Tonight is the press preview of And the Curtain Rises, a new musical at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Here is an interview with the show's playwright, Michael Slade, which I wrote for The Metro Herald.
Recreating the Birth of the American Musical Theatre:An Interview with ‘And the Curtain Rises’ Playwright Michael SladeRick SincereMetro Herald Entertainment Editor
The curtain rises officially on And the Curtain Rises, a new musical at Signature Theatre in Arlington, on Tuesday, March 29.
The play tells the story of The Black Crook, a spectacular originally produced in 1866 that is often identified as the first American musical play. At a time when a run of two or three weeks was considered exceptionally long, The Black Crook was such a sensation that it had 475 performances in its first run, plus two revivals in 1870-71 and 1871-72 totaling 193 performances, according to the Internet Broadway Database (ibdb.com). It also toured the country for years.
The story of The Black Crook has been told once before on the musical stage, in The Girl in Pink Tights by composer Sigmund Romberg, lyricist Leo Robin, and librettists Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields. The Girl in Pink Tights took its title from the phenomenon that made The Black Crook so racy: under the sharp limelight, the pink tights on the dancing girls made their legs look nude, a shocking sight in the 1860s.
The Girl in Pink Tights had a tepid run of 115 performances over three months in 1954, but it marked the Broadway debuts of Maurice and Gregory Hines, who were then 11 and 9 years old, respectively, and featured in its cast Marni Nixon, later known for her dubbing the silver-screen singing voices of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
Signature’s take on The Black Crook is part of its American Musical Voices Project, which has previously commissioned the new musicals Giant (by Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson) and Sycamore Trees (by Ricky Ian Gordon and Nina Mankin).
The creative team behind And the Curtain Rises consists of director Kristin Hanggi, composer Joseph Thalken, lyricist Mark Campbell, and playwright Michael Slade, who spoke at length with The Metro Herald about the project, its origins, and the production process.
From actor to playwright
Slade is a New Yorker by birth, having grown up in Syosset, Long Island, and earning a BFA in theatre from Ithaca College. Although he always had a love of writing dating from his childhood, he began his career as an actor, appearing in “hundreds of commercials, a couple of TV pilots, a couple of national tours, and a couple of off-Broadway plays,” he said.
Growing tired of the business of acting – with the many cattle-call auditions, quickly-disappearing jobs, and all the stresses and strains of the profession – Slade, with the encouragement of friends, turned increasingly to writing even though his “agents were disappointed.”
'And the Curtain Rises' playwright Michael Slade / Photo courtesy Signature Theatre
His first play, a one-act called Thanksgiving, was produced by the Manhattan Class Company (now the MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre) in New York about 20 years ago.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful production and I got a lot of notice from it from people and that was a great experience,” he explained.
“That was validation for me,” he said, because until a play is performed on stage by actors, “it’s not fully finished.” This is unlike a novel or short story, which can be read in any form even if they are not published. “Production and performance are the components of a finished piece” of theatre, however.
After the success of his first play, Slade went on to write about ten “family musicals” for Theatreworks/USA including Superfudge, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, The Great Brain, The Three Pigs, as well as a Radio City Music Hall production of Pokemon Live!. In addition, he has written teleplays for the long-running soap opera, Days of Our Lives, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for writing episodes of One Life to Live.
The idea of basing a musical on the making of The Black Crook originated with Joseph Thalken, whom Slade had met in New York. The two of them had been discussing possible projects to work on together for some time.
“It felt like a great match,” Slade said. “We both were intrigued with each others’ way of working. We started kicking around ideas.”
He reacted favorably to Thalken’s idea in part because, he explained, he had had “a theatre history professor who was obsessed with The Black Crook. I don’t know how many weeks of the semester he spent talking about the show.”
When Thalken received the commission from the American Musical Voices Project, they brought on Mark Campbell as lyricist and poured themselves into researching the story, the principal characters, and the era (post-Civil War New York City).
Campbell and Thalken had collaborated on some songs together, but not an entire score. “That felt like a really right third component in terms of personality,” Slade noted. “We jumped into the pool together.”
Beginning in the library
Since And the Curtain Rises is basically a piece of historical fiction, the writing process began with research trips to the library.
“I was not the best student in school, but afterwards I discovered how much fun research was. One can do almost everything on line these days but there’s something about going places and handling real books and articles.”
To find those “real books and articles,” Slade said he “spent a good deal of time at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I read first person accounts by people who were involved in original production. No two told the same story,” which added a twist to the creative process.
“We really didn’t want to write a docudrama. We were more interested in fictionalizing the story and using elements from it but really telling the story we wanted to tell about collaboration and how the theatre builds audiences and artists,” he explained.
“We decided very early on that what we would be doing is taking a lot of the facts and using our own imaginations to create and imagine what was going on at the time.”
Slade found more documents and artifacts at the New York Historical Society, which he calls “amazing.”
He found out less there about The Black Crook itself “than about the times,” the 1860s and ‘70s.
The historical society has “a whole collection of menus from restaurants of those years. There were accounts in newspaper articles about those immediate post-Civil War years in New York -- what people did, where they went, how they interacted.”
Slade was not unfamiliar with the era, having previously written about Ned Buntline, the creator of the dime novel and inventor of a gun known as the Buntline Special.
Buntline, Slade explained, had been involved in the Astor Place riots, a now-obscure episode in American history in which fans of rival actors (one British, one American) each playing Macbeth, showed their support through violent demonstrations. “There were literally riots as Americans stormed the theatre” where the British actor was performing, riots stimulated by xenophobia. There were, according to Slade, “cannons in the streets” brought out to quell the demonstrators.
A lot of “the passion about theatre at the time,” Slade said, “was stirred up by Know Nothing Party. The public perception is that it was all about the passion about who was starring in shows in New York,” but as in the culture wars today, politics was not far beneath the surface.
In addition to what he found in libraries, at the historical society, and the Museum of the City of New York, Slade discovered “a wonderful online site about 19th century actors and actresses and about what their lives were like.”
The collaborative process
Early in the process, all three collaborators did research individually and got together to talk. At about the same time, Campbell had been working on a song cycle set in the Civil War.
“I don’t think we started to put anything on paper for the first six months,” Slade said, immersing themselves in the material, and asking themselves “who were the characters, and what were we trying to say?”
After this initial period, “we started writing,” Slade said, explaining that “the way I like to work is, having hashed things out together, I came out with a fairly strong treatment, where we’d already talked about certain places where there’d be songs. Then I wrote a messy first draft of the script where there might be long monologues or overwritten scenes that could be turned into songs.”
Eventually, he said, came the tailoring and incorporating the two.
Working with his collaborators, Slade said, has “been really fearless. It’s been a really terrific collaboration. There’s been great respect between the three of us since day one. We all have been willing to really listen and take it to heart. Sometimes we have an argument but it’s been a healthy and positive collaboration that has continually made the piece better and better.”
While Thalken decided to listen to the score of the earlier musical, The Girl in Pink Tights, Slade chose to stay away from it.
“I made a distinct choice not to listen because I didn’t think it would help. I didn’t want something to unconsciously come into this play.”
In contrast to The Girl in Pink Tights, “our piece is much bigger” and more ambitious.
“I really think about this piece as a Robert Altman movie. We’ve got 16 characters with lives on stage and off. We tell our story through all of them.” And besides, Slade noted, The Girl in Pink Tights “was not a big hit” – something not desired, naturally, for And the Curtain Rises.
Historic but ‘unproducible’
For all of its legendary status, The Black Crook could not be produced today.
It was, Slade discovered, “scheduled for a third revival within the past 50 years. But they realized it’s unproducible. The original production was back in the day when you could have hundreds of people on stage because you weren’t necessarily paying them all.”
What’s more, the original production’s stagecraft was unprecedented.
“British designers came in and brought on scenic events like nothing before seen on stage. There were fires of hell, a waterfall, and a lake with boats floating on it -- not to mention the March of the Amazons.” It would, Slade pointed out, “be cost prohibitive today.”
Yet despite all the special effects, the crew consisted of “a bunch of ex-sailors pulling ropes.”
Neither was The Black Crook a very good play.
Instead, Slade noted wryly, “it’s almost deliciously bad. It borrows from melodrama and Shakespeare and Faust, all thrown into one. What made it its enormous success was the spectacle and the girls’ legs” in those notorious pink tights.
While Slade and his partners were developing the show, a staged reading of what became And the Curtain Rises was put on at the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio. By coincidence, “there’s an old theatre in Dayton that had been a stop on The Black Crook tour,” which traveled around the country “for decades.” While the tour did not have all of the amazing special effects of the original production, “it was a fair approximation of what had played in New York.”
Coming upon that old Dayton theatre was amazing in itself, Slade said, because the 19th century “was a perilous time for theatres, since they were wood structures using flames as lights.”
As a matter of fact, the legend goes, the way The Black Crook came together was when a theatre hosting a troupe of Parisian ballet dancers burned down and its manager lent them to William Wheatley, The Black Crook’s producer.
Changing the name
Wheatley’s pivotal involvement explains the originally announced title of And the Curtain Rises: “Wheatley’s Folly.”
This was, Slade noted, “a working title but we weren’t in love with it. It always felt like it took a lot of explaining.”
Change came when Kristin Hanggi was added on to the team as director. She asked if they could come up with a better title, so they considered alternatives.
“’And the Curtain Rises’ is the name of the finale in our show,” Slade continued, “and one day we said, ‘How about that? It talks to everything we’re doing here.’”
They took the proposed change to the leadership at Signature, who “graciously” agreed to it, even though the company had “printed quite a bit of promotional material with they other title. They said: ‘We’ll take care of it,’” and they did.
Slade is effusive with his praise of Signature Theatre itself.
“Signature and Maggie Boland and particularly Eric Schaeffer have been incredible with this,” he said.
“They’ve also been incredible in that we did two readings of it with Eric as director in New York. At one point, he said, it needs another character, it needs a stagehand.
“‘Eric,’ I said, ‘I completely agree, but we’ve already got 15 actors. It costs money.’”
But Schaeffer replied, “‘It’s right for the show. Don’t worry about it.’”
Slade explained: “You so seldom hear that. More often it’s, ‘Can you cut three of the characters?’” Yet Signature is going full-bore with this production.
“We have a fourteen piece orchestra,” Slade gushed. “I’m told that the revival of How to Succeed, with Daniel Radcliffe, doesn’t have 14 pieces. I’ve heard it has just 12, For Signature to give us a fourteen-piece [musical ensemble] is amazing and --because of the intimacy of the space -- it’s just terrific.”
And the Curtain Rises (directed by Kristin Hanggi; book by Michael Slade; music by Joseph Thalken; lyrics by Mark Campbell) began previews on March 17, with an official opening scheduled for March 29. Performances continue through April 10. Show times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm.
Tickets range from $55 - $81 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT (7328) or visiting www.signature-theatre.org. Group discounts are available for parties of ten or more by contacting Bethany Shannon at email@example.com or by calling (571) 527-1831. For more information please visit www.signature-theatre.org.