Artist Interview with Fly By Night Writers
Tim Sanford: So Kim, this all began when you were all at Yale together and you became the Artistic Director of the Yale Cabaret—which falls to a student generally?
Kim Rosenstock: Yes, but not often a playwright. Often it’s a directing student who does it, but I had a good friend, Whitney Estrin, who wanted to be the Managing Director and she asked if I wanted to be the Artistic Director and we had to submit a proposal and part of the proposal was an original musical.
Were you responsible to program more than one show?
Yes, it’s a three-show season so actually I did Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song, Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, and Fly By Night. That was my season. Three companion pieces, really. (Laughter)
What possessed you to want to write a musical?
K: I always secretly really wanted to write a musical. And my friend Michael Mitnick, who was one of the two other playwrights in my class, had a lot of experience writing musicals. Actually, I first learned Michael writes musicals when we interviewed together to be admitted at Yale. And I remember on the train back not knowing if I was going to get in or if he was going to get in, and thinking, “I really hope we both get in and I can somehow trick him into writing a musical with me.” And that was my plan all along, so when this happened the light bulb went off and I said, “Michael, will you write a musical with me?” And he said…
Michael: Absolutely. I had nothing else to do that summer, but being 2/3 of the playwriting class, being around Kim seven days a week for two years, I had not only become the biggest fan of her writing, but also she became my best friend.
K: Really? That’s really beautiful, man.
Michael, what was your experience with musicals?
Michael Mitnick: Well I started writing musicals and music in high school and then in college. I wondered why many new musicals weren’t as inventive as some of the new plays. I thought, well, “Maybe that’s the way to do it. I like writing plays; I don’t need to pick one or the other, but I bet I can learn a lot about being a better musical writer by being a better playwright at the core.” Before I went to Yale, all I had really written were sophomoric shows—
K: Wait, don’t you remember Peanut Butter and Juliet?
M: Yeah, I cowrote one called Peanut Butter and Juliet
K: That’s my favorite title.
M: It was about two houses on either side of Interstate I-79, and one house sold peanut butter and the other sold jelly and it was a story of the creation of the two. And I’m excited Tim has just nodded and agreed to program it. (Laughter) So my second year I wrote a piece called The Current War, both music and lyrics, and in it was Will Connolly, who is now sitting to my right, and I became an enormous fan of Will’s acting and through knowing him I heard a bunch of his original songs, and I thought, “Holy shit! This guy writes incredible, theatrical songs.” So when Kim approached me I immediately approached Will, and so just as our story is about a triangle, our triangle was formed.
And this was before you started pitching what the musical would be?
K: Oh yeah, we had no idea what the musical would be.
So Will, many times when I’ve heard you talk, you’ve thrown out the disclaimer, “I know nothing about writing!”
K: Proudly! …And somewhat offensively…
So what was it—was it the twinkle in Michael’s eye?
Will Connolly: Well it was the company. I knew Kim from afar; we hadn’t worked together yet, but I respected her and Michael immensely. And any chance to work with writers is a great opportunity. I also viewed it as an experiment. I had never written songs for a musical before. I’d played in lots of bands and written lots of songs, but they were mostly contained to the privacy of my bedroom. So the idea of writing a musical as an exercise was really appealing to me. I thought if nothing else I would come out a better songwriter.
Kim, you said that you proposed an idea originally, which was rejected. Was that an outline or something? How much did you write?
K: Rejected by Will and Michael, you mean?
Right. They didn’t really hear music in it.
K: It was a Hail Mary tossed up to the heavens. It was a 90-page play I wrote in the Yale library called I Am Alone. And the guy’s name was “Malone,” so it was “I am Malone” –
Based on the Beckett novel?
K: Ha! No… Anyway I gave it to them, because we needed some material, and they didn’t hear music in it which was fair. So I went back to the library and started typing. I think the first thing I wrote was a stage direction: “(Music. A man is listening to an opera).” And then I wrote, “(A musical theater composer enters and a singer!)” And I just started writing music into every single scene and character. And actually, it was a really fun way to write. I gave it to them and, lo and behold, they heard music in it. Which was good because we were out of time for me to write a third play. So it was a good thing that I wrote it specifically to be adapted into a musical.
In your billing it says, “Conceived by Kim Rosenstock.” But the book, music, and lyrics categories are credited to everyone. Which begs the question, “What happened?”
K: I think the first summer we began adapting that play into a musical, we were all hands on deck and all three of us were involved in every area. And I think that that’s when we came up with the billing. It just felt like an honest description of how we had created that show.
There was a play you started with, but then was it like a TV show, when you sit around and storyboard it?
K: There was an attic in the Yale cabaret and we covered it with big pieces of butcher paper and just storyboarded a lot of it.
W: Right. A lot of the elements were in the first draft that Kim wrote, but we knew that we wanted to restructure it and add songs, so it became, as Kim said, an all hands on deck situation.
K: Yeah. And the first step, I believe, was reading the play out loud around the table and while we were doing that I think all three of us were taking notes about where we could hear songs. And in some places it was obvious because I had written something like, “The actress sings her song.” But in other places we were finding songs. Like I had written that Crabble did the “Mayonnaise, meat, cheese, and lettuce” thing when he went to his job—though I don’t think it was exactly like that –
W: Yeah, it was “Cheese, meat …”
K: Yes! Which is a crucial difference. That’s just not a song. So the first pass was all of us going through and scouting for where the musical moments seemed to exist, and based on that, getting a work list.
W: Right. And as we got a clearer idea of what the show was and the vernacular of the music, something we ended up dedicating a lot of time to was, as the Narrator says, putting rhythms into the bodies of the characters. “Mayonnaise meat cheese and lettuce” was the first real example of that, but we were able to find “Refill? Great!” and “Unique New York Unique New York,” all of these different little things for the characters that sort of became their identities in a different way.
When you first started writing the play, Kim, were you writing towards the blackout?
What was compelling about it to you?
K: To me it felt very transformative in a way that would be inherently theatrical and musical.
And was it something you heard about from someone who was in it? Or you read about it?
K: Yeah, well I heard about it from family. Michael, Will and I bonded over the fact that we’re all from the Northeast and we have stories. And all of us were here for the 2003 blackout. Actually, I was literally here, in Playwrights Horizons. I walked in, I had never been in the new building, I saw Lisa Timmel, my former boss who was the Literary Manager at the time, and I said, “Hey! Great new building!” And then—zzz. The lights went out.
“Well that’s ominous.”
K: And I was thinking, “Did I break the building?” I thought it was just happening in Playwrights Horizons and then I walked outside and realized it was the whole city.
And were the stories you guys all heard transformative? People changing their way of thinking about things?
W: Yeah. I mean, for me, before I went back to my parents and heard anecdotes about the ’65 blackout, I remember my experience in the 2003 blackout was really kind of amazing. I was in New Jersey and I was working as a coach in an ice hockey rink, and I remember the blackout happened and of course, you know, you can’t skate on melting ice so we had to send all the kids home. And this was also post-9/11 so there was this immediate paranoia of, “Oh my god what happened is something terribly wrong?” And as soon as we realized that there wasn’t something terribly wrong it was like this veil had been lifted, this weight was suddenly not attached to a whole community. And as I drove home I remember going through my community of Montclair, New Jersey, and the ice cream parlor was just giving away all of its ice cream. I was just like, “Well I’m going to get some free ice cream!” It was brilliant.
K: I got free pizza that night!
W: Suddenly it was like, everyone was on board. Even though no one really knew what was going on, there was a much greater sense of community. When Kim came to us with the idea of a blackout, I had an immediate positive reaction to it because it was something I could directly relate to.
K: There’s also something about community and connection that’s really exciting in a blackout. We’re forced to get out of the systems we normally operate in and move out into the world and actually just be with other people.
But you chose the ’65 blackout, even though none of you were really there.
And that probably dictated the timeframe of the piece, right? In retrospect, how do you feel that influences the tone of the piece?
K: It’s interesting, I think Michael said something like, “You want to set the musical in the past.” Did you say that?
M: I think I was first made aware of it by Richard Nelson. Because I think we’re living in a time now that doesn’t have a distinct sound. There are so many types of popular music. But if you look back at the ‘60s, the popular music had a very unified sensibility, so that’s attractive if you’re trying to create a musical vocabulary; that sounds both appropriate for its period and at the same time, contemporary. Because if we were to write a rock score today that was a combination of the three of us, that would hopefully have a distinct sound and a reason for existence, but there’s a chance that it would just sound generic.
K: Also, I think, to go back to what you asked, there was this idea of writing something that had a big heart and felt somewhat optimistic in a way that didn’t feel very modern. That felt like something of the past, something that is a little bit buried. And just the idea of unearthing that tone and that atmosphere was exciting to me.
And did that contribute to the invention of the Narrator?
K: Yeah, definitely. I think we wanted it to feel like a fable, we wanted it to feel like something classic. Something simple, but something we were journeying back in time to hear.
W: I remember there was a Twilight Zone marathon happening that very first summer. And in that context, that device works, a man coming forward and saying, “I’m going to tell you a story.” We were sort of like, “Well, why can’t we do that?”
K: It’s funny, I went back to the first script of Fly By Night I ever wrote, and basically all the lines were the Narrator’s. I was like, “Was I just trying to write a novel?” It’s just pages and pages of prose. We had to pare him back because we let these characters emerge, and we had to make it about the whole group. But I had always wanted to write a narrator. I was always worried about doing it, because it feels like one of those things that people have strong opinions about.
Now, the play you wrote first and showed to them, was the plot the same? Two sisters, the triangle?
K: Yes. The characters were the same; the seeds of everyone’s stories were in there . . .
K: Yes, the gypsy was in there—something else I always wanted to tackle but another thing I felt like I wasn’t supposed to put into a play.
M: You know, on West 4th the other day, I tackled a gypsy. (Laughter)
Well, I can’t think of a lot of gypsies in plays. Blithe Spirit? Tiresias is kind of a fortune-teller, isn’t he?
He tells the future, and then Miriam dies in the blackout.
W: Actually, I think in that first draft, we killed Harold. We used to kill Harold. And then Michael was like, “You need to kill Miriam.”
K: And I was like, “I don’t want to kill Miriam!”
M: I dunno. It felt like the story could only end with Miriam’s death. If Harold dies, you shrug and say, “Well, he’s off the hook. What was the point of all this?” If you kill Daphne, then it’s cheap and easy for Harold and Miriam to go off into the sunset. It has to be Miriam. Sorry Miriam.
W: And we did it, and thank God we made that choice. Originally, Harold fell down an elevator shaft.
K: Well it was Harold’s story. I had been struck in all the articles I read about the blackout that there wasn’t much violence, wasn’t much death, even in the hospitals. But one of the few deaths that was reported was a man found at the bottom of an elevator shaft with a burnt-out candlestick in his hand. And I was like, “Who is that guy? I’m going to write about that guy!” And he became Harold. That was the story I was writing. So I was writing this play, planning this ending. It’s so funny, with so many things, when you think you know your ending at the beginning, it’s almost always—for me anyway—true that when you get there that’s not the right ending.
And when did you change the ending?
K: Oh, this was all very early. Miriam’s been dying for years.
W: By the time we got into rehearsals in the Cabaret, we had settled on Miriam dying.
And what was the response at the Yale Cabaret?
K: Well Will was in it, and Michael, you went every night—I was in the office the whole time, I was a little scared to watch it. And I had to crunch the numbers of the budget because I’d added Joey Storms and we couldn’t afford him. (Laughter)
I’m only thinking of the death. You wanted to write a parable set in the past with a kind of sunny, open-hearted feeling; he’s torn between two likeable girls, we all start rooting together for the one, a blackout happens, there’s a release of joy, and then: (snaps). You pull the rug out from under the characters and we have to figure out what happens next.
K: Yes, I was very scared to face the audience afterwards because I didn’t know how they were going to react.
Was there anyone who was like, “Well that was a bummer!”
K: Yeah! Definitely. But people were also thanking me and hugging me. A lot of people seemed moved.
So you wanted it to feel like a fable from the beginning, And one of the things we’ve been talking about for years is that usually fables and parables have morals. But you’ve never felt especially called to spell out any kind of moral. I’ve really come to admire how your own understanding of this question has slowly evolved over time. But what did you make of the question of the ending early on?
K: All of us wanted people to come away thinking about their lives, and thinking about the whole range of it. The trick is, when you’re writing a parable, it requires a message at the end. And we didn’t want to come down on one side or the other, because we didn’t feel like that was the message we were putting out into the world, about whether or not fate was real. It was more about how you experience your life—how do you let yourself experience joy and how do you get yourself through death and darkness. It’s really tough to talk about the show because it’s difficult to describe what we were going after, but it was mainly emotional.
In a way, this is the one aspect of the play that is contemporary. You set up a parable, but what has a moral today? And what would that moral be? It’s almost pretentious to suggest that one could have a moral today.
M: Plus I think the completely disjointed structure of the narrative is very contemporary, in that it jumps around, and you revisit moments, often without the help of the narrator. You recognize moments you saw before and they achieve a new kind of context, and that brings a certain delight.
I want to follow up on that, but I want to finish the last question. Did anyone invoke Our Town to you guys?
K: Yeah, Our Town, and The Fantasticks, Into the Woods, these were shows that got tossed around, and this musical is in conversation with them of course. How could it not be? But Ultimatley I don’t think this is our riff on any of those things.
Certainly the ending—how do you feel joy? How do you get through darkness?
K: Exactly. It’s hard not to think of Our Town.
But also the Narrator. Michael mentioned the structure before. Was that endemic to your play too?
K: The reason why I originally wanted to use a Narrator was so that we could jump around and go back and forth fluidly. I loved the joy of watching a narrator wrestle with that. And also, thinking about the show through the lens of storytelling and asking what it is to tell a story, the structure was part of the joy of storytelling when I first wrote it.
And by the time you had a rehearsal draft, you said the story had evolved from being about Harold to having a tripartite structure. So there’s a clearer purpose for the jumping around of the narrative now.
K: Exactly. And it became clearer which moments we needed to jump back to in the story with each of them.
The astronomy part, was that entered in right from the beginning?
K: Not really, actually. The gypsy was always there, so in the gypsy scene it was present, but in more of a mysterious spooky way.
W: And there were lines about it in the blackout, but tying it specifically to Miriam’s character was something that was developed later.
How many of the songs that are in it now were in the original version?
W: One, two, three…four, five. I think five.
W: “Eternity,” “Cecily Smith,” “At Least I’ll I Know I Tried,” “Me with You,” “Daphne’s Dreams,” “Prophecy.” Six.
So when did “I Trust Stars” come in?
K: “I Trust Stars” was our big discovery and breakthrough in Palo Alto at TheatreWorks in our workshop, which was part of the New Works Festival run by Meredith McDonough, created and previously run by Kent Nicholson (current PH Director of Musical Theater).
W: Which is a brilliant program.
K: And we wanted to keep working on this musical, we really didn’t know how, and we got the call from Meredith to come down there, and what she described was exactly what we wanted but we didn’t know where to get it, which was a few weeks with actors to work on the show, but also a chance to do it in front of audiences—multiple performances in front of multiple audiences.
So what came first, the scene at the swing between Miriam and her father or the song?
M and W: The song.
And were you thinking about “Daphne’s Dreams” when you wrote the song, or did you discover that later?
W: I wish I could say that we did, but that was kind of coincidental—“I Trust Stars” vs. “I’m a star.” I wish we could say that that was really intentional.
K: Is that bad for us to admit that?
W: Basically, I think we knew we wanted astronomy to be attached to Miriam’s character, but almost more important than that, we knew that there was a really pivotal plot point we needed to incorporate: that Harold’s song and Miriam’s song needed to fit together like puzzle pieces, as the gypsy says in the prophesy. And we knew there was going to be this diner scene where they sing something together in counterpoint. So from there, before we had a song called “I Trust Stars,” my exercise for myself was basically just trying to write one song but then trick people into thinking it was two songs. So from there, “Spinning Circles in the Sand” and “I Trust Stars” were written at the same time.
And the prophecy, did it have “La da da da da…?”
K: No, we found that melody and Miriam’s song in Palo Alto.
So there was no musical discovery?
K: No. I think the guitar was always part of it. Originally, Harold played a song for Miriam at the club—not “Spinning Circles in the Sand”—a very sad song, very beautiful, called “Missing What I Never Had” about her.
This is why musical theater writers must be allowed to create like a playwright is allowed to create. You asked that question, “Is that bad?” The number of times when I have talked to playwrights and said, “You know, that thing there connects to this other…” And I’ll point out some inner resonances in their play and they’ll go, “Yeah, huh, I think that’s right,” but they hadn’t thought of it themselves. Creation is unconscious. So discovering something that is perfect in your process—it just happens. It happens in playwriting all the time and it should happen in musical theater too.
K: Well if you’re given enough time to develop something and the time and the space to make it, you make a lot of discoveries, and we’ve been very fortunate to do that over the last five years.
W: It’s like anything; you learn from mistakes, you learn from repetition.
So first you found the song, and did it enter into the scene right away?
K: The diner scene we wrote at Northwestern, actually. Our workshop at Northwestern was between the Palo Alto workshop and the Palo Alto production.
W: Right. When we revamped all of Act One. We had all of these lists of things we wanted to tackle in Act Two, and we go to Northwestern and realized, “We can’t do anything here without dealing with Act One first.”
K: It was the kind of show where you have to start from page one. And so the tough thing, every time we worked on it we had to go back to page one. So we didn’t get to to Act Two… until we eventually got to it.
So you wrote Miriam and Harold’s songs at the same time, but then there’s the scene with the father that precedes Miriam’s song with all the lines about the universe. When did that come in?
K: We wrote that in Northwestern too.
Does that come from something you’d read, or a general interest or something you had to learn about?
K: No, I think I think it’s just one of those things I knew.
W: Well you brought it to the table and I remember being really excited about it because I happen to be a really big Carl Sagan fan and I’ve loved the Cosmos series. So when Kim was like, “I feel like there’s something in the connection to star stuff, and the fact that out of violence and out of death comes creation,” I was like, “Yes!”
M: My father is an amateur astronomer so I grew up going to “star parties” where everyone would bring their telescopes. He went to Ayers Rock in Australia to photograph Halley’s Comet in ’86 and one of my earliest memories is being marched in my PJ’s to our driveway to peer through a tube at smudges in the sky.
K: Actually now because of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos the stuff that you had to actively seek out before has now become more mainstream and accessible. When I started to try to write that scene, I went online and bought all these 1960s astronomy books thinking, “I need to know what they knew then exactly about this,” and I did all this research and it all culminated in about six lines of dialogue…none of which really resulted from the research.
Did it enter the Narrator’s speeches right away as well?
K: No, but it did eventually. It’s funny, when you see these things in front of audiences you realize where the heart of the play is located, you can feel it, and we started to feel more and more that that was a moment that was landing, and feeling like a heart of our show. And as we went on, towards the end of Dallas I think, we started to really look at putting that language into the end of the show and into the Narrator.
W: And it really helped us to clarify the parable aspect of it too, and the message. Because the fact is, it’s dark, but people die all the time and we can all relate to the grief. The losses that we share connect us all. And how we push through that is about trust and about faith. Faith and science are not the opposing forces some people think them to be. The fact that when a star dies, it can actually create a new galaxy… there’s actually real comfort to be taken in that. Even in the face of an unspeakable tragedy.
Have you ever read the book The Dancing Wu Li Masters?
It’s kind of about the similarities of quantum physics to Eastern philosophy. There are leaps in quantum physics, like the simultaneity of things in time / that sort of defy a logical concept of it.
W: Particles splitting apart, and being in two places at the same time! It’s insane.
And this kind of wonder certainly suffuses your play. But the storytelling aspect as well that you’re talking about is something else that trumps the tragedy. Of course we get to know these characters but the framework you put them in calls attention to itself as a story. We understand that whatever our experience is with them, tomorrow a different audience is going to take the same journey.
W: Exactly. It’s sort of the same for me, coming back to music, music is invisible, we can’t touch it, but it’s something that connects us all. And something that I really love is that Miriam’s song is actually not her song, it’s a song her dad made up for her, and it was passed down to her. And then she passes it to Harold. And Harold inherits his guitar from his mother. And these things keep getting passed down, and even with something like the Beatles, we all know the Beatles songs, they’re part of our collective consciousness—it’s impossible to listen to those songs without associating them with a particular person or place or time—
I remember when we did a musical called The Spitfire Grill, its eleven o’clock number is this beautiful, transfiguring song called “Shine” and in my interview with James Valcq, the composer, I asked him about how the inspiration for that song came to him and he said they weren’t sure where the musical was heading, then one day he literally woke up at 3 in the morning and went over to his piano and the song just poured out of him. Where did it come from? And the prophecy: “I hear ‘la da da da da…”—where did that come from? You know, who does that melody belong to? It sort of trumps possession, in that it feels like it’s out in the cosmos as part of it. In Shakespeare, they call it “The Music of the Spheres.”
K: It’s exciting too, you know, when Harold is playing the song in the diner and the second part just comes out of him. I think that moment of “Where is that coming from!? What does this mean? Am I making it up?” It’s a miracle, in a way, writing a song. How do you do it?
W: Yeah, it’s passed down in a lot of ways. Sometimes a melody will simply fall into your head like a little miracle, other times a melody has to reveal itself slowly over time. And I think most artists are constantly informed by whatever is on their radar at that particular moment. There isn’t an exact science to how or when inspiration strikes. And sometimes the line is very blurry, even in retrospect. I remember being in college and really discovering the Delta Blues, and so many of these songs, I mean, twelve or thirteen people doing the same song in completely different ways, and there’s no way to know who created what first. Eventually the music transcended it’s creators.
One of the things I love about how the sense of the cosmos informs this play is because it contrasts with a prevalent view held when I was in grad school. Martin Esslin’s book, The Theater of the Absurd, argues that the idea of relativism which is key to quantum physics filters into the artistic worldview as well. What I love about your show is that there is relativism inherent in the fact that each character has his or her own story, but somehow, as opposed to reflecting an absurdist viewpoint, it’s quite opposite. There is a music to the interplay of the characters, and just little lines like, “‘Here Ma, have my lucky ring.‘That’s strange.’” You reveal what really happened later, because you show it in the context of someone else’s journey. So instead of making things make less sense, they really make more sense. And yet, structurally, we’re jumping around. So it’s a little “harder to follow,” but in reality—not.
K: Well, the hope is that the audience is going to stay with us long enough to start to realize that there’s actually going to be a joy in understanding more and more, and that they’re not going to get more confused. Hopefully gathering the puzzle pieces patiently at the beginning, and then we let them put it together. I think you do have to work a little bit, but I was so worried that people weren’t going to be able to follow it, but out of all the things I’ve heard about this show, almost no one has said that they weren’t able to follow it. Which is a huge relief, to know that you can tell a musical story like this.
W: Well personally as an audience member, I don’t like to just be spoon-fed what I’m supposed to think and feel all the time.
K: I do. (laughter)
W: For me, in something like “5-2-7” I remember being so excited by that because just numbers excite me.
K: Will loves Lost.
W: Oh man. I could go on and on and on about it, not just the story and characters, but Michael Giacchino and the score, and how truly inspirational it was for me in writing Fly By Night, the score for Lost. But all that is saying that there is something about planting that seed, and you don’t know what it is, and numbers are so inherently systematic that you automatically feel like, “This has to add up, this has to work toward something otherwise they wouldn’t put it there.” It’s a breadcrumb, and I love that, I find it so tantalizing when stories do that.
On the other hand, thinking about this structure, there is a challenge you’ve had to address in really feeling, as we jump around, that there is a purpose to it, and that you’re not just trying to tease us or something.
K: Yeah, I think we’ve been watching it very closely over the years to make sure it feels like we’re never manipulating the audience.
You’ve done a lot of compression, too, making the Narrator’s jumps tighter and tighter.
K: I think that being able to see the rhythm of it, and having it up on its feet, it starts to become very obvious where we can have less of the Narrator and more of the characters.
You’ve mentioned that when you were at Yale, Paula [Vogel] sent it to TheatreWorks on her own and you did a lab at their New Works Festival, and you mentioned Northwestern. Did TheatreWorks commit to doing it before or after Northwestern?
K: Before. They committed to it after their workshop. Northwestern was in preparation for the production at TheatreWorks. Meredith helped us find the opportunity.
And you did a reading here, before the production at TheatreWorks?
W: Right. We did it after Northwestern, and before the TheatreWorks production.
M: We were all nervous about the second act. And I think you all invited us.
So by this point, Kim, your schedule was getting complicated because you were about to do New Girl, which began after the Palo Alto production and before the production at Dallas Theater Center. And Michael was getting super busy too. So that necessarily sort of slowed down everything. But we did another reading before Dallas, and what was the purpose there?
K: Well we did a workshop at Roundabout right before Dallas, and that was all about doing script work in preparation for the production. Again, it was great to start to make our work list in these workshops.
I think the Roundabout reading was before ours?
K: Well we did a couple readings here, maybe three or four?
So it went: production at Palo Alto, reading at Roundabout, reading at PH, two months when you were here doing auditions and a reading at the same time, and then you went to Dallas for a production.
K: That must be some kind of record.
From what I heard, I think Bill Finn’s America Kicks up its Heels had a hundred readings too. And they eventually changed the title.
K: Aw man. I want a record.
M: It would be nice to have a record.
W: Well at least we have a record player.
K: Sorry, Tim. Back on track…
W: This banter is gold.
Please don’t transcribe any of this. (Laughter) Anyway: I brought this up because you discovered how it works and how it feels through this process. Sometimes musicals get written from outlines, but that’s not really the case here. And as you headed towards the ending, what’s of real interest to me is that the overall story has stayed the same, but you’ve made little changes at every stage of the game from the train station scene to the finale. And is it correct to say that you’ve sort of discovered what’s important about it, and what can be said and what can’t be said and how you’ve focused on the tone you wanted to achieve?
K: Yeah, I think once we knew where we were going at the end, it was easier to know what was essential to get us there.
And can you remember what the various subtle changes have been?
M: Well, we used to have a song at the end. As of a week ago. The first song of the show came back to bookend. It was tragic bookends. And what we discovered, as you mentioned earlier, is that we were dictating ideas that we didn’t need to because the audience was already experiencing an emotional journey in the characters and the last thing they needed was to be told what to think. So that morphed the song into what I would call underscoring with occasional lyrics.
K: We’ve also made certain scenes shorter. There was a Joey/Daphne scene in the blackout that was once three pages long that is now just a page. Once we knew where we wanted to go, it felt like we could get there a little bit quicker.
M: Endings are difficult because you want to make sure that something feels like it’s changed, like there’s some kind of payoff, but it doesn’t feel manipulative. So arriving at a moment where multiple characters are having their payoff, all under the umbrella of a single event, the blackout, is tricky when you’re also trying to end a musical.
K: That’s why everyone was like, “Make the whole second act the blackout so you’ll have time for everyone to have their moments.”
M: And so you can control the tonal shift.
You’re not really answering the question I was trying to ask. What I’m talking about is Miriam’s death, how you lead up to it and especially how you navigate the story from that moment to the end. For example, they didn’t always use to sing “I Trust Stars” together. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about, as you discovered what it means.
K: Once we realized that we wanted Miriam’s father’s philosophy to be woven through, and echo in the Narrator’s final lines as well, we started to thread it through Act Two more. And we had Miriam share her father’s philosophy with Harold during the blackout so that he would have it when he was in the roof scene with Daphne, just making sure that we were landing those ideas. And the show always feels like it’s winding its way back to the scene with Harold and his father, and I think we’ve learned that something is released in that scene. And in our last production, we discovered that we should have that music we haven’t heard before, that choral music that carries him out of that scene back to the roof. It just felt right. It was something we wanted emotionally; it was the sound of the moment.
Did anyone ever think, because Harold and Daphne were on the roof together, that they were going to end up together?
K: Yes. But then we got this great note from Tim Sanford, Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, who—
Well that’s why I asked you.
K: Well seriously, it was very helpful: your note that leaving Daphne on the roof, ignorant of Harold and Miriam’s relationship, in the dark there, felt like the play was being cruel to her, was right, and we felt that as well. And also both Harold and Daphne knowing what was going on with each felt essential to making sure that scene on the roof at the end didn’t feel romantic, but felt like two people who were lost, afraid and alone but were choosing to share a moment together and to get through something together. When he sees her on the roof he could go back downstairs, she could tell him to get lost, but instead they share that music together and they share that moment. We talk about it like it’s a coda often, because in a way it feels like the show could end when Harold finally reconciles with his father and has that cathartic moment and cries, but we never wanted to end the show there. I feel like the show has to end on the roof.
That’s where the deepest pain is. Harold and Daphne have lost the most. And I’ve come to see that Harold finally being able to share his grief with his father about his mother is the only thing that enables him to face losing Miriam.
K: I think he and Daphne choose to share that connection with each other as well; it’s a choice to get through something with somebody in a moment.
So you added this reprise of “I Trust Stars” in Dallas, right?
K: Yes, when we started to realize that we were building towards this message of connection.
But it also fulfills Daphne’s journey so beautifully. I think we like Daphne from the beginning because she’s funny and plucky and you’ve done a lot since your earliest drafts to strengthen her relationship with Miriam. But she’s also a little bit of a South Dakota diva, a bit callow. So having her sing Miriam’s song at the end deepens her. It may have been a happy coincidence as Will said that “I trust stars” inversely mirrors “I’m a star,” but there is such grace in the growth it gives her. I think in the same way we see that Mr. McClam keeps Cecily Smith alive, we see that Daphne will keep Miriam’s memory alive inside her. It’s both good storytelling by following through on the parallels of your imagery and your themes, and it’s also a deeply human redemption for that character.
K: Yeah, that’s what we’re hoping for. We also used to have Harold and Daphne sing “I Trust Stars” together, and Michael suggested during one of our workshops here, why don’t you just take out the lyrics at the end. Maybe we don’t hear “I trust stars” at the end, it’s just a smaller and simpler sound at the end, just the melody. And I was like, “No! You have to hear ‘I trust stars!’” And then we tried it without the words and realized that that felt right, that we don’t need to hear the words there, that we know it and can trust that the whole show has led us to that moment with that music.
W: It’s really interesting how, between that moment and the choral section when Harold is walking home, not to mention the catchiest melody in the show, “La da da da da…” a lot of the more essential music moments are wordless. They’re just “la da da da das.” I think it’s really interesting that people remember those moments even though there are no lyrics attached to them.
Well, I think the power you give to music in the piece proves the point you’re making that your story is both “tiny and vast.” In music, the whole is contained within specific moments and the movement between notes. It’s why I referenced Bergson in my subscriber bulletin article. Bergson always said time is not linear, it’s more like water or music or dance. And that’s what’s so beautiful about Fly By Night. We feel the movement of the whole story in the music. The end contains the beginning even as we come to see that the beginning contains the end.
K: Right. The end contains the beginning. The present contains the past. And the act of storytelling places both the teller and the listener simultaneously in the present and past in every moment. That’s why it’s hard to know where to begin or end.
Beautiful. And speaking of endings...
K: Shouldn’t we end it on a snappier note? Or a Joke?
W: Did you hear about the fire at the circus? It was in tents. (Laughter)