INTERVIEW by DAILY BR!NK STAFF | BR!NK PHOTOGRAPHY by MATTHEW MURPHY
We recently discovered that a few of our Broadway-inclined BR!NKers (and one of our own staff photographers) had teamed up with a group of talented artists to put on 35MM, A Musical Exhibition. The show is a multimedia-inspired musical performance written by Ryan Scott Oliver, who (as we previously flaunted) is the next big name in musical theatre composition. So we couldn’t help catching up with the cast for a chat about the whole dramatic process. The show opens tomorrow, so check out our Facebook or Twitter for an opportunity to win a free ticket and see these rising stars in action.
If you could describe 35mm in one word, what would it be?
Jeremy Bloom: Sexy
Ben Crawford: Eclectic.
Lindsay Mendez: Groundbreaking.
Ryan Scott Oliver: Overwhelming.
Alex Brightman: SupercalifragilisticexpialiMINDFUCK.
Matthew Murphy: Ambitious.
Betsy Wolfe: Rad.
Jay Armstrong Johnson: Inspired.
2011 belonged to The Book of Mormon because it broke boundaries and introduced such a unique experience to attendees. How does 35mm differentiate itself from a “regular” show?
Jeremy: The form is pretty unusual. The text is a complicated web of photos and stories and commentary. There is no protagonist, but a cohesive emotional narrative with its own logic. The music is written in response to photos, and new photos are added in response to the music — the result is a mysterious collage that mimics more the experience of walking around a museum than sitting in a theatre — an exciting thing for anyone with a short attention span.
Ben: It gives a different meaning to what a “musical” is. Mormon is great because it challenges the stereotype of what proper musical theatre should be and what’s on- or off-limits. 35mm does the same, but in its own way. I think people will wonder what category to put the show in, because it reaches out to people using multiple mediums.
Alex: The easy answer is, “in every way.” While the songs don’t necessarily have a common thread, nothing feels out of the blue and everything feels in the right place. This show manages to be dark, bubbly, profound, and silly… all at the same time. It’s fucked up.
Ryan: We bill the show as a “multimedia musical exhibition.” It’s a work that combines myriad styles of music, of singing, of drama, of photography, of staging, of orchestration, fusing together… It’s experimental in the best sense of the word.
Betsy: 35mm presents the audience with sense-stimulating art and the audience gets to decide the message. I think the goal is to present the material in a way that leaves it open for very personal interpretation.
Matt: Part of what has always attracted me to Ryan’s work is how it manages to straddle so many different worlds musically and, in turn, creates its own style. That’s something I’ve always tried to do with my images as well: combine a sense of fine art, editorial, and pop sensibilities into one dynamic image. By combining his music with my images and adding the unbelievable talents of our cast, I think the audience will be immersed in images, music, and performances in a very visceral way.
One of my favorite aspects of the show is that since it isn’t a typical narrative, the lines between the images and the songs are not spelled out for the audience, which makes it a very personal experience for each viewer to find their way into… and out of.
Jay: 35mm is fusing together the art of photography, the art of music, and the art of theatre in a way that I don’t believe has ever been explored. It’s like being at a rock concert, an opera, and an art gallery all at the same time.
Promotional video for 35mm
What originally attracted you to the project? (Ryan Scott Oliver and Matthew Murphy, stay out of this one!)
Jeremy: The music and photos are just really good.
Jay: Any time I have a chance to collaborate with Ryan Scott Oliver on anything artistic, I jump at the chance. I truly believe he is one of the greater musical geniuses of our generation, not to mention he wrote some of the music with my voice in mind. That always feels good.
Ben: How different the show is from anything I’ve ever done, how great the music is, the intriguing photos, the people!
Lindsay: I had worked with Ryan a couple of times prior, but we were still getting to know each other. And he called me on the phone and said, “I am writing a musical for you, Alex, and Jay.” I was immediately thrilled, because I always thought Ryan was one of the most inventive, incredible composers I’d ever had the pleasure of working with. Then he explained the project, and that it would be a show based on Matt’s photography. I started taking a look at Matt’s photos, and I was blown away. The thought of collaborating with these two crazy talents on a unique piece of theatre sounded too good to pass up.
Betsy: One of my best friends has been working on it for years. And she is the boss of me. So now I’m here. But in all seriousness, I became obsessed with one song and that led me to the rest of the piece.
Alex: I am not usually what they call a photophile — is that what they call it? I don’t know — but I have always enjoyed Matt’s photography. His photos never whisper. Ryan’s music has always inspired me to be a more daring performer, and the chance to perform new stuff by him is always thrilling. I always feel one or six steps behind…always. Which is a good thing.
Alex, Lindsay, and Jay perform “The Ballad of Sara Berry” from 35mm at the Kennedy Center
I don’t know the first thing about directing/writing/acting in a musical, so the only image I have in my head is Debra Messing chatting with Anjelica Huston near a piano, and Katharine McPhee skipping down the street in a blonde wig. What does Smash get right, and what does it totally get wrong in regards to the world of musicals?
Ben: It’s a smattering of every Broadway cliché crammed into one production of a musical… but I admit I watched the first episode twice. Honestly, anything that supports what we do is a great thing to have on prime-time television. While one could be picky and dissect the show, I’d rather watch and have fun with it.
Ryan: Smash is hard for me to watch, primarily because it is actually one of the first mainstream TV shows to dramatize what my life as a musical theatre writer is like (and decently accurate)… And that is terrifying, exciting, disconcerting, and cool!
Alex: I have never slept with a director before. I mean, I have… but not to get a role. I think Smash, while it’s a well-crafted show, is a little glamorous compared to, say, the life I lead in this business. I think their version of “the audition process” is largely skewed. But it makes good TV.
Jay: I think Smash does a pretty accurate job at creating the reality behind taking a show to Broadway. I was just waiting for an American Idol to come into the room and for all of a sudden the no-name girl and the Broadway diva get tossed in the trash. Oh, wait, Kat McPhee was on American Idol. I stand corrected.
What is gay jazz? And what are some other expressions the viewers can expect to learn while watching 35mm?
Ryan: It was just a joke! Just a joke!
Alex: Gay jazz is a style of music that we can guarantee every gay man or woman will enjoy. Most straight people will like it, too… but all gay people will love it. Other expressions include: Nightmare Chic. It’s Not Me, It’s You Breakup Song. Bitch-Rock. Fuck-Punk.
In addition to working together, most of you are extremely close friends. What do you do when you’re not working/rehearsing?
Lindsay: We are all big foodies, so we go out to different restaurants a lot. And we also love a good game night. In addition, we celebrate each other’s other lives and successes. I was lucky enough to have Matt and Ryan at my last two Broadway openings. Pretty awesome to share those amazing times with your dearest friends.
Ryan: I hate them.
Alex: Strangely enough, all of us like/love each other quite fervently. Usually for me, just a good chat over a nice drink is enough. Nothing compares to talking to someone you really care for/admire/aspire to be.
Matt: We are extremely lucky to all get along so well, and I think part of what we love about each other is our mutual drive and ambition. Of course, that drive and ambition leads to us being busy quite a bit. When we do manage to coordinate schedules, it’s usually for something low-key like grabbing a drink or having a great game night. I guess game night isn’t low-key though; Lindsay really hates it unless she’s winning the game. And Alex always wants to play games that maximize embarrassment.
Jay: When I am not working or rehearsing, I am usually sleeping, but when we do have a chance to get together, we throw back a few and get a little rowdy at a game night.
Jeremy, this must be such a visually exciting project for you to direct. How did you get involved, and how has the experience been? How do you hope to make this show different than what people are used to?
Jeremy: I am drawn to any theatre piece that uses non-traditionally dramatic texts to make drama. So the idea of “performing photographs” was pretty exciting and gave us a visually rich world from the start, which is unusual — to come into a project and already have the guiding design component complete. The songs are not always literal depictions of the photos. Sometimes the connection between song and photo is abstract, and sometimes the performers sing from within it, while sometimes they narrate. Navigating this is thrilling, and lets us stretch a strange creative muscle. Working on a project like this is particularly freeing. I hope the audience has a sort of wind-in-your-hair, wanna-dance-sometimes, and shake-in-the-boots experience with it. And that they feel like participants in this total passion project.
Lindsay, the last time we chatted with you, you had just finished working on Everyday Rapture. You then got an amazing break in Godspell. Tell us a bit about how that life-changing experience has been for you.
Lindsay: Godspell has been really amazing. I can’t tell you how lucky and honored I feel to have the opportunity to sing that incredible Schwartz score every night, and that I got to work with him through the process… along with the entire creative team. My cast is wonderful, and work their tails off every night. And it is a joy to bring such an awesome night of theatre to truly grateful audiences. I am just having a ball.
Lindsay and Jay, you both have been working with Ryan for a long time now. Is he secretly bribing you, or do you guys really have such a blast together? How did all of you meet, and what is your relationship like?
Lindsay: Yes… Ryan pays us lots of money. No, we truly love each other so deeply. Ours is a very close, incredible family. This 35mm rehearsal process is a dream come true for us because we literally have the greatest time together.
I was introduced to Ryan by a friend of mine from high school, who told me that he thought we would be a good match as singer and composer. At the beginning of 2009, Ryan chatted me on Facebook and asked me to do a concert of his. I met him for a rehearsal at his apartment, and he played me the Darling stuff for the first time, and I was blown away. And that pretty much sealed the deal. We have been friends and collaborators ever since. I feel like the luckiest woman in the world to have Ryan writing music for me. It’s his expression of love, and it’s just perfect.
Lindsay sings “The Party Goes With You” from 35mm at a concert reading at Urban Stages
Jay: Ryan and I met my junior year of college when I auditioned for his musical Alive At 10, now titled Mrs. Sharp, for the “new work” slot at NYU Steinhardt. I remember wanting to be cast in Ryan’s musical over the main stage production of Floyd Collins because I had fallen so deeply in love with the music. I wound up being cast as Floyd Collins and Alive at 10 was cancelled. I did, however, get to be a part of the workshop of Mrs. Sharp a few years later at Playwrights Horizons, starring Jane Krakowski. When Ryan began using me on a regular basis, I thought, “This must be what Bernadette Peters must have felt like at the beginning of her and Sondheim’s career.” Yes, I do call Ryan the Stephen Sondheim of our generation. It might be a lot to live up to, but he’s just so damn smart. I feel lucky and honored to be able to sing his stuff.
Jay, what have you been up to since we last chatted with you in October 2010, and what are some of your upcoming projects? How was it working with a genius like Marc Shaiman?
Jay: I most recently recorded an album for a new musical called Next Thing You Know, by Josh Salzman and Ryan Cunningham. The album features Patti Murin (Lysistrata Jones) and Colin Hanlon (Submissions Only). It should be available on iTunes within the next few months. At the end of 2011, I starred in the world premiere of Wild Animals You Should Know at The MCC theatre alongside Alice Ripley and Patrick Breen. After 35mm, I am heading out to San Diego for a few months to do a new musical called Hands on a Hardbody at La Jolla Playhouse.
Being a part of Catch Me If You Can was a brilliant experience for many reasons. The creative team is the cream of the crop and some of the classiest gentlemen in the biz. The geniuses Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote a truly incredible score, Jack O’Brien is one of the smartest directors I have had the pleasure of working with, and Jerry Mitchell painted such gorgeous theatrical pictures. Catch Me was a great show that I wish could have had a longer life on Broadway. We were part of a fantastic and highly competitive season of new musicals.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Alex: Get the word out there about this show. It is a unique experience for anyone and everyone who has ever seen a musical and thinks they know “what it’s all about.” Trust me… you have no idea.
Matt: They can stop by and support the show for our two performances and then be sure to check out all of the cast/creative team’s next steps! And, of course, spread the word.
Jay: Social media has changed the face of our business. With Facebook, Twitter, and publications like BR!NK, we can communicate what we’re up to. It’s one thing to read what is going on, but it’s another to support and spread the word.