Goodspeed Musicals continues its commitment to the development of new work with the Equity premiere of LMNOP, the musical fable of government extremism, mob mentality, a love of language and a single voice of dissent — set on an island called Nollop, where certain letters of the alphabet are banned — July 25-Aug. 18 at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.
Writers Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel were game for an email interview in this busy creative period. (Apparently no letters were removed from their keyboards in the making of LMNOP.)
Drawing from the Mark Dunn novel “Ella Minnow Pea,” the show has book and lyrics by Burkell and music by Loesel, whose previous shows include The Extraordinary Ordinary (which received a Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Grant) and the revues Love Songs and Other Crap and Sorta Love Songs. LMNOP had a developmental staging in the University of Michigan’s respected musical theatre program in Ann Arbor in 2008. (The writers are Michigan natives; me, too.) Read an earlier Playbill.com item about that U-M staging here.
Here’s how Goodspeed bills LMNOP: “When letters begin to fall from a monument in town, government officials ban them one by one. Chaos ensues until a determined teenage girl rallies the community to fight for freedom of speech. This unique musical is part romance, part clever word game and part adult fable that reminds us of how precious our liberties are; how quickly unbridled extremism can take them from us; and how important it is to have the courage to stand up for what we believe. A captivating story you’ll n_v_r forg_t!”
Joe Calarco, co-artistic director of Breaking Bread Theatre and recipient of the Lucille Lortel Award, two Barrymore Awards and four Helen Hayes Awards, directs. He’s widely known for the all-male play Shakespeare’s R&J.
Here’s my exchange with Burkell & Loesel (Loesel & Burkell?), who remain in residence this month in Chester, CT, where the Norma Terris Theatre is a safe haven for writers of new work. Critics are not invited to poison the process, but a paying audience is on hand to give the writers a sense of what may or may not be working on stage. And there are always rewrites to consider. It’s still written in ink, not set in stone.
What was the greatest challenge, musically, writing the show?
Paul Loesel: The greatest challenge for me was to find a specific if not unique sound for this island country of artists, linguists and musicians. The story takes place in the present, but we imagine that since the Nollopians had seceded from the USA and have pushed away any contemporary influences (musically speaking — pop music), they would be a culture of classical music.
Although the score falls under the category of musical theatre, I purposely wanted to layer in touches of classical music and art-song influences. Similarly, Lynne Shankel’s orchestrations favor this idea with an instrumentation of piano, violin, cello, French horn and orchestral percussion.
It must have been a challenge to write lyrics without being allowed to use certain letters.
Scott Burkell: Obviously, it becomes harder to express yourself with less letters. Then throw rhyming and structure into the mix and it is indeed most challenging.
Do you guys write “fat”?
Paul Loesel: We do indeed write fat. Since our NYC Lab last fall, we were encouraged by Joe Calarco, our director, to “overwrite” during our dramaturgy sessions. This proved highly successful. [We] eventually cut out that fat to the most important, necessary, and yet entertaining information. Since our first draft, we have cut five complete songs — our new trunk songs. And many existing ones have had multiple versions both lyrically and musically.
Is the show sung-through?
Scott Burkell: No. We have book scenes. We actually like the “traditional” musical theatre structure of true book scenes which lead to songs.
Was a full libretto/script written first, and then you both cannibalized it for songs? Or do you write in steps?
Paul Loesel: We write in order. Scott writes full scenes that may include monologues or dialogue that are then mined/written into song format. He always presents me with a full scene and lyric for me to work from. He works alone first, I work alone next. Then we get together for the first time when I present the first draft of the song and we begin the fixing/re-working process.
Scott Burkell: It’s a true gift to be working with a collaborator who is tonally on the same page with you — we really get each other’s theatrical/lyrical/musical sensibilities.
What did director Joe Calarco bring to the table?
Paul Loesel: A quiet intelligence, amazing insight into the story, and his unique and beautiful concept for the show. For the bigger picture and tone of the piece, Joe has the actors always on stage, sitting in chairs on the side — representing both actors and Nollopians at the same time. They also deliver props to the current action/scene onstage and manually turn the turntable — all with the intention of showing a community of people who are perhaps simpler, unique, one without electronic gadgetry and automation.
LMNOP began performances July 25. What did you learn in your first weekend?
Paul Loesel: What a weekend! After our first two performances, we got inspired and rewrote the front and back end of our show. Excited to put the changes in this week. I guess what we learned in “previews” — and referencing what I just said above — is that key part of shaping the show depends on making sure all the pieces of the story continue to fit.
We rewrote the opening number prior to this production, in order to make it more active and therefore serious, [and] we realized the old “darker” tone of the Prologue was no longer necessary. So, ultimately, we’ve rewritten the Prologue again, just in the last few days, to reflect that.
In short, with the help of the whole creative team, we’ve had to track through each and every change and how it affects the rest of the show. It’s been very detailed work.
So, you’re rewriting in Chester.
Paul Loesel: We are rewriting during this time. Extensively. Two major scenes rewritten, dozens of smaller dialogue revisions, and two whole scenes have been cut already — all since “opening” six performances ago.
The Equity contract there allows you to have some rehearsal time with the cast to implement changes during the run?
Paul Loesel: Yes, we do get rehearsal time with the actors. Ten hours a week. It is far less than a Broadway show preview period rehearsal schedule, but helpful nonetheless.
What’s your contact with Mark Dunn, author of the musical’s source novel “Ella Minnow Pea”?
Paul Loesel: Scott and I have kept Mark Dunn up to date on the show. He was able to come see our U of M production but unable to see the one at Goodspeed this summer. He has continually supported our writing and adaptation of the show.
Do you remember your early, serious theatregoing experiences? The ones that made a strong impression.
Paul Loesel: My first theatregoing experience as a kid was our high school production of My Fair Lady. My sister was in the ensemble. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade. I was in love with Eliza Doolittle…surprise. Also, that same year, I was in my Lutheran school production of The Rainbow Express, a children’s theatre telling of Noah’s ark. I played one of his sons. I loved wearing stage makeup…again, surprise, surprise. Later on, I think the first professional regional production that I saw was Sweet Charity. I was a freshman in high school. The dance hall girls made me blush and the music was thrilling. The first national tour I saw was A Chorus Line — also while I was in high school. That incredible show, with its amazing score and the drama of the dancers’ life (expanded in my mind to all who are in theatre), made me want to be a part of that — the thrill of live theatre.
You guys met at the Barn Theatre, a summer stock house in Augusta, MI. What was the first song you wrote together?
Paul Loesel: Yes, the Barn. 1992. Scott was an actor/director and I was the associate MD. Part of my job was to music direct the “Bar Show” — a cabaret after the mainstage show where the apprentices and Barn stars would perform. Scott would sing a song once in awhile and we really enjoyed working together. One day he asked me if I wanted to write a song together. I said, “Sure, why not?!” Our first song was a 12-minute piece of structureless nonsense called “Actor’s Pet Peeves.” It was performed twice and quickly put into the bottom of our trunk. But it did start us writing as a team, so we have a soft spot for it.
What’s next for Loesel & Burkell?
Paul Loesel: We have begun work on our next show, which is untitled. It is an original piece based on the idea of the life of the person who is commissioning it. How’s that for intrigue? Stylistically, it is far from anything we imagined we’d ever write!
Learn more about the writers at ScottandPaul.com.
The Goodspeed Musicals cast of LMNOP includes Harriett D. Foy as Gwenette Minnow Pea; John Herrera as Otto Minnow Pea; Spring Awakening‘s Lilli Cooper as Ella Minnow Pea; Morgain Lewis as Agnes Prather; Ming-An Fasquelle as Eugenia Prather; Jared Zirilli as Nate Warren; Aaron Serotsky as Shubert Greenly/Tad/Lyttle; Talia Thiesfield as Poppi McGregor/Lug 2/Mimi; Kevin Melendez as Zach O’Dare/Lug 1; Donna Lynne Champlin as Ruth Greenly/Houston LaGreer; Ryan Bauer-Walsh as Willy Creevy/Rory/Creighton; Michael DiLiberto as Peyton Ebert/Lug 3/Percy/Mangrove; Sally Wilfert as Georgeanne Towgate; Noah Marlowe as Tommy Towgate.
The creative team includes five-time Tony-nominated scenic designer Anna Louizos; costume designer Jennifer Caprio; lighting designer Joel Shier; music supervisor/orchestrator Lynne Shankel; music director Julie McBride; sound designer Jay Hilton. LMNOP is produced for Goodspeed Musicals by Michael Price.
Want more information? Visit Goodspeed.org.
Goodspeed’s revival of Hello, Dolly! continues to Sept. 14 at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT. Check out my interview with composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, who talks about his first Broadway show, Milk and Honey, the show that preceded Dolly!