seeking from the path they travel.

It is the sincerity and insight of Let’s Write a Musical which account for both its potential promise and present appeal; the counterpointing of grim reality with artificial melodies and the truth discovered by choosing to stand center stage rather than skulk towards the final exit; which despite its sufferings and woes life is a musical with songs worth singing.

♦     ♦    ♦


(1)          Cilo, Euterpe, Erato, the sock and buskin of Melpomene and Thalia, and the delightful and light-footed Terpsichore.

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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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