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Interview

Tim Sanford, Kent Nicholson, Mariana Elder, Chris Miller, and Nathan Tysen

Tim Sanford: I know you all met through NYU’s musical theater program. Chris and Nathan started collaborating together there first, and then Mariana came into this project later. Let’s talk a little about the paths that led you here. Nathan, were you drawn to music or the- ater at an early age? What led you to NYU?

Nathan Tysen: Definitely my family. My father’s a minister, and I grew up in a von Trapp family where we would perform every Sunday at church. My mom would play the ukulele and my dad would play the guitar, and we’d sing songs.

Seven kids, like the von Trapps?

N: Just two. Music was very important in my household. I played piano at an early age, and I’ve always written songs and played in bands. But there was also a real support of theater in my hometown of Salina, Kansas. We had a really strong high school theater depart- ment and an excellent community theater. I coincidentally played Kurt von Trapp in The Sound of Music in fifth grade and got hooked. Initially I was drawn to theater because I liked being on stage, and I liked the attention. Then I had an opportunity to participate in a summer camp where thirty high school students wrote a full-length musical in three weeks. I ended up writing the opening number and the finale, and for the first time I was able to stand offstage and listen to people sing my material.

How old were you?

N: I was sixteen. And I was like, “Ah, this is what I love.”

You liked watching.

N: Sitting back, watching and listening to people sing my songs is the most gratifying experience in the world.

Did your performing go away quickly after that?

N: I did my undergrad in musical theater performance, but I wrote and directed a full-length musical while I was there, and it was in my senior year that I heard about the graduate musical theatre writing pro- gram at NYU.

What college did you go to?

N: It’s now called Missouri State University, but it was called Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri when I went there.

I’ve followed their basketball team. 

N: Hey we had one really good year while I was there! Go Bears!

Chris, how about you?

Chris Miller: I have a similar story, sort of. My father is a minister of music. I grew up Southern Baptist.

You mean it was a big church with a staff of ministers? How many ministers were there?

C: There was the full time pastor, and my father was the Associate Pastor/Minister of Music. So he was the adult choir director and ran all of the instrument ensembles in addition to preaching once a month.

Where?

C: In Maryland.

So he must be both incredibly proud of you and totally ashamed.

C: Yeah, I think that would be a good way to describe how he feels. But you’d have to ask him.

Did your dad write songs, too?

C: Definitely. It was all based in church music though.

There’s some good music in churches.

C: Yeah.

Was it good music?

C: It was, yeah. I grew up with a really strong, well-rounded musical life. My whole family is made up of musicians...

Were you a Christian?

C: Yeah. I still consider myself Christian. I still lead a very strongly faith-based life.

When did theater enter your consciousness? Nate, what was your focus going in?

C: If I really think about it, I was always a singer, and I always thought that I would be a performer. But both my mother and father had an interest in the theater. My dad would always do religious musicals and stuff in church, and I sort of gravitated towards that more than anything, in college.

When did you start writing?

C: I always thought I would be a performer, so I did a lot of shows. Then I had traumatic experiences that led me to start making up things at the piano as a sort of therapeutic way to deal with things, and it opened up my life as a writer. I realized I had a huge interest in storytelling in the theater. So I went to college knowing that I wanted to write.

Where’d you go?

C: Elon University in North Carolina. I studied piano and voice there, to learn the real technique and simply focus on all of the rules I was about to break, for the sole purpose of learning how to write better. Then I ended up at NYU.

To study musical theater writing?

C: Yeah.

Were you exposed to non-Church related musical theater much as a kid?

C: Yeah, from a very early age I loved musicals and musical theater. My parents tried me out on traditional things; I think the very first musical I ever saw was a high school production of My Fair Lady – but I gravitated more towards Sondheim and even stranger things, much to their chagrin. I had a videotape of Nixon in China and Sunday in the Park with George, and I would watch them constantly. I was sort of mystified by Nixon in China. I knew I was into it, but I wasn’t sure why. It was so big, and it was so accessible to me musically. I remem- ber one of the very first things that I ever figured out by ear on the piano was “Till There Was You” from The Music Man, and from there I was led to the “I Am The Wife of Mao Tse-tung” aria from Nixon in China.

So you knew you wanted to write when you went to NYU.

C: All through college I was still performing, but half-heartedly. I kept trying to figure out how it fed me, because my writing life seemed so much more fulfilling. The summer before I started at NYU, I did sum- mer stock. I was playing Danny in Baby and I came offstage and I looked at myself in the mirror and was like, “What are you doing? This is ridiculous.” And I haven’t really performed since. Before jumping to Mariana, I just want to talk about how you met at NYU. What efforts do they make to match people up there? C: In the first year you work with everybody at least once, sometimes twice.

When they admit people, how delineated were your areas of focus? There are three jobs in the musical theater, but usually roles overlap quite a bit.

C: Well, I was music and lyrics my first year. Most of my assignments that first year were writing words/text, but as the year progressed, I figured out I wanted to focus on music.

N: I went in as a lyricist, but you have to do both book and lyrics if you’re accepted as a “words” person into the program. NYU gave me the opportunity to do nothing but write for two years. It was a giant musical laboratory, and once I graduated, I was confident in pursuing a life writing for the theater.

Did you work together in the first year?

N: Yeah, but...

C: The very last assignment. And it was a pop song; it wasn’t even like a song for theater.

How’d you figure out you liked working with each other?

N: We lived in the same NYU housing and started hanging out socially. We discovered we came from similar backgrounds, had a lot of the same interests, and shared a musical aesthetic. So by the time we were given the pop song assignment, we had already written a hand- ful of tunes outside of class. It just made sense.

How many were in your class?

N: About twenty. Now it’s 32?

Kent Nicholson: No, it’s more than that, like 36, it’s almost 40, they’ve almost doubled the size of it.

Wow. That’s pretty outrageous...

C: Yeah, that’s crazy.

N: There are not that many people who should be writing musicals.

So Mariana, you went to NYU a few years later. What led you there?

Mariana Elder: Into musical theater?

Yeah. What came first? Writing, music, theater? How did your artis-tic inclinations develop?

M: Well, my dad wasn’t a minister. He was a banker, so we were not religious.

Thank God there was someone that could make this show make sense!

M: My grandfather was a trombone player, and I played trombone, so the only things I knew about the musical theater up until grad school were songs by Gershwin and Rodgers I’d played. You didn’t get corralled into umpteen productions of The Music Man?

M: Actually, I just realized, probably the first musical theater song I ever learned lyrics to was “Gary, Indiana” because my mom sang it when we were very little to my dad, Gary. Anyway, I kept playing trombone—I was in a jazz band in San Francisco, and we did a lot of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller—until I rebelled and stopped when I was like sixteen. But I always wrote stories, and I was a really big reader. Then in high school I was in a eally become interested in theater until an undergrad class I took in American Studies called American Cultural Beliefs and Values, and we had to read TonyKushner’s Angels in America. I had always been so interested in American History, and we talked all the time about cultural timelines in that class. And there was something about that play, the way he uses historical figures like Ethel Rosenberg and weaves them into the narrative, and all these different layers of storytelling within history going on, it just really struck a chord with what I was doing in my own studies. So I took an American theater class and decided to double major, but my theater undergrad work was mostly dramatic literature.

At Grinnell, right?

M: Right. We didn’t really do musical theater. There were three professors and we did a lot of Sam Shepard. An enormous amount of Sam Shepard. And dramatic literature, dramaturgical studies. Then I started writing for the theater. I did an adaptation of Stephen Fry’s novel called The Liar, and then I went to the National Theater Institute for a semester after Grinnell. And one of their professors, Donna DiNovelli, said I should try writing for the theater, so that was in 2000. Donna also teaches at NYU.  And she recommended NYU to me. 

So you were calling yourself a lyricist/librettist?

M: No, no, I was calling myself a playwright, they called me a librettist. They were like, “You will write lyrics.” I wrote my first song at NYU. The poor composer I worked with! I gave him this page, oh my God, where each line of the song was like 28 syllables. And he was like, “Oh honey.” It was a mess. But then once we started working on librettos, I was like, “Oh this is much better.” That I could figure out. So I did two thesis projects.

Let’s talk about how you got together on The Burnt Part Boys. Burnt Part started as Chris and Nathan’s thesis project, right?

N: Right.

And it was different, right?

N: Completely different. The only song that survived is “The Climbing Song.”

What was the premise?

C: We wanted to do something that was an adventure, with young people, like The Goonies or Stand By Me. Musically we were interest- ed in this region of the country. And we were both really interested in the Civil War, so we came up with this ghost story that was set a hundred years after the Civil War, in 1962. We then picked our char- acters, and their names, and went to work. What was the premise? N: It was really convoluted. It was like a “Scooby Doo” episode. The Burnt Part was a haunted civil war battlefield on the top of a mountain. There was a rite of passage for all high schools seniors to climb to The Burnt Part and party with the “ghosts.” Jake and Chet head up the mountain, while Pete and Dusty (avid fourteen year old filmmak- ers) trail the older boys with a stolen 16mm camera, hoping to catch the ghosts on film. Long story short, we set out to write a musical about boys climbing a mountain, but in the thesis presentation, we spent so much time setting up the characters and the cockamamie back-story, that the kids were only on the journey for a quarter of the piece. There was no actual adventure.

So what happened next?

C: Well we kind of put it in the drawer for a while. But then we got approached by Vadim [Feichtner]’s mentor to do a workshop of some- thing at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln...

How did you know Vadim? NYU?

C: Yeah, he was in the class ahead of us.

Composing?

C: Yeah, and he worked on his thesis the year before at Nebraska.

I see. So you had this opportunity to do something and you started going over your options...

C: We gave the professor The Burnt Part, but we never thought that she would pick it because it was a mess and it was very boy heavy for a college. But then they did, and we said if you pick that we have to rewrite it. We have to start over. So enter Mariana.

Enter Mariana how? How’d you know about her?

N: We contacted Rachel Sheinkin, who was one of our classmates at NYU, and who was now teaching at the program, and she said “Talk to Mariana. She’s the one.”

So what happened next?

M: They sent me the script. And I remember that the first thing that I was really struck by was its title. And I loved the verse from “The Climbing Song” about every man is blessed with a burnt part. The metaphor intrigued me. And I liked the setting. I started imagining the image of a burnt out mine at the top of the mountain. A few years earlier, I visited my mother when she was living on an ashram in the Sierra Nevadas, and we drove to this old, abandoned gold mine, and on this particular day, it had these weird ridges and it looked like it was still smoking. My mom said no one could use this land any- more. It was ruined land. So when I read the piece, I remembered that. And I liked that it was set in 1962. I’m really interested in that period. So I thought the whole thing should be an odyssey, like an epic journey piece, and I thought all the dads should be dead. I hon- estly thought they were going to tell me to go to hell but they were really open to revisiting it and redoing it. And I think the first thing we did was I went away and wrote a little scene for Frances, I made Frances a girl and started creating her. And we did a monologue that became “The Man I Never Knew.” So yeah we started over from scratch.

Frances was a boy?

C: He was like a stereotypical bully. Like the boys in A Christmas Story that beat up Ralphie.

So you all went to Nebraska, how much did you get done there?

C: We got all the way to the end, but it was shaky. We literally had a month between Nebraska and starting rehearsals at Barrington.

Wait, how did Barrington happen?

N: Bill Finn. I ran into Finn just after we started working with Mariana and he said, “I’m going to have an opportunity to develop new musicals at Barrington Stage. What’s going on with The Burnt Part Boys?” He was our thesis advisor at NYU and he always loved the show, even at its messiest. I told him we were revisiting the piece, that we had a bookwriter on board, and a deadline, and he wanted to hear it. So we went over to his apartment (before we had a second act). He took us into his bedroom, which is where his piano was, and he sprawled on his bed.

M: We all sat around him on the bed.

N: And we did our dog and pony show with what we had, and he loved it.

C: We finished playing, and he literally said, “Well you have a lot of work to do.” And we said, “Yeah but it’s great because we’re literally going away in a month to do a workshop in Nebraska, so we have to get it done.”

N: So we knew going into Nebraska that we were going to have Barrington.

Was this a new relationship for you, Mariana? He was their thesis advisor, but did you know him much?

M: Yeah, he was an advisor for my class, and was really helpful with my thesis project. He’d sat in on a lot of my rehearsals and gave me a lot of really great feedback. So yeah, I knew him before I went to lie on his bed. We were acquainted. Joe [Calarco] directed it at Barrington, right? Was he also involved in Nebraska? M: Yeah, he came to Nebraska.

C: And Vadim music directed.

How did you meet Joe?

N: Through Ira Weitzman. At the time Ira was helping us develop an adaptation of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and he introduced us to Joe.

The Barrington production was represented to you as a workshop, right? You’ve told me you didn’t consider it finished...

N: Right. We were going to have the choice of whether to open it to the press. You did open it, right?

What happened?

N: I think they just fell in love with the piece. We were the first thing they produced in their Musical Theatre Lab on stage two, and every- one decided to go for it. There was a lot of momentum and magic that summer, even though the show was being produced in the basement of a library with eight-foot ceilings. Luckily, the show was well received, and enjoyed an extended run. So what was the next step after Barrington? M: Sarah [Stern] from the Vineyard saw it and brought it to Doug [Aibel].

C: And we’ve been developing it with them since then.

And what were your artistic goals?

M: I felt the characterizations could go deeper, that there was more to plumb. I was worried at Barrington it was a little too archetypal, and I thought we could do work on shaping it. Plus the opening was like this very long—how would you describe the first 25 minutes?

N: It was a mini-opera, almost completely sung. Plus it was 30 minutes long. The biggest continual challenge writing this piece has been to find a way to introduce the characters and back-story as quickly and as elegantly as possible, then shoot the kids up the mountain.

C: There was the exposition question. How do you impart all of this information to the audience about the relationships of all the charac- ters, and what their socio-economic situation is, and what The Burnt Part is? There was even a girlfriend of Jake’s, and we had to lay out what her back-story was... and we kept creatively trying to establish it all in some way through music.

So what was your first target? A reading?

N: Yes, everyone was interested in trying the show with age appropri- ate kids. The Barrington production had twenty year olds playing fourteen.

M: Yeah, after Barrington in Summer ’06, we did a reading in February ’07, a reading at TheatreWorks Palo Alto in April ’07, and then a read- ing with kids in December ’07.

When did you do the major re-write where you cut the character of Jake’s girlfriend?

M: Yeah, she came out in April ’08. And we [Playwrights Horizons] came on board probably about seven or eight months after that You talked about the casting aspect of it, and that’s probably one of the piece’s biggest challenges. The ori- gins of the piece in a kids adventure genre dictates that the kids seem authentically young, and yet, not withstanding your origins in church music, which aims to be accessible, your music ain’t easy.

C: Right. So right at the bottom is this kind of delightfully harebrained idea that Chris Miller is going to write a kids’ musical.

Yeah lots of kids can sing his stuff!

C: I didn’t want to condescend to the fact that they’re teenagers. The way I approached it in my head was, if I was a teenager and I had the opportunity to challenge myself to learn this and to sing with other teenagers like this, I would be so excited because there’s really nothing out there that’s like that specifically for teenagers. We wanted them to be able to bring some weight and gravitas to the story and still be entertaining but in an honest way, like you get sometimes in a movie as opposed to many musicals.

I always want these interviews to be open and honest. And it’s a matter of public record that you changed directors for a while last year and then returned to your original director. And I’m just wondering if with the benefit of hindsight you have perspective on what led you on this path.

C: I think after our last reading in December 2007, there was a lot of time with the three of us in a room rewriting as opposed to being in a room with actors and a director really trying to find the piece. And I think in hindsight, for me personally, we didn’t know if there was an end in sight, if we would ever be on a schedule. It was a way to shake things up and be on an even playing field with whomever our collaborators were. And the blessing of having all of that development time, as torturous and painful as it was, I think in the long run all of us on the team came back to it with a clear idea of what we wanted and it made all of us approach it more clearly...

I think it’s telling that you had all those readings at the Vineyard and TheaterWorks, but you didn’t really make the big rewrite until you were just writers again without a director on board. You know there’s a certain legendary aspect to people’s memories of the Barrington workshop, plus Joe had a pre-existing relationship with Chris and Nathan as a writer and director but Mariana was brand new to it and it still needed work. And to me, the fortunate thing about the way it happened is it allowed Mariana to sort of claim it. And when Joe came back to the project, he told me, “I have such enormous respect for what Mariana did with it.” He saw the great leaps it had made, and could rejoin the team as director and low octane dramaturg. So it feels like everyone has perspective

M: I think too the good thing when there’s uncertainty or dissent is that you have to constantly articulate what you’re trying to do and who you are and it actually sharpens your sense of your beliefs and values so much. We had a meeting November 2nd, long after Vassar, and you guys gave your notes, and I remember I went home and thought, “I think I need to go away by myself for like three or four weeks and just do my job. I have a very clear idea of what needs to happen. I have to figure out the first twenty minutes and figure out how to elegantly do what we want to do.” And so, as hard as the summer was, I think it did really sharpen us to what we wanted to do, and who we were, and what story we were trying to tell, but also just what our essence was, the three of us with this particular story. To me, one of the primary accomplishments of the new draft you wrote after that was your solution to the fantasy sequences between Pete and his imaginary father figure.

They used to be all different, right?

K: They were each different movie tropes.

C: There was a World War II general, a sci-fi explorer man, a cowboy, and a 1930’s boxer at one point. And the big question was, what are these sequences doing here? And I remember Doug and I saying at one point, “Well I’m sure they’re going to go eventually!”

M: No, it’s true!

K: We all said that at some point! Yet on the other hand, we all recognized that they were very keyed into what your originating impulse was, because they’re youthful. They represent the adventure of these kids going up the mountain.

M: Well in the original version, the character of Pete had the movie camera and this active imagination. Then when we started to work together, I was interested in the idea—because the kid was four when he lost his dad—that he had this overactive imagination, and he went into these fantasies where he would be sort of trying to con- struct who his father had been. But they needed to have a purpose and a reason. 

N: Right.

M: So that was the tricky part.

C: Yeah. M: And this fall I was like, “God we have to figure them out or they just have to go.”

K: How did you come up with the Alamo as the unifying idea?

M: When we were up at Vassar, every time I watched them I was like, “God it takes a minute just to introduce the genre of each film.” I’m a very restless person. And I thought, “Ok, the show is an hour and 47 minutes, we need some sort of organizing principle that you can set up in the beginning that when they come back you’ll know exact- ly what’s going on, and then also you can go deeper with them. And I watched Woody Allen’s Play it Again Sam, which I had first seen when I was eleven. And his character meets Humphrey Bogart because he’s having difficulty with women, and I watched it again and I knew it might work with our piece to have one movie and one genre. And I loved the western thing because it’s so period specific and because of the thematic parallels, and I thought, “If we did The Alamo, we could get a lot of bang for our buck.” Plus The Alamo has all these legendary western characters that take less time to introduce. But musically each one can still be quite dif- ferent. But best of all, the theme of the movie is “Remember the Alamo,” and Pete’s theme is “Remember the Burnt Part.”

N: Right.

It’s interesting that you said Frances started as a boy bully in the original but you turned her into a girl for Nebraska, and there was a brief time with us that Frances became a boy again at the Vineyard.

N: That was mostly casting. The m.o. of most teenage actresses is to come off as sweet, and polished and likeable as possible in audi- tions. Not to blame them, those are the kind of characters they audi- tion for 99.9% of the time. Frances really threw a lot of girls for a loop. She is a far cry from anyone in High School Musical. To find a young actress that’s not afraid to be rough and tumble—

Kent: To be a tomboy.

N: And not a “musical theater tomboy.”

C: I also think in the auditions last year we were seeing a lot of very, very young girls. I think something else as well.

Doug said there was always some- thing a little cutesy about that character, and maybe the casting director was trying to respond to what they thought the material was asking for...

C: True, right. So that’s why when we had trouble finding someone, we cast one of the actors who had auditioned for Pete that we liked.

Mariana, you look like you want to say something.

M: I think when Annie [Jake’s girlfriend] was cut, I shifted too much weight onto Frances as the only female character. And actually, by having a boy play the character, I had to trim away some things so that Frances actually emerged a cleaner character, so I think it was for the better. 

I agree that she felt more invested, especially in the scene she has with Pete alone. That was another really important decision you made after Poughkeepsie. You decided to have Dusty split off when he finds out about the dynamite, and that gives his song “Marshmallow Me” the purpose of showing his decision to return back to them.

N: That all came with that note session with you guys, after the January meeting.

M: The 47-minute meeting.

N: The 47 minute note meeting. That was a huge breakthrough.

47 minutes?

M: I swear it was a 47 minute meeting, and we left and Dusty had a whole new journey. It was a fantastic meeting.

It was great because it sharpened Dusty’s journey, but it also gave Pete and Frances this great opportunity to have a scene together, so you could explore the commonalities they share.

M: And I liked having Frances’s story about Dottie Lou be with just Pete. It makes it less defensive and more an opening up. The other huge change was in the opening scene, and that’s the scene that’s continued evolving during previews. We recently restored an old song to the scene and cut a song later.

N: The tone was all wrong at the top of the piece. The miner’s first song is a beautiful haunting hymn, but it is not a fair representation of the show. The musical is not about ghosts, not about mining men, it is about the boys who follow in their footsteps. To transition from “God’s Eyes” into an up tempo number for the older boys, “Eight Hours” seemed a logical and necessary step. There is a visual passing of the torch from father to son that both lightens the first ten minutes and allows the older boys a bit of fun before their world collapses around them.

Talk a little bit about your use of the miners. The original version was kind of a ghost story. Were you influenced by that originating impulse to have the miners be ghosts in this? I mean, it is the organizing principal of the play really; you start and end with it.

M: I knew, when we first started working together, that they would get trapped in the mine because that was the only way they could undergo the scene with the parents which is what they needed. They neededtobewiththeirfathers. Originally “ I Made That” was for a moment kind of where “Family Tree” is. I’d written a scene where the fathers were around a campfire sharing stories. And when we were in Nebraska, we were talking about the end and what could sing when the fathers appear. And Joe suggested the “I Made That” song, and I loved that because I think every child wants the chance to over- hear what their parents are saying about them. So that was a really wonderful suggestion he made. And they’ve kind of crept backwards from there into other parts of the journey.

Now they’re mainly in “Family Tree.” It’s like the woods are haunted by them but they also help the kids on their journey.

M: I always knew they would sing the opening and then they would come back at the end in this kind of hopefully majestic revelation of who they are.

And it’s nice that Chris gets to show his roots in church music. 

M: When I first read the script I liked “The Climbing Song” because it’s a song that they know. I don’t come from a musical theater back- ground. The first musical I ever read was Assassins, and I really like the different uses of American song in that show. To me it makes it more accessible to people who maybe don’t go to musicals all the time. So I really like the different uses of song in our show.

C: I wonder sometimes, like as I’m falling to sleep, “What’s going to happen, are people going to laugh at us?” I remember when we got to Barrington, on my list of things to talk about was after the explosion: Is there music in the mine? And what are they going to sing about? Is there a song there? And we just kept that extended sequence in the dark and it just made sense. And I’m really proud of the way that we approached how music functions in the piece. And in trying to find the opening at Vassar where they were singing all this exposition, we knew that was wrong because it felt too musical theater-y, where now it feels like the way music happens is organic to these people and the way that they would actually sing in their lives.

M: One of the first things we ever did was construct the song and scene at the beginning for the dead miners that later in the piece their children would take over and sing. And I always really liked that idea so much, not just because they don't have their fathers of course, but because everybody inherits, a person inherits the music of their parents and grandparents. I think that can be such an important heritage.

It always makes me really happy when the kids in the show start singing their parents' song.

N: Me too. Me too.