6 Musical Theater Songs That Perfectly Capture the Creative Process

6 Musical Theater Songs That Perfectly Capture the Creative Process

Sometimes, when I’m looking for inspiration as I write, I turn to musical theater. It makes sense that such a creative medium would be chock full of songs that capture the creative process so well. Here are some of my favorites—while a few are specific to writing, I think anyone who has ever been stuck in a creative rut can find some inspiration within them. 

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The Allure of the Repeat Visit

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic
  • @Erinsk8

As a theater fan, I’m used to people not always understanding my obsession. The thing I always have the most trouble explaining, however, is how and why I go to see the same show multiple times.

In the decade since attending my first Broadway show, I have seen at least two dozen shows more than once. About fifteen of those I have seen twice; the other nine range from three to 29 times. Here are some of the reasons why certain shows keep me coming back for more.

To see a different cast.

A cast change can often make a show you know like the back of your hand feel brand new. Specifically, I remember choosing to revisit Next to Normal when Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley replaced Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer, and the 2009 Hair revival when the new tribe was brought in the following year. Especially in shows that have been running for a while, a cast change can often breathe new life into a production and make you see the story in a different way.

To see an understudy.

The show I have seen the most times is American Idiot. Being such a high velocity, intense, physical show, its poor cast was frequently plagued by injuries and illnesses, causing them to have stretches that were sometimes months long without a single performance with the entire cast intact. The frequent understudies, however, were a large part of what kept me coming back to the show so often. It is very special to see a performer you recognize and enjoy in the ensemble or in another role step into different shoes, and every performer brings something different to every character. There were performances of Idiot where eight understudies and swings were on, most in tracks I had never seen them in before. How could you ever be bored?

To bring a friend who hasn’t seen the show.

Since moving to LA, I have revisited a lot of shows on tour that I previously saw on Broadway, often because I want my west coast friends to experience them for the first time. I was particularly thrilled to drag several of my friends to see the tour of Once, which had emotionally wrecked me in New York a couple of years prior. There were also more than a few trips to Idiot and Spring Awakening, which holds the title of my second most-seen show, for the purpose of introducing a friend or family member to something that meant so much to me (and hoping they didn’t hate it).

To attend a special performance.

Although it was the fourth time I’d seen the show, Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele’s last performance in Spring Awakening on Broadway remains one of my most cherished theater memories. Closing nights are also incredibly special, and whenever I’ve been able I have made it a point to attend the closing performance of some of my favorite shows, including Spring Awakening, American Idiot (we even got a bonus Green Day concert), and [title of show]. These performances are usually extra emotional and often geared towards the die hard fans who have kept coming back, and there is always a special atmosphere in the theater.

If it’s free.

I’ll be blunt—I’ve revisited shows I merely tolerated the first time around because I was offered free tickets. Case in point: the Rock of Ages tour. I mean, why not? And sometimes you might even surprise yourself by enjoying something more the second time around. Yay for lowered expectations!

Just because you love it.

Here’s the most important thing to remember: if a show makes you happy and you are fortunate enough to be able to, see it as many damn times as you want! You don’t need any more of a reason than that. Each theater performance is like a snowflake—there will never be another one quite like it. More often than not, you will notice something you’ve never noticed before, whether it’s a particularly beautiful harmony or a subtle moment exchanged between two actors. People who call you crazy probably have their own things they keep coming back to, whether it’s an episode of television they re-watch, a book they reread, or a song they listen to on repeat. Don’t apologize for what you love.

What shows have you revisited time and time again? Let us know in the comments!

Photo: Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie in “Next To Normal” at the Booth Theater. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Next to Normal Is Still The Best Musical Of The Last 15 Years

Erin Conley

I genuinely believe Next to Normal is the best overall musical of at least the past decade, perhaps even the past 15 years. I am aware this is a bold statement, but it is one I stand by for a multitude of reasons. 

For anyone who may be unfamiliar, Next to Normal is an original rock musical with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey that ran on Broadway from April 2009 to January 2011. It is the story of Diana Goodman, a wife and mother struggling with bipolar disorder, and the effects her illness has on her and her family. It won three 2009 Tony Awards: Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley. While it lost the Best Musical prize to Billy Elliot, a decision still hotly debated in the theater community, it became one of only 8 musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the others: Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, and Rent.) 

One thing that makes Next to Normal remarkable is that as mentioned, it is wholly original. This is more rare on Broadway than you might think. In 2014, Broadway producer Ken Davenport blogged about how only 18% of musicals from the past 30 years were wholly original, while everything else was an adaptation. To take that further, 83% of Best Musical Tony winners from the past 30 years were adaptations. There are certainly different levels of adaptations: for example, Once is based on and very similar to the musical film of the same name, whereas Kinky Boots and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder are based on a music-less movie and a book, respectively. The Book of Mormon (2011), Memphis (2010), In the Heights (2008), Avenue Q (2004), and Contact (2000) are the only wholly original Best Musical winners of the 21st century thus far. 

I have always admired the lengthy development process that went into the making of Next to Normal- it only became a Broadway success after two decades of work. Back in 1998, Kitt and Yorkey first premiered the show as a 10-minute workshop sketch called Feeling Electric. It wasn’t until 2002 that the musical had its first full-length reading, and the show continued to be tweaked over the course of several more workshops spanning the next few years. In 2008, it was produced under the name Next to Normal for the first time Off-Broadway, starring much of the cast that would eventually bring it to Broadway. Believe it or not, the show was not well-received. Critics thought it was too flashy, disagreed with its stance on the treatment of bipolar disorder, and found it to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. Kitt and Yorkey listened to these criticisms and largely reworked the show, removing much of the glitz and flash to zero in on the emotional core of the story.

At the end of that year, a new version of Next to Normal premiered regionally at Virginia’s Arena Stage, where it finally received rave reviews. The show only got to that point because its creators were so open to criticism and devoted to making the show the best it could be. They removed the controversial, formerly titular “Feeling Electric” number, which portrayed Diana receiving electroshock therapy in a way critics found to be distasteful. Also ditched was an awkwardly upbeat number where Diana shops at Costco. They also brought back a song from early versions of the show, “I’ve Been,” which allows the character of Dan, Diana’s husband, a much-needed moment to connect with the audience. While it was certainly not an easy journey to Broadway, the development process and the creators’ willingness to step back and reevaluate their work is what made the show into the critically acclaimed success it was.

Next to Normal is also notable for its honest and rare portrayal of mental illness, something that is still not incredibly common in the media. The show does not shy away from looking deep into Diana’s emotional state and addressing the controversial subjects of medication, therapy, suicide, and, perhaps most notably, the effect Diana’s illness has on those around her. In addition to learning about Diana, we also learn about her husband, who feels helpless, and her daughter, who lives in the shadow of a sibling and fears turning into her mother. While the Goodmans’ situation is extreme, the feelings and worries that result from it apply to many situations, enabling audience members to relate to the characters. 

In most musicals, I can usually note a scene or a musical number that is the weak link or doesn’t fully make sense. I can honestly say there is not a thing I would change about Next to Normal- likely because, by the time I got to see it on Broadway, it had already been through those changes and growing pains. I have seen the show a half dozen times over the years, and while I have cried every time, I don’t know that it’s ever been at the same moment. NY Times theater critic Ben Brantley famously called the show a “feel-everything musical,” and this could not be more accurate. Does the show occasionally play moments for laughs? Yes, but that is necessary to help balance out the deep heartbreak ingrained in the show’s DNA. Does Act One feature a plot twist that some may argue is heavy-handed or cliche? Yes, but it also drives what I find to be the most perfect 15 minutes of an already near-perfect musical- the stretch from “You Don’t Know” through “I’m Alive” is simply stunning, and the show smartly chose to perform a portion of it on the Tony Awards. 

In my opinion, few musicals achieve the emotional wallop of Next to Normal, and when you combine that with a stunningly solid score, book, and characters, it is a show that will go down in history as one of modern musical theater’s greatest achievements.

Interview with Hugo Medina and Sofia Yepes, Stars of LA Theatre Center’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea

Erin Conley

Hugo Medina and Sofia Yepes are currently starring in John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. The play, which takes place over less than a 24 hour period, is the story of two damaged strangers who meet at a bar in the Bronx. Over the course of the night, they confess past sins, fight (both physically and verbally), and ultimately find some semblance of the comfort they’ve been so desperately seeking. I had the opportunity to speak with Medina and Yepes about how the production came to be, the toll of performing such an intense piece, and what they think would happen in a sequel to the play.

Erin Conley, On Stage: How did you come to be involved with the production?

Hugo Medina (Danny): I’ve wanted to do this play for a very long time, since grad school. Oneday Sofia and I just kind of read the play, sitting on a couch, just to get a feel for it, and it naturally dropped in and felt crazy awesome, authentic, and connected in a way that was very
surprising to both of us. We started hitting up directors and theaters that we knew and we came across Fidel (Gonez), our director, and he seemed to be the only person more excited than I was about this play. We just knew we had to put our minds together to make this happen.

EC: Sofia, were you also familiar with the play beforehand?

Sofia Yepes (Roberta): No, I had never read the play before Hugo brought it to my attention. I read it first at home and I was kind of blown away. I’m sure you know Shanley’s work; he’s kind of intense. So yes, it was my first introduction, not to Shanley, but to Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.

The cast of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea

The cast of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea

EC: The play is obviously very intense, and I can imagine it must be very exhausting to perform. How do you handle that intensity from performance to performance?

SY: With lots of laughter, I think. Finding ways to laugh in between. With the physical stuff, we’re lucky that we had a great fight choreographer (Edgar Landa) so it’s not as bad as it looks, and with the mentally draining part about it, there’s not much that we can do except try to let it go at the end of the night and try to enjoy ourselves and the people who came to support and forget all about it Monday through Wednesday.

HM: There’s no way around the exhaustion, I think. I mean, it’s definitely draining for me physically and mentally, but because it’s been such an exciting journey, the exhaustion just ends up feeling really good. There’s an immense satisfaction that comes with it even if we are
exhausted and sweaty and bruised.

EC: While the play is very dark and dramatic, there are also moments of near-comedy. Do you have a favorite moment?

SY: My favorite moment in the play actually had a technical difficulty last night! When I go to the radio to set the mood for us to be romantic with each other, Taylor Swift was supposed to come on, and that’s my ultimate moment because I just turn around kind of like “yeah, you know this song.” I just love the pause in the intensity and really kind of sinking into that okay, we’re going to go into romance now, and just have fun with it. That’s my favorite part for sure.

EC: I didn’t even notice anything went wrong, you covered very well.

SY: That’s when I started singing!

HM: There’s a part where she says “you have such beautiful eyes” and he blushes and says “shut up!” It’s really the first time in the play where he kind of sheds a layer and it’s also the first comedic moment that’s supposed to be funny, because I think there’s some parts in the first scene that are funny without meaning to be. I just really have fun with that moment.

EC: The production is very immersive, with the audience right there in the middle of the action. Have you found that the energy of each specific audience affects the show?

Both: Absolutely.

HM: I feel like depending on who’s there—you know, when it’s family, it’s a whole other thing, but more than anything it’s just how engaged and connected the audience is that really makes a difference because we can feel it. We can feel the dead silence when it’s intimate and serious and we can feel the humor when they’re cracking up, and even when they’re feeling empathy or compassion for us that is completely felt.

EC: The play has a bit of an ambiguous ending, and Roberta and Danny’s future is left uncertain. What do you think happens to these characters after the end of the play?

SY: I had some friends come with their 18-year-old son. I was very interested to hear what he thought about the play. After the play they were discussing it and the parents and the grandmother loved it and were really into it and here comes their son and he says, “I hated it! It was too dark, it was depressing, it was horrible!” His family was like “what are you talking about? There’s hope at the end! It’s great, it gives us all hope!” He said “they’re not gonna make it!” I think for me sometimes I feel like we are and sometimes I feel like we’re not, like who are we kidding? I think it changes for me every night, to be honest.

HM: I think the beauty of the relationship and the ending is not so much if there’s going to be a happy ending or if they’re going to end up together, I think it’s just that for the first time in their lives they have a glimpse of hope. They start off being extremely violent and extremely
ashamed of who they are and in less than 24 hours they make a 360 degree shift where there are now possibilities in their lives. I think that’s the hope we kind of hope to leave the audience with, but along with that comes the reality of how messed up these characters are.

EC: Is there anything else we haven’t discussed that you’d like to mention?

HM: We were discussing what the sequel would be if we were to write what the relationship would look like a year from then, assuming they did get married, and how dysfunctional would that be but how full of love would it still be. And I think perhaps it’s that dynamic of dysfunction within love that perhaps a lot of families relate to that makes it such a unique relationship for the characters. I also just wanted to say this is the first time I worked with Sofia and it’s been such a joy. We allowed ourselves to surprise ourselves constantly and be vulnerable. I was saying yesterday how in order for this play to work you really have to allow yourselves to be really vulnerable with each other on stage.

SY: And trust each other.

HM: And trust each other, yeah. It’s taken a lot of courage on our end to just see ourselves be vulnerable on stage and commit so hard with the emotions and the violence and with our bodies and our hearts, and that’s been great.

This production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea plays its final performance this Saturday, August 1st. For more information on LA Theatre Center’s upcoming productions, please visit theLATC.org.

Everything you need to know about Spring Awakening’s potential return to Broadway

Erin Conley

This morning, theater fans around the world rejoiced at the news that Spring Awakening is poised for a Broadway revival. First reported by Deadline, rumor is, the acclaimed production recently presented in Los Angeles by Deaf West Theatre and director Michael Arden’s Forest of Arden will transfer to Broadway this fall, as soon as producer Ken Davenport is able to secure a theater. 

While many fans are ecstatic, others seem to think this revival is happening perhaps too soon, considering the original production, which won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical and launched the careers of Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, John Gallagher Jr, Skylar Astin, and more, opened in 2006, just under a decade ago. This turnaround would be much quicker than that of most musical revivals, but there are a few important things to know about what would make this production very different from the Spring Awakening most fans know and love. 

The Deaf West production is presented simultaneously in English and American Sign Language. 

Deaf West is an LA-based theater company whose mission is to produce theater that is fully accessible to both communities. Their Spring Awakening has been produced twice in LA, first at Inner-City Arts’ 99-seat Rosenthal Theater in the fall of 2014 and more recently at the significantly larger 500-seat Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. Both runs were critically acclaimed and financially successful, and there has been buzz about a possible NY transfer since the Annenberg run concluded less than a month ago. 

The cast, which remained largely consistent for both runs, was comprised of half hearing actors and half deaf or hard-of-hearing actors. While every member of the cast used ASL, the characters portrayed by deaf actors (characters very intentionally chosen by Arden) were paired with a hearing actor who portrayed their “voice,” mirroring them, playing an instrument, singing the songs, and delivering the dialogue in English while their deaf counterpart did so in ASL. The production also featured new choreography by Spencer Liff, who seamlessly wove ASL into the movement to great effect.

This would not be the first time a Deaf West production transferred to Broadway. 

Their acclaimed production of Big River opened on Broadway in 2003, where it ran for 28 previews and 67 performances. The role of Tom Sawyer was played by a young Michael Arden in his Broadway debut.  About half the characters, including the leading role of Huck, were played by deaf or hard-of-hearing performers. All dialogue and lyrics in the production were both spoken or sung and signed, making the production equally accessible to hearing and deaf audiences. The character of Mark Twain (portrayed by Daniel H. Jenkins, who portrayed the role of Huck in the original Broadway cast) was expanded, so that that actor also provided the voice of Huck, portrayed by Tyrone Giordano, who is deaf. The production would be nominated for two Tony Awards and won a Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre. 

Original Broadway cast member Krysta Rodriguez and 1st National Tour cast member Andy Mientus appeared in the most recent iteration. 

Among the cast changes for the 2015 Annenberg production were the addition of two well-known Spring Awakening alums. Rodriguez, who was a swing in the original Broadway production, played Ilse, a role she used to understudy. Mientus reprised the role of Hanschen, which he previously played on the 1st National Tour. There is currently no news on casting for the potential Broadway production. 

Michael Arden’s backstory for the concept is fascinating. 

Back in September, Arden told Theatermania about his concept for the production, which he initially developed with Mientus, who happens to be his fiancé. He imagines this version of the small German town where the show takes place has been hit by an epidemic that left many people without hearing. What makes Spring Awakening different from Deaf West’s prior productions is that for the first time, the fact that some characters are deaf and some are hearing is commented on and incorporated into the plot. Moritz and Wendla are among the characters played by deaf actors, which adds even more depth to their already tragic arcs. 

It would be Spring Awakening as you’ve never seen it before, in the best way possible. 

I was fortunate enough to see both iterations of the Deaf West production in LA. Having seen the Broadway production and national tours around a dozen times combined over the years, I couldn’t believe how much this stunning iteration of the show opened my eyes to aspects of the story I’d never considered before. It truly felt like seeing it for the first time, which is impressive for a work I felt so familiar with. I have never believed Spring Awakening to be a perfect show as written, but this production succeeded in finding an answer for many of the moments I once found lacking in character development or depth. I truly believe this is Spring Awakening the way it was always meant to be staged, and I hope the Broadway transfer rumors are true so more audience members can experience its magic. 

Click here to read OnStage's review of Deaf West Theatre's production of Spring Awakening:

10 Must-Know Locations for LA Theater Fans

Erin Conley

When I first moved to LA four years ago, I was nervous about the theater situation. Having spent the first 22 years of my life living within 3 hours of New York City, I was concerned I’d be disappointed by the quantity, quality, or accessibility of theater. Luckily, LA has proved me wrong. While no other city can ever compare to New York, I now truly believe LA has the second best theater scene in the country.

Sure, seeing theater is not always as simple here. While in New York I would often spontaneously get tickets to a show day of, LA life requires a bit more planning. Between traffic and the fact that runs are usually more limited and therefore often more difficult to get a ticket to,  I almost always plan my theater excursions in advance now (with occasional exceptions). Whether you’re looking for the biggest national tours or more intimate, local shows, the LA theater scene has a lot to offer even the most discerning theatergoer.

Here are 10 places any LA theater fan should familiarize themselves with. In no particular order:

1)    The Pantages Theater

Owned by the Nederlanders, this massive 2,703 seat venue is the number one stop for national touring productions when they come through LA. Their 2015-2016 season includes If/Then, Bullets Over Broadway, 42nd Street, and Beautiful. If you’re on a budget, keep an eye out for pre-show lotteries that some productions will hold, as well as Ticketmaster for cheap seats (often as low as $25) on the very edges of the orchestra.

2)    Center Theatre Group 

Their three non-profit theaters, the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Kirk Douglas Theater feature a combination of large touring productions, exclusive limited runs, and new works. The Ahmanson is currently home to the kick-off stop on the Matilda tour and will feature The Sound of Music, The Bridges of Madison County, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, and Titanic later in the season. Meanwhile, the Taper will host Martin Sherman’s Bent and the Kirk Douglas the new musical Girlfriend this summer.

3)    The Geffen Playhouse

What I love about the Geffen is their frequent pre and post show events, which include “Talk Back Tuesdays,” a “Girls Night Out” event for each production, “Lounge Fridays,” and “Wine Down Sundays,” featuring a complimentary wine tasting in the lobby. This fall they will host the west coast premiere of These Paper Bullets, which features music and lyrics by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.

4)    Rockwell Table & Stage

I find this fun cabaret-style venue to be LA’s answer to New York’s Joe’s Pub and 54 Below. Home to the “For the Record” concert series for years, you can currently take in either Cruel Intentions: The Unauthorized Musical Parody (which I highly recommend) or Romeo & Juliet: Love is a Battlefield while enjoying cocktails and food.

5)    North Hollywood Arts District 

This neighborhood is actually home to the highest concentration of operating theaters in a single square mile in the country, outside of New York. With some tickets as low as $15 and a great selection of nearby restaurants and bars, it’s the perfect choice for a theater night out.

6)    LA Theatre Works

This non-profit hosts an annual “radio theatre series,” where they combine audio theater, technology, and celebrities to produce various classic and contemporary plays, usually for one weekend only. Their 2015-2016 season is set to include Steel Magnolias, Jane Eyre, American Buffalo, God of Carnage, and more. Actors already scheduled to appear include Richard Dreyfuss, Kate Burton, and Jane Kaczmarek.

7)    Deaf West Theatre

This incredibly unique theater company produces plays and musicals in American Sign Language and English simultaneously to make the works fully accessible to both communities. They are currently coming off an incredibly successful and acclaimed run of Spring Awakening, directed by Michael Arden, which was probably the best piece of theater I have seen in LA to date.

8)    The Hollywood Bowl

I am mostly including the Bowl for their annual, star-studded, fully staged musical. I have seen Hairspray, The Producers, Chicago, and Hair, and this summer they are doing Spamalot. While I recommend low expectations considering the frequent stunt casting and brief rehearsal time, you can bring your own wine and snacks and have a really fun summer night out at one of LA’s most famous venues.

9)    La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Located about 20 miles outside of LA, this frequent award winner always has a great season line-up for those willing to venture a bit outside city limits. Their upcoming season includes the west coast premiere of First Date, Rent, the pre-Broadway run of Empire: The Musical, about the construction of the Empire State Building, Dreamgirls, and The Little Mermaid.

10) La Jolla Playhouse

Located nearly 2 hours from LA, this one is much more of a commitment, but is frequently the home to some of the highest profile pre-Broadway tryouts on the west coast. Currently home to world premiere musical Come From Away, La Jolla will next feature the debut of Up Here, a new musical comedy from Frozen writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

Any I missed? What is your favorite place to enjoy theater in LA?