Even if you don’t know his name, you know the work of Stephen Flaherty. This New York based composer has given music theatre some of the greatest works of the last 20 years with Ragtime, Once on this Island, the animated film Anastasia and Seussical The Musical to name a few.
What you might not know is that a brand new theatre company in Melbourne have taken one of Flaherty’s lesser known works – Loving Repeating, a musical set to the writings of American poet, novelist and playwright Gertrude Stein – and staged the very first professional production in this country at Chapel off Chapel.
And by all accounts, the show is absolutely wonderful.
Starring Caitlin Berry, Jennifer Peers and Deidre Rubenstein as Gertrude Stein throughout her life, the show is directed by established theatrical visionary Jason Langley with choreography from the fresh and innovative mind of Michael Ralph.
We sent some questions to Stephen Flaherty to learn a little more about this little known work, currently playing at Chapel Off Chapel thanks to Vic Theatre Company as part of the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne. Make sure you read all the way to the end – there are some wonderful gems of information peppered throughout Stephen’s responses!
Why Gertrude Stein?
The idea for Loving Repeating came from my collaborator, Director-Writer Frank Galati. I had worked with Frank on the Broadway musicals Ragtime and Seussical and he had always had a fondness or the like and work of Gertrude Stein. He had previously adapted a piece about her for the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and had directed her opera (with a musical score by Virgil Thomson) Four Saints in Three Acts for Chicago Lyric Opera.
With Loving Repeating, he wanted to show that Stein was not strictly cerebral in her wordplay, as had often been stated, but playful, funny and sly. He wanted the piece to feature a very young cast so we first on the piece at Northwestern University in Illinois where Frank taught. This early draft, titled “A Long Gay Book” after Stein, featured an all-student cast with drama teacher Cindy Gold as the adult Stein.
Is it exciting for you when a show such as Loving Repeating is produced? Are you itching to see what we have done with it?
Absolutely! That is one of the joys of theater. It is a constant dialogue between creators and interpreters and the audience. Unlike film, it is never “in the can” – theatre is always an ongoing, ever-evolving form, which is why I love it. I hope your production brings many new things to light!
Musically you have set up an absolute feast in Loving Repeating. How did you and Frank Galati decide which of Gertrude’s writings would fit into song in the context of the show?
Frank wrote the piece, which only uses Stein’s words, as a through-composed libretto. It was never indicated when one “song” began and another took over.
It was Frank’s “rule” that no words other than Stein’s could be used in the course of the evening, which certainly made it tricky for some transitions!
I just began to set the text, checking in with Frank every now and then. It was very free-form and liberating. Both challenging and thrilling to have that kind of freedom
But it was also the first time I had not worked with my regular collaborator, lyricist-librettist Lynn Ahrens. I couldn’t ask Gertrude for a “rewrite” of a section. What she had already written was what it would have to be! So that was a personal challenge.
Gertrude’s text has almost no punctuation – how did you go about creating musical phrases to match the intention behind the lyric?
I actually had Frank Galati read the entire playscript as Gertrude into a tape recorder! He is a wonderful actor and acted the part surprisingly well!
His performance gave me many clues into Stein’s intent as well as into Frank’s intent as an adaptor of Ms Stein’s words. This recording, made on an old walkman into a cassette, really helped me to “crack the nut” of the piece and helped me with Stein’s rhythms and language. It illuminated the world of Stein for me.
What is it about this piece that are you most proud of?
That is is as idiosyncratic as it is. I wanted the music to be eclectic and surprising, playful and vibrant. I wanted the piece to follow no set rules, to be as idiosyncratic as its author. I also wanted it to be accessible on a first hearing. I was hoping that the music would help illuminate the text of Stein and offer the audience a way into this singular world.
You’ve written for film, large scale music theatre and also smaller works. Where do you feel Loving Repeating fits within your canon?
[pull_left]I am thrilled that the piece has come to Australian and am excited for new audiences to connect with it[/pull_left]
I think it is a surprising chamber piece that celebrates the creative artistic spirit as well as a creative, intuitive, unconventional lifestyle. It is unique and hard-to-describe, which is what Frank and I were hoping for. I think it surprises people and some audiences frankly don’t know what to do with it! But I am thrilled that the piece has come to Australian and am excited for new audiences to connect with it.
In my ‘canon’ it will never be a Ragtime or an Anastasia – that was never the intention. But I do hope that it makes people think and feel with their hearts and minds… and leave the theater thinking about the show the next day and the day after that…
For you, when writing music for theatre, what comes first? Music or lyrics? Or is it a collaboration?
It happens both ways. But for Loving Repeating it was always Ms Stein first! Words firstly, music following.
I guess I’m asking if this is the order in which you would usually work?
It is always different in writing for the theater. In my work with Lynn sometimes music is first (as in ‘Ragtime’), sometimes words are first (as in ‘Back to Before’, also from Ragtime). There is no formula for this ever. However with Loving Repeating it is the first time that it was always “words first”.
What do you think is the most important message of this musical?
Live your own unique life to the fullest and celebrate every day to the fullest, whether that means creating an amazing work of art or the best salad you’ve ever made. It’s the same thing.
Will you be coming to Australia any time soon?
Not as far as I know. I am currently New York-based, although I have a second home in Mexico. This year I will be working in San Diego, California, Germany and perhaps Los Angeles. But I love Australia and had a wonderful time my last visit there in 2009, so I am always open!
What’s next on the horizon for Stephen Flaherty?
I am developing my animated film Anastasia for the stage with Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Terence McNally (book) and we have a forthcoming workshop in New York to be directed by Darko Tresjnak (A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder). Also there are plans for Lynn and my Little Dancer to be further developed this summer after its premiere this past fall in Washington D.C at the Kennedy Center.
I also have a new dance musical that I am developing with the director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies) and 10 celebrated American playwrights called In Your Arms. It centers around the idea of romantic destiny and I am the sole composer for the piece. It premieres this September at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. I can’t wait for that!
Loving Repeating is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until February 8, 2015. With a cast this good and a production this strong, tickets to this show are going to fly out the door.
Book via chapeloffchapel.com.au.