“My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” To Go Off-Broadway
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com.
By Robert Encila-Celdran
It’s rush hour on a Friday afternoon and I have the good fortune to locate a parking spot across the lane from the Temple of Music and Art. I don’t recall parking this close to the building in my years as a patron of Arizona Theatre Company.
Of course, my sense of privilege is short-lived. I’m well aware that since most theatre companies haven’t seen the light of day for a good year and a half, parking is the least of myriad problems.
The downtown neighborhood feels eerily somber, and a sense of collective dread about social gathering remains. But because our souls are struggling, the arts won’t stay dormant for long — ATC, for one, is poised to put its old concerns behind as it faces a new challenge, post-quarantine, with a slate of new works.
“New” is the operative component. Not to sound mawkish, but there’s an aura of novelty and innovation at ATC that we haven’t felt for some time. Artistic director Sean Daniels shares a unique perspective on the arts that tells me he’s attuned to what’s trending nationally. Citing his intrepid programming makeover, Daniels is compelled to position the company as a pioneering force in the industry.
Two weeks away from re-opening those sacred doors, he’s about to prove his mettle to an anxious audience.
That said, it’s hard to ignore his unassuming and folksy demeanor. Chalk it up, perhaps, to his jaunt full-circle, having traversed the theatre circuit of New York City, The Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Merrimack Repertory Theatre of Massachusetts only to settle back in his home State of Arizona, where as a young lad he saw ATC productions that inspired a future career in the theatre. It’s clear to see he’s a proud Arizonan.
Daniels had barely begun his new post when COVID-19 dashed everyone’s ambitions. However, the shutdown didn’t stop him from setting some lofty goals; he continued to reach out to his donor base and set up shop with his eager eyes on the future. He comports himself as someone with skin in the game, a sense of ownership that isn’t lost on stakeholders who track the company’s trajectory. We love to see a nice guy go big before any of us can recognize the endgame.
Accessibility is part of Daniels’ makeup. I had suggested a Zoom interview and got invited instead to a live rehearsal to meet the fine people tasked with developing a new musical that opens the season: MY 80 YEAR-OLD BOYFRIEND. Forget the parking space; this, here, is the real privilege.
Among other highlights, the show is a Kleban award-winner for best new libretto. It opens in Tucson and closes in Phoenix before it starts its run Off-Broadway. (Plans are underway to stage another show next season on London’s West End.)
You’ll have to excuse Sean Daniels for assuming a ready-made bromide about ATC being “a local theatre company that the world pays attention to.” But it’s not lip service; he intones the phrase like an exalted mantra.
He extends a welcome by meeting me at the parking lot, then ushers me to the rehearsal hall where I find Charissa Bertels hard at work with her choreographer, Ashlee Wasmund, accompanied by pianist and music director Jose Simbulan.
First impression: Charissa is a first-rate singer with a remarkable physical presence. She is also the mastermind of this bold new piece, an idea birthed in the aftermath of her Broadway run of A CHRISTMAS STORY several years ago.
Sean calls a rehearsal break, everyone is introduced and we circle up for a casual but instructive discussion.
BWW: I want to start by acknowledging how different and exciting this season looks. But I keep going back to playing devil’s advocate. What do you say to a longtime subscriber who doesn’t recognize any of the shows? How do you respond to someone who wants to know when you’re going to do a revival of their favorite musical?
Sean Daniels: I say: Hold your breath…there’s no reason why we can’t start in Arizona and go on to the rest of the world. We’re going to begin to reflect more on the community that we have here. Every show that we do should look like Arizona, which is an incredibly diverse State. I’m from Mesa, and we have a lot of Arizonans here in the room; it’s important that you shouldn’t have to move away to be able to work at your home regional theatre. Which is the case, literally, everywhere you go — you have to always leave to be able to come back.
Also, I just think that for so long, the work has been solid, but we have always done a lot of “taking the work in” from other places. New York kind of dictates what culture is in our country, but we’re interested in creating work that goes elsewhere. So this show will go to New York, and we have another show later this season — HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN SON — that’s also going to New York, at The Rattlestick. And that’s what we wanted people to see, that work gets developed here, and that fingerprints of Arizona are all over everything that goes out to the world.
The thing that Arizona is known for is spring training, right? If you want to see the best in the world for a quarter of the price and be that much closer to it, there’s no reason why that metaphor can’t carry directly into theatre. I mean, you can come see the show now or you can pay four times the price in a year and a hundred more seats away.
BWW: It’s such a pleasure to witness you all at work. I’d love to hear a little bit about the genesis of the creative process.
Charissa Bertels: Basically, I did A CHRISTMAS STORY on Broadway and then I thought, “now what?” You know, you have this dream of being on Broadway for years and years, and then you get there and you haven’t really thought past that point. And I was like — what AM I gonna do with myself now? Do I just go back to the hustle and try to grind and grind and grind and get another Broadway show? But new work has always really appealed to me, and I wanted to create something new. I wanted the challenge of doing a one-woman show, but I wanted it to be a story that I thought was worth telling. And then this thing happened to me in real life, and I thought, “This is it.” This is the story I want to tell the world, where you can pay attention to strangers and find somebody who’s radically different from you and you can develop a really meaningful friendship, and you just look up and try to connect. And so, okay, how do I make this happen?
I don’t consider myself a writer, but luckily my best friend is [points to Christian Duhamel]…I only had to do a little arm-twisting, and he said “yeah, totally.” And he said, I think we should bring somebody else on to write the music, and Ed (Edward Bell) might be a great fit…We signed up for a new work festival where they would let you submit 10 pages or a full musical, or whatever. You just have to promise them — these are how many minutes of entertainment we will provide. But we had not written a single thing, we had nothing on paper, and we promised them 40 minutes of material in three weeks. And then we got in…it was the impetus we needed to really make it happen. After that, it kept going; oh yeah, this is a thing, people respond to it, and let’s make it a full musical.
ED BELL: And this was, like, seven and a half years ago. What’s hilarious is that some of those songs went in the trash pretty quickly…at least two of those songs are almost exactly the same today, just kind of sailed through without tons of changes.
BWW: Excellent. Now had you and Christian known each other before?
ED: So these guys have been best friends, and I always say I’m employee number 3. The original third wheel. I’m from the UK originally, moved to New York to be in the BMI program, Christian had moved from Seattle a few months before, so we were both relatively fresh in New York. BMI is an amazing program where there’s like, 15 lyricists and 15 composers, and basically, for the first year, they pair you for different combinations. And you write these assignment songs and share them with the group and get feedback. We never worked together at BMI but we definitely admired each other and the work we were doing. So we’d become friends and chatted a little bit in those first few months, and then one day Christian was like, “Hey, so I have this friend, she has this idea of a thing. We wanted to ask you first, to kind of chat about it.” We chatted a lot about the story and how interesting it was, and how we didn’t just want to write a cabaret. We wanted to write a full-blooded musical…but for one actress. So three of us got together, and we were like, hey, should we do this thing? So it was a little bit like baptism by fire…well, the worst thing that happens is we spend three weeks churning all this stuff out and the show we have is the thing we want to pursue…Tons of our friends came, and they were like “this was really moving and amazing, and I really hope this goes somewhere.” It’s good to hear that from friends and artists we admire. And I think that was the beginning.
BWW: So it sounds like you not only met the deadline, but you also moved some hearts in the process.
Christian Duhamel: One of the early conversations was — there’s a world where Charissa takes these super-charming and heartwarming stories, and takes tunes that we love from other musicals, and goes to 54 BELOW and tells a story, and sings the song we know and relate it to the next story and it just trots along. And that’s an hour, but I think that as we talked from a creative standpoint, especially for me, if I’m gonna do this I don’t want to just write a cabaret show. I want to take the audience through an experience that tracks and has an arc and brings us through what we would get in a full musical. So that became the challenge: How do you write a one-woman, full-length book musical? And that’s what we’ve done.
ED BELL: I’ve written songs for different projects before, I’ve performed in New York; I’ve music-directed SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, which is an amazing piece, but it’s not a story piece. It’s like, sixteen little stories. And I think we both felt…we’re gonna write a piece for a cast of twenty, and that’s not gonna happen. What has a reasonable chance of being produced? So the run-through today was the first time I’d seen the whole show to the end in like, four years. Oh wow, this really is a story; this is a whole journey you can take people on…These characters are amazing; this show is really powerful and life-changing.
BWW: You’ve done this show before — I believe at Merrimack Repertory? I’m curious to know how much of it has changed, given the amount of time you’ve had to reflect on it.
ED: Yeah, good question.
CHARISSA: Yup. This time, we really wanted to tackle the opening, because the opening we had at MRT was frantic. It was hectic, it tackled a bunch of different locations. It was a little cinematic in a way that didn’t work on stage as well. We wanted the audience to not feel stressed… What we wanted the audience to feel was that this woman is capable of taking us on this journey over the process of this whole show. We feel like we’re in capable hands. We’re ready to go on this journey with her instead of like, “Oh my God, New York is so hard, now I’m gonna have a heart attack.” It was too much. So this summer we had a workshop, over zoom. They put together a new opening.
CHRISTIAN: There is this section similar to that energy of “oh, there’s just so much.” Sort of in the middle of the show, about this twelve-minute section where there were emotional turns that we asked of the audience that came too fast on the backs of each other, and so she was exhausted trying to make it happen. The audience was exhausted because they didn’t have time to process the emotional experience. So we left that production at MRT with this idea that you have to take a look at something in there, because it doesn’t really work for the performer on stage, and it really doesn’t let the audience still feel that calm experience of going through the show. So we re-ordered that, which is feeling good so far. It’s mostly just letting the audience feel that right amount of tension as Charissa is taking them on the journey.
BWW: I understand Jose (Simbulan) came late in the process.
CHARISSA: More like “came to save us.”
BWW: Talk a little bit about what your life was like — and your career, for that matter — during the pandemic until the day you got the call to play and be the music director.
Jose: I was working at Actors Theatre of Louisville when the whole thing shut down. I’d gone home to check on my dad in Richmond, and the next day after that everything else shut down. I left New York the last week of February of last year, and my first time back was this past July…On my birthday week I went to see some friends just to kind of play the landscape, things were reopening, [I was] talking with my regular contacts. And after my birthday I decide to stay in, and 10 minutes later I get a text…
CHARISSA: “My friend says you’re great. Can you come?”
JOSE: Then 18 hours later I get a call from Sean making me the offer. For the next three days — New York, Richmond, D.C. — what do I have to pack? I kinda knew early on that it (pandemic) was not gonna be two weeks, or two months. And I know that’s what saved me, mentally, because I wasn’t waking up everyday hoping for a call to come in, or thinking that a call would come in. And I actually got back to practicing on my own. I went back to relearn my senior recital. I just kind of did it — my dad said my brother was up in Fairfax and we would just go up on the weekends and visit him. So I was able to really have an amazing down time. It was just nice to have the time, and it was actually the perfect amount of time. And I think the nice cool thing about this is that I had the week in July and the week in August and I had other things that just happened, and I was in town…other weird things happened, and then I got this. If anything, it’s a nice way for me to get back into the swing of things…and the fact that it is about New York and it’s actually about the neighborhood I know very well because it’s where I live…it truly is the perfect birthday gift to get…It’s a really wonderful situation for me to be in, just really good people, a good company, wonderful show, good material. There’s still a tie for New York, so after we’re done with this we’ll go back, and it’s a nice way to kind of sneak back into things. And just notice how all of us are actually connected to New York.
BWW: Ashley, I hear you came all the way from Western Carolina to choreograph the show. What’s it like being in Tucson?
ASHLEY: It’s really hot… No, it’s been lovely. And I’m happy to answer after all of this talk about the warmth of it all.
BWW: Had you worked on the piece before, or is this the first time?
ASHLEY: No, Ed is the third wheel and I’m in the triple digits. I had just been hounding Sean for about three years to try and get in the room with him and this is the show that it finally worked out on. This show is beautiful and it’s such a privilege to get to work on, and with these incredibly warm and talented artists.
CHARISSA: This time around, the choreography…it’s amazing to have a person dedicated to that. Last time, Christian was wearing all the hats. It’s really awesome to have Ashley here in the room as an extra director and a movement specialist, just to help us take those new things and make them great.
BWW: So, wrapping up, what do we want to tell the State of Arizona about what’s cooking at Arizona Theatre Company?
Sean Daniels: What I love about this show, and why it’s such a perfect show to come back from the pandemic, is that it’s really a show about looking for similarities and not differences. And really — how do we learn to love each other again? First of all, in our country, that is the question: Will we ever get along with people we don’t get along with? [This is] a musical that says you may not agree with everything about somebody, but there is a lot to love in them because they’re a fellow human being. It’s kind of a radical act to put on stage. And to say that we can learn to love people even if we disagree — I mean, part of what Charissa has trouble with Milton is that he’s of a different generation, has a different way of thinking about economics and gender roles and those types of things. I think what’s actually kind of amazing about the show is that by the end of the show it’s not that he tosses all of that out — he still is who he is — but they learn to really connect with each other and say, “I see you as a person, I respect you as a person, we’re both gonna work on each other, and try to improve, because none of us is perfect.” And THAT is an amazing story to tell right now as we come back.