In Conversation with the writers of Fly By Night
How did the three of you come to collaborate on Fly By Night?
KIM ROSENSTOCK: Michael and I were both students together in the playwriting program at Yale—we actually interviewed together, and I remember him saying that he wrote musicals and thinking, “I hope I get in and that he gets in and that one day I can trick him into writing a musical with me.” Will was in the acting program at the same time.
MICHAEL MITNICK: The Yale Cabaret has a summer stock season and Kim was the artistic director. She wisely chose to give herself a slot.
KR: I was finally in the position to put my musical scheme into action.
MM: I was her biggest fan so I said, sure as long as we could also work with Will, whose songs I thought were wonderful.
WILL CONNOLLY: Then Michael and Kim came to me and said, “Hey! You wanna write a musical with us?” And I was like, “Uh, I have no earthly idea what that means or why you're asking me, but sure, sounds like a fun experiment.”
KR: And then, of course, much to our delight and fear, the hypothetical became actual, and we had about six months to write an original musical.
Where did the idea come from?
MM: From Kim.
KR: The idea for the show took shape over the course of several months of conversations about the kinds of shows we loved to watch and were interested in creating. Things we wanted to see on stage. Through those conversations I began creating a Venn diagram of sorts in my brain of our interests—thematic, imagistic, musical, et cetera. I kept close track of where they overlapped. And I think that blackouts are magical things—having grown up in New York and experienced a few, for me they always brought with them this mixed sense of exhilaration, timelessness and community. The impulse for this particular story was sparked by a desire to write about the blackout and that feeling.
What does each of your collaborators bring to the project?
WC: Kim is John, Michael is Paul, and I’m... I dunno, Ravi Shankar?
KR: Michael has an encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater. He also has a deep knowledge of the form in general. He knows the “rules” and understands what it means to follow them and break them. He’s also an incredible composer. I’ve never heard a song of his that didn’t get stuck in my head. And because he is a playwright, he is always looking at music and lyrics from a rigorously character-based perspective. Will is a wildly passionate composer and musician. That’s how he communicates. After a night of talking with Will, a music file would just appear in my inbox. Sometimes fragments, but often fully-formed songs. He has this never-ending well of musical ideas for this show. Also, he’s a great whistler.
MM: Kim brings the coffee and Will brings the bagels.
What makes this collaboration different from others in which you have participated?
WC: Well this is the first musical I’ve ever written, so pretty much everything about this process feels “different” to me.
MM: Because we all write music, book, and lyrics for this show, it calls for careful compromises.
KR: I don’t have much to compare it to because this is also my first musical collaboration. But I will say that the way the piece has developed, Michael and Will and I have become this weird little traveling family. Five years ago I never thought I’d have such an in-depth knowledge of what Will Connolly eats for breakfast.
What comes first? Music? Lyrics? Text?
KR: I feel like there’s a right answer. Is there? Michael?
MM: Songs stem from the specific dramatic situation.
WC: There’s no system, really.
KR: We’ve let the story guide the process while making this show. I would say there’s no hierarchy.
WC: It’s tricky because we’re dealing with a web of plots and a musical fabric that weaves it all together. We tend to have rough ideas about where the story is heading, and that alone is a process that requires a lot of discussion. But creating structures and dialogue and music and lyrics and arrangements and everything else is done on a case by case basis, and with all hands on deck.
Describe your collaboration/writing process.
MM: The show has to feel like it was written, directed, costumed, acted, et cetera, by one cook.
KR: This was something we decided very early on.
MM: So, there’s a lot of back-and-forth.
KR: We were all interested in being involved in all areas of the process. Michael had done book, music and lyrics many times before. But Will and I were relatively new to the process of musical-making and were both interested in being involved in all areas. Some great discoveries have resulted from the three of us sitting down and hashing things out together, and that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
How long did it take to complete a draft you felt represented your vision for the piece?
WC: Honestly, I think we’re still working on that. Satisfaction does not come easily to any of us. Ever.
KR: I would say we didn’t really find the piece until the following summer in 2010 at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto.
MM: For me, I was quite happy with the little show we had in the basement in New Haven five years ago. The show has taken many steps since, but there was something magical and fun about a show we were doing just for the hell of it.
KR: Having had a year to digest and think about the show, we were able to go in and more carefully rebuild the show from top to bottom. The development process for this show has been so crucial to its relatively fast growth, and it would not be where it is right now without the minds and hearts and countless hours that have gone into developing this show over the past five years.
Talk a bit about the “sound” of Fly By Night.
MM: It was always a goal to write a rock score. Not musical theater-y pop that you play on electric instruments.
WC: We knew we wanted real, literal sources of music within the world of the play, like an inherited guitar, a record player, an opera, a musical within the musical, even the menial sounds that infect our daily lives—we also knew we wanted to honor the 1960s without feeling married to it sonically, and we knew we wanted to play with tones that felt celestial and otherworldly. I think Fly By Night is representative of all our musical influences, which span styles, genres and time periods. Like everything else, we figured it out together.
What are the challenges of combining a fictional narrative with a real-life historical event?
MM: You have to do your best to know where the line is. The audience will have their own memories of the Northeast blackout of 1965. It also wasn’t an arbitrary decision to set the show around that event, so you’re attempting to fold in the real details when appropriate.
KR: My hope is that our fictional story is set against this historical backdrop in a way that feels organic and necessary. Having that time and place has always kept our story tethered to something in a very helpful way.
WC: I actually don’t think of it as a challenge. Giving yourself certain boundaries can be very liberating. For instance, focusing on the ’65 blackout as opposed to, say, the 2003 blackout, rid us of any responsibility to incorporate cell phones, internet, household computers, 24-hour news cycles… when it comes to creating something, giving yourself simple limitations can yield surprisingly beautiful results. Less is always more.
KR: I did so much research that I want to share it all with the audience. But I know that no one wants to hear my book report about all of the cool things that happened that night. Although if they do... it is available in previous drafts.
There have been previous productions of Fly By Night. How will the version Playwrights Horizons’ audiences experience be different from earlier iterations?
KR: With this show we’re always excavating, chipping away to find the heart and the pulse that drives the show forward, but the hope is that the essence of the show isn’t merely preserved but strengthened by the revisions. We will be carrying into this production everything we’ve discovered in previous incarnations, but, as always, we are being joined by new collaborators who will be putting their own spin on things. There is going to be a more ensemble-based approach to the staging and musical arrangements. And who knows what else we’ll discover in the rehearsal process?
MM: They’ll certainly have the best versions of the songs. Time in front of paying audiences honed the show like nothing else.
KR: I think that in this particular production, the fact that we will be in the city where the story is set will inherently make the experience different from other productions. It is, at its heart, a New York fable.