City of Light Performs at SheNYC Summer Theater Festival
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Composer Jan Roper, lyricist Julie Weiner, and book writer Gabrielle Wagner Mann met in a writing class and then spent the next five years co-writing a musical. After years of rewriting, submitting, and then rewriting some more, the collaborators have now had their work, City of Light, selected by SheNYC Arts to be performed at the upcoming SheNYC Summer Theater Festival, July 6-16, 2017, at the Connelly Theatre in the East Village.
The writers spoke with impactmania about their collective dream and what it took to get City of Light onstage.
How long have you worked on the musical City of Light?
Jan Roper: It will be five years in August, when we had our first sit-down to discuss a storyline at a Starbucks in North Hollywood.
We had just finished a nine-month musical-theatre-writing program at New Musicals Inc. We met each other in this program, and we really clicked. Julie had an idea of a story that appealed to Gaby and me.
Gabrielle Wagner Mann: New Musicals Inc. guided us through the process. We would submit an outline, and they would go, “Yeah, not quite there yet.” And then they would send us back and say, “You need to address this and this.”
Then, we would go back and edit the outline. You have to keep going through that process until you get a green light.
What spurred you to take this writing program?
JR: I had been doing more and more music directing. I had recently finished directing new work and the team there had also written it through the New Musicals Inc. organization. I was impressed with how they honed people’s skills and crafts.
GWM: I was an actor and singer. I remember seeing a show — I’m not going to name names — I saw a big professional production in California, and it was terrible!
JR: I saw it, too! [Laughs.]
GWM: [Laughs.] It was terrible, but so much money was put into this production. It made me think, “If that’s the bar, I can’t do any worse.” There is no reason why I can’t write a lovely, compelling story that people want to see.
I remember calling New Musicals Inc. and saying, “Do you have any slots left in this program?” The woman on the phone said, “Actually, we just had a book writer drop out. Why don’t you come on in?” I made her promise to tell me if I’d suck. Because I don’t ever want to put something up that somebody is going to go, “Good God!” [Laughs.]
And Julie, I didn’t know you were a closet writer.
Julie Weiner: Well, yes, it’s funny because I really didn’t know either! Unlike Jan, I don’t have a musical background, and unlike Gaby, I didn’t have any acting background. Both of these women are really terrific singers, too.
I was going through a transition in my life about seven years ago. … I thought it’d be good to take a writing class and maybe try my hand at playwriting. …
I went to New York for five weeks, and I took five different writing classes. One of them was a lyric writing class by a very talented, young composer / lyricist named Adam Gwon. One of the assignments was to write a story song, where the story of what’s happening in this character’s life is unveiled, from beginning to middle to end.
Because I was thinking about going to Paris and had lived in Paris before, I wrote a story about a woman who had just arrived in Paris. She had taken off on her fiancé because she’d woken up with a panic attack. … That is what became the kernel of the show that we’re working on today.
It was funny because people always say, “You have the idea because it was about yourself.” But it really wasn’t; when I was living in Paris, I just kept meeting people who were in Paris, either consciously or unconsciously, in a life-changing moment.
They were forging a new path for themselves. I just thought, “What a perfect place to do that!” Go and reinvent yourself in a foreign country.
I had done a book treatment, and I had done some rough lyrics, but I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere without a composer. I did the program because I thought maybe I’d meet a really great composer.
And I met a really great composer and a really great book writer! [Laughs.]
You are in rehearsal for a week and a half now. What has been something you learned that you didn’t expect?
GWM: The joke is, once you get to rehearsal, it’s like no longer yours. You have to give your baby away and watch them do things that you’d never believe they’d do.
Frankly, most of the time, it’s brilliant. That’s the beauty of a writer giving it to a director, and then a director giving it over to actors. It’s like the telephone game: You give them one thing, it turns into something else, and by the end, you’re like, “What?”
It’s like this amazing thing, because you’ve got all of these people’s hearts and blood and sweat and tears in it. The release of control has been an interesting experience.
JR: We did our first reading in June 2013. Then we did several readings after that over the next two years, and I honestly thought each time, “Okay, now we’re ready.” [Laughs.] We’ve done massive rewrites — we’ve been rewriting this thing for five years now — and I keep fooling myself into thinking, “I’m done!” It never has been the case.
We found out March 13 we got into the NYC Women’s Work Festival. The show has had a massive overhaul even since then because it just lit this new fire under us. …
For me, as the composer, I am also responsible for writing the scores, which is the notation for the piano player and others. It is a bloody lot of work. I know that it is part of my gig as a composer. All of May was 24/7 living, sleeping, eating, breathing scores. And in my mind again, just as long as I get through that, then my work will be done. And it’s still not been the case.
The show right now has 20 songs in it, but we’ve probably written 45 different songs. Then, one scene, we’ve rewritten six times…
GWM: There is not one scene that we’ve rehearsed where Cady Huffman, the director, hasn’t come over and said, “What’s this here, what do you think about this?” And I say, “You know what, give me five minutes.” And then, “Here, Joel [the stage manager], print that out.” We’re just making it up on the fly, and that’s what being in production is.
JR: But I, for one, am super excited to be here!
Julie, what have you been surprised to learn?
JW: This is the first time that we’re working with a director who brought her own vision to the work. Our show was a traditional two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. She was saying, “Nope, it needs to be 90 minutes straight through.” That was our first massive overhaul. It was, “Wait, what?”
You had to change the entire piece around?
JW: Yes, 45 pages. Yeah, and for the better — we had to get rid of some songs that we all just loved…
GWM: … and five actors we had to kill!
JW: We changed the reason our protagonist leaves California and goes to Paris…
GWM: Julie wrote an amazing song for that, and the actress loves it.
JR: Well, now it’s the showstopper!
With three co-writers and a director, who will have final say?
GWM: At this point, the director.
JW: We could put our foot down on our craft.
GWM: At this point, it is collaboration. We all have our moments in the piece of that we will go to the mat for. I’ve told the director, “We’re not touching these scenes.”
JR: We went through this with the music, too. … We respect each other’s areas. We drew those lines really clearly in the beginning. We were not going to write in each other’s territory. … It has helped our collaboration. We all ask each other’s opinions…
GWM: And sometimes even if you don’t ask, they get offered. [Laughs.]
JR: I’ve collaborated with people. … I’ve never done anything quite like what the three of us have together. We do sleep, eat, and breathe this thing.
For the most part, there’s not a day where there are not 100 texts and voicemails that go by, and another 50 emails.
How has this project changed you as a person?
JR: I’ve learned that if I don’t give up and I stick with it, we’re going to come up with a really good product. … We really were stuck for a little while, weren’t we?
What happened after you got stuck? How did you overcome that hurdle?
GWM: When we got stuck, we had done a big rewrite that we thought was so good. Then we submitted it to our old dramaturge and she slashed it. I said to the girls, “I need two days to just… I’m not sure how to take this.”
The wheels started turning again, and then you can go, “Well, how do we then solve this?”
JW: Collectively, everybody was telling us the same thing: We hadn’t really resolved Molly’s reason for going to Paris.
Once we solved that, it gave us new directions to go in. Gaby was really good about keeping an eye on deadlines at some festivals. We submitted to three, and we got accepted to this festival.
Julie, what have you learned from Molly [the protagonist in City of Light]?
JW: Good question… Well, the easy thing to say would be, “Get rid of your list,” because Molly is a list girl, and to some degree, so am I…
When I invited some of my friends to come to the first reading, they told me afterward that they were saying to each other, “Alright, no matter how bad it is … seriously, just smile, and support her. Afterward, she should go back to her day job.”
Then, after the reading, they were all communicative: “You actually wrote something we liked!” …
My friends and even me — there’s still an element of, “I can’t believe I am doing this.” It’s not exactly Molly’s story, but I think that our story ends where she is having that realization. There is a whole world out there… I can probably do anything that I put my mind to.
So yeah, it’s about expanding your worldview and giving yourself the opportunity…
In closing, give me a few words that describe your journey so far.
JR: I would say “perseverance”; that’s why we are where we are. But also “collaboration”; I could not have written this alone. It absolutely took all three of us to have the product that we have.
JW: … I’m glad I don’t have all the talents. I’m all the better because we collaborate.
JR: Iron sharpens iron.
JW: Also outside of the actual writing, we all have different skills that we bring. We all have different networks. It’s not just the creative writing; it’s all the business stuff around it, too — having three people’s networks to do the fundraising helps.
… Even for the first year, we had some moments where we’d say, “Okay, I didn’t mean to step on your toes.” You learn how to work with each other and be able to give criticism and trust each other enough to give input. We’re always about the good of the show.
Now we’re expanding that circle to the people that we’re working with. Looking at women in business, that is why women working together and having that network is so hard and so important. Because we don’t have that old boys’ club; there’s not that inherent trust. You’ve got to build those yourself, but I learned so much.
We are better for being strong together.
What are your few words to describe your journey, Gaby?
GWM: It is a bit like Molly’s journey, ’cause I think our lives have all gone through these big ups and downs personally and professionally since we’ve started working together. For me, it’s a very similar thing to our tagline that we have from Molly, which is “Sometimes you have to get lost in order to find yourself.” I’ve been lost many times in this process, and yet here we are.