What would you do if everyone around you sang and danced as though they were in a musical? That’s the conceit of former fellow Adam Overett’s new show, My Life is a Musical, which opened this month to great reviews at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Adam talked to the Dramatist Guild Fund about being both a writer and performer, the show’s path to production, and how to deal with people who hate musicals.
Adam Overett: It’s not far off. I think a lot of us go through life with some kind of soundtrack spinning in our heads, whether it’s our favorite songs grafted onto particular scenarios we’re experiencing or whether we’re imagining new ones. Though if my life were actually musical, it would be easier—I wouldn’t have to do the hard work of actually figuring out how to write these songs.
In the show, Parker hates musicals. Why does he hate them and, as a musical theater writer, what are your thoughts on people who say they don’t like musicals?
AO: Many people have a hard time accepting the “people bursting into song” convention of musicals—the idea of it just rubs them the wrong way, makes them uncomfortable, and they can never buy it. They think it’s cheesy and unrealistic, and I know how they feel—I think even hard-core musical lovers wince at a cheesy song cue. However, people accept all kinds of other storytelling conventions all the time. Films have soundtracks running behind them; that’s not “realistic” either, but no one finds that odd. I’ve wondered if perhaps what people really balk at, when it comes to musicals, is the open expression of a character’s emotions through song. Not all songs in musicals are about expressing honest emotion, of course, but many of them are, and since we live in a world where we’re often disguising our true feelings, repressing them, or hiding them beneath coded behavior, maybe the heightened emotional honesty of a musical is part of what makes us uncomfortable. For Parker, this ends up being exactly what’s going on. He hates living in a musical so he avoids situations that give rise to music and he comes to realize that, in order to do that, he’s been avoiding emotional connection his whole life.
When did you begin writing this show and what inspired it?
AO: I was inspired by that very question of “what makes people hate musicals?” The fact that it seems so unrealistic. And then I thought, what if that were actually someone’s reality? And what if he were the only person who experienced life that way? When he realized that everyone else thought bursting into song was unrealistic, he would realize he was different so he would hide this fact about himself, thinking it’s weird and shameful. And then I wondered, what would be the worst-nightmare situation for this person? Well, it might be being around actual music so that he couldn’t tell what was real and what was in his musical. He might be found out for the freak he thinks he is. That’s where the idea came of this character being associated with a rock band. And the story took off from there.
How did the show make its way to Bay Street Theater?
AO: I was an actor in the Off-Broadway musical Murder For Two, directed by Scott Schwartz, last year. Scott was about to begin his first year as artistic director at Bay Street and had heard I was a writer and had heard specifically about this piece, so he asked me to send it to him. He was interested and we started making plans immediately. He’s been a wonderful supporter of the show, and I’m enormously grateful to him.
My Life is a Musical. Justin Matthew Sargent as Zach, surrounded by
ensemble members Adam Daveline, Wendi Bergamini, Danyel Fulton and Brian Sills.
Kathleen Monteleone as JT and Howie Michael Smith as Parker in foreground.
Is this the first production of this musical? What scenes and/or songs do you enjoy seeing come to life onstage?
AO: The show’s had a couple of readings and a developmental lab production, but this is the first full production, the world premiere. Watching every moment come alive has been a giddy-making experience. It’s particularly amazing to see big production numbers come together, where everyone onstage is contributing a part to a larger whole, but equally gratifying are smaller moments, when you’ve tried hard to build something that works in a delicate way. Sometimes you think in despair, “This idea I had will never come across.” But when it does, when everyone in the room seems to get it after all—actors, team, audience—it’s so exciting and rewarding.
Does being an actor inform and/or enhance your writing?
AO: Absolutely. As an actor, in every scene of a script I look for a deep, specific objective—something visceral, physical, actable. When I’m writing a scene, I ask myself, is there something for an actor to play here? What exactly does this character need to make happen in this scene? What does the other character need? Are they in direct conflict? If they’re not, can I make them that way? Often, if I’m stuck on a scene, just asking these questions makes it click together. I don’t ever want to give an actor a scene they can’t play.
What other projects are you working on and what else is coming up for you?
AO: I have two other full-length shows that have had readings and some level of production that I’m trying to move forward. One is called Popesical. It’s sort of like Spelling Bee in the Sistine Chapel with all these crazy misfits competing to be the next Pope. The other is a coming-of-age fable about a boy who sails out onto the ocean to face his fear of the sea. And I’ve got about three other shows in various states of writing and development that I’m trying to get all the way out of my head and onto their feet.
Interview by Shoshana Greenberg