FROM THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
by Thom Hilton
Recently I got together with director Marci Crowson, music director Darcy White, and choreographer Sara Martins, the creative dream-team behind OCT’s premiere musical Zombie in Love to talk about the process of developing a brand new production.
Thom: First off, what is the editing process like from the first draft to the final product?
Marci Crowson [director]: We’ve gone through probably three or four different drafts and all of them have been pretty radically different. It's always been about going back to the book, and wanting to tell the story of Mortimer, and really keep the heart of the story authentic to what the book feels like.
Thom: What about the process of songs being cut, added, or replaced?
Marci: Those decisions about what songs went away were really the composers' [Michelle Elliott and Danny Larsen] choices … There was a song in an early draft at the very end of the play that was really, really funny and a great song … But it was one we ultimately concluded, " I’m not sure that that’s what we wanna say at the very end.”
(Marci then goes on to talk about a duet between Mortimer and Mildred that was cut after being used throughout the show’s audition process and developmental workshop.)
Marci: There was one song that we hated losing, called ‘Idaho,’ that is gorgeous. But Danny and Michelle created a new song that musically keeps a lot of those same tones, and emotionally is exactly what needs to happen at that moment. So I really applaud them for not being precious about their work … They’ve really been willing to make those hard decisions to serve the larger story.
Thom: What about from a technical standpoint? How do you figure out when it’s right to change keys and tempos?
Marci: There are always things that you can’t learn until you’re rehearsing, and until you have the show cast. Danny and Michelle have been really wonderful about working with Darcy to find moments where we can push Blake’s [actor Blake Peeble portraying Mortimer] range. But there are also moments we've made changes to get the best out of the song.
Darcy White [music director]: I started working with Blake a little bit before rehearsals officially started. We changed keys on a couple of numbers to sit better in his range [and] to make a positive impact for him and not affect the other singers. We discussed whether or not it would impact [the composer’s] vision of how the character would sing and when it was determined that it wouldn't, he made the changes. We have given input regarding hearing cues more clearly, some tempo change suggestions, transition music extensions, etc.
Marci: To their credit, again, they’ve been very receptive to saying “Oh yeah, let’s find a solution to that! Oh, you need transition music? Let me write something for you!”
Thom: What is it like watching the rehearsal process and communicating with the writing team to make this the best possible thing it can be?
Darcy: (who has worked with Marci and Sara before, says that they make a good team): We each bring a different sense to the production and communicate well together. Although as the director, Marci has the final say, Sara and I both are comfortable exploring ideas as a group and always feel heard and respected from auditions through opening night… Each of us watches the run with a different focus. We all see the big picture, but I'm listening intently for all four parts being sung clearly and in balance, Sara is watching movement, and Marci -- well, Marci just watches everything!!!!
For choreographer Sara Martins, it always starts from the ground up: Normally when we do a musical, the director and musical director have tangible source material to work with as both a starting point, and something to adhere to. There's a preexisting script and score. So while there is still a great deal of room for interpretation and artistic choices, they have existing material to work with.
With choreography, I always have to kind of start from scratch. There's no annotated movement vocabulary that gets handed to me, so it's always a matter of looking at the script, listening to the score, and working with the director to figure out what story needs to be told with the movement, what logistics have to happen in a musical number, and what we'd like to see stylistically. Then it's up to me to build the choreography and create a world within the play that tells the story, works well with the music, and provides visual interest.
Working on a new piece like Zombie is an adventure. Throughout the rehearsal process, the play continues to evolve as we see what works and what doesn't, and how improvements could be made. That's really unique. As a creative team, it means that our process is much more liquid, and even more collaborative than usual. It's such an exciting process.
Thom: Was there ever a specific style of music you really wanted to be established in this Zombie world?
Marci Crowson: We did not overly steer them about the style of the music. We knew that we wanted to use young performers. So we wanted it to feel exciting and relevant and modern and I think they’ve done a really good job of kind of blending styles of music in a way that feels really fresh. But you do hear influences from older styles. I have to give full credit to them for kind of tapping into the style of the music because we really let them run with that. … It’s an interesting piece because there is such pathos with Mort’s struggle to find love, but it’s also incredibly funny. The illustrations evoke emotion but they’re also hilarious in all their detail with the worms and arms falling off and things like that. You wanna serve the humor. With a play like this, and especially with zombies, which I have a special affection for, it’s really easy to kind of go with the sense of both the macabre and the hilarious.
Thom: Even in trying to describe the show I have a difficult time because it’s so intricate. It’s a show about zombies, but it’s not, because it’s a show about high school kids. It’s a rock musical, but it’s really not. It’s just so many different things and it’s so crazy-detailed, just like the book. It’s so different and weird and fun and it resonates with so many different types of people.
The writing/composing duo behind it all, Danny Larsen and Michelle Elliott, have written a pretty broad range of musicals. Their previous work shows that they were the right ones to capture the story of Mortimer. Not only are they experienced in the realm of children’s theatre (Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly) but they also are getting a lot of attention writing for the contemporary young outsider. The protagonist in their musical The Yellow Wood is a high school student dealing with attention-deficit disorder, and their hit new musical web series The Hinterlands deals primarily with the topic of gay bullying.
Marci: They’ve also translated it into a new world, into a high school, which I think is really wonderful … As we’ve been in rehearsal, it makes so much sense in that world. There’s so much to say about young people, especially right now, feeling ‘other than’ and not really feeling accepted. Mort is such a great metaphor for that idea of being different. It’s not about him finding a date. It’s really about him finding acceptance and love. It’s a lofty thing for a story about zombies, but it’s really special that way. It’s something like Little Shop of Horrors. It’s about a guy trying to find love and acceptance who has been rejected for being different all of these years. It’s set in a world of classic horror and camp, but you go on an emotional journey as well. It’s about finding something real and authentic in that. They’ve struck a really interesting balance that way.
Zombie in Love runs March 1-23rd at the Winningstad Theater. Click HERE for show times and ticket information!
About Thom Hilton:
Thom Hilton is a first-year OCT Young Professional, and a member of the Zombie in Love cast. Previously this season Thom starred as Jack in OCT's West Coast premiere of The Magic Tree House: A Night in New Orleans and as radio announcer Raymond Leigh in the OCT Young Professionals production A WWII Radio Christmas.
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