5 Questions with Musical Theatre Writers Michelle Elliott & Danny Haengil Larsen
Each year in August, Village Theatre introduces audiences to a taste of what new musical writers around the country are dreaming up, in a weekend-long event called the Village Originals Festival of New Musicals. This year’s Festival begins August 9.
Few theatre-makers know the Festival better than bookwriter/lyricist Michelle Elliott and composer/lyricist Danny Haengil Larsen. The duo has been invited to show new works in the Festival four times, with Hart Island (2017), Maiden Voyage (2013), Cloaked (2010), and The Yellow Wood (2008). Their latest work, the moving and immensely relevant Hart Island, had a Beta Series developmental production this past June, following its 2017 Festival reading.
Ahead of the 19th annual Festival of New Musicals this weekend, NWT talked with the Festival veterans about the inspirations of Hart Island, the research that went into it, and the process of developing new works for the stage.
Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.
What was so compelling to you about Hart Island? And what made it right for a musical?
Hart Island and Rikers Island are so close to Manhattan, yet most New Yorkers don’t think of or know of them at all. We have always been drawn to the stories of people who are marginalized and on the outskirts of society. People on Hart and on Rikers have been essentially discarded by society, and we wanted to explore that.
When you’re talking about themes like grief and forgiveness and a battle for the human spirit, you’re talking about music, because those themes need to sing. The ritual of death has a rhythm, and the ritual of life has a heartbeat.
[Speaking of heartbeat — it’s a small point, but I can’t get the phrase “no-heart island” out of my mind. Can you talk about that phrase and where it came from?]
(Michelle Elliott): I was thinking about how Hart and heart are homonyms, and the difference is very difficult to ascertain if you’re only hearing the words. Also, [the character] Marielena is learning English, so the way she uses the language is different than the way a native English speaker uses it. So when [the character] Charles tries to help her understand the difference between Hart and heart, she grasps on to “no heart island.” It really is one of the oldest elements of the show, something I wrote at the very beginning when I was learning how to write for Marielena, but it continues to make the cut, which is nice.
This show covers subjects that many people will never experience first-hand — but for others they are very present, perhaps invasive parts of their lives and need to be realistic. How did you research the different elements and settings of this piece?
We went to Hart Island, which helped us ground ourselves in the very specific look and feel of the island. We did as much research as we could regarding Rikers and the burial crew. (There several great documentaries about Rikers and Hart Island.) We also read and watched as much as we could about mass incarceration — most impactful were the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and the Netflix documentary 13th by Ava Duvernay. We also spoke with several people who grew up in the Dominican Republic and who had immigrated to the U.S.
The characters are complete creations and their stories came from our imaginations, but we know there are many families who have loved ones buried on Hart Island whose graves they waited years and years to visit, and in some cases, were never able to visit. And we know there were and are many men who do the work of burying the dead on Hart Island with great compassion and respect. We were inspired by those situations, and not any specific people.
When Charles and the burial crew are laying people to rest, we wanted that to feel real, even though it’s different than any funeral we’ve all seen before. The rituals the burial crew undertakes are based on photos we’ve seen and the respect we know the men on the crew have for their work.
[And why did you choose the very specific year of 1985 to set it?]
The main reason is we wanted Charles to have been a young adult during the civil rights era. It didn’t end with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of racial equality coming true, it ended with a federally-directed mandate to incarcerate as many Black men (and women) as possible. What would it have been like for a young man to have marched for civil rights, to have thought he was on the cusp of a new world, only to have had his rights squashed and his future radically constricted?
Through Village Originals you were able to work with directors Valerie Curtis-Newton (2017 Festival of New Musicals reading) and Jerry Dixon (2019 Beta Series developmental production). How did the two each encourage you do “dig deeper”?
Valerie is a fantastic director and also incredibly good at dramaturgy. We originally met her in early 2017 when we were at Village Theatre doing a short residency, and even in that brief exchange we realized that she was really special and we wanted to work with her on the show. Over multiple drafts and both reading processes, she encouraged us to unearth the characters’ arcs, and to make them more real and less “nice.” So many things about the show are the result of things Valerie has said that it’s difficult to pinpoint one or two things. Many times, she would help us see that what we had written wasn’t quite right, and that’s difficult, but also incredibly valuable.
Jerry has also had a long history with the show and he directed a few 15-minute sections of the show that we did in NYC. Jerry is really good at helping writers see their vision on stage so they can evaluate its effectiveness. He will put up what is on the page so it can be analyzed, and that’s so helpful.
It seems safe to say that most people will never write a musical or have first-hand knowledge of the process. What makes for a strong and workable writing/composing partnership, and what does each of you bring into the process? How does a piece like this go from idea to stage?
We like telling the same kinds of stories, we have similar values and our styles complement one another. We’re both very theatrical and like to visualize what is happening on stage, and what the audience is experiencing throughout the show. Also, stylistically, Michelle’s lyrics are often very sparse and skeletal, while Danny’s music is very lush and epic, so there is a really good balance between us. We are quintessential yin and yang.
Danny is very good at structure and pulling back from a small moment to look at the larger picture of the whole story. He puts a great deal of thought into making the music reflect the moment and the character, and to help tell the story. Michelle is good at delving into difficult topics and telling stories in a theatrical way. Probably 40% is us working together, 40% us working alone on things we’ve decided together, and 20% is other folks giving their thoughts, though we would like that last percentage to be higher.
Every show has its own unique journey. Hart Island started in 2011 when we read an article about the island and then began to research as much as we could about the island and the people who had loved ones buried there. Relatively soon, the research we did sparked an idea for the story, which is still the same story we have today. We were working on another project at the time, so we let the idea ferment for a bit and then in 2014/15 we began to write in earnest. We shared 15-minute portions of the show a few times through the Musical Theatre Factory in NYC, and then we had a staged reading of the show at Village in 2017, and another in 2018 that was produced by Musical Theatre Factor and Village Theatre.
[In your recent Beta Series developmental production, from first to second weekend it felt like a lot changed. How was the process for you, and how much do you feel changed in the show throughout it?]
Village Theatre’s Beta Series workshop model is very well thought out and helps support the writers’ process throughout. We had a great time and felt good about how things unfolded. All the changes we made were to help with clarity and character intention, which is great. It seemed like the emotional beats were landing and we just needed to do more smoothing things out.
Where is Hart Island headed next, and what else do you have in the works?
The truth is that we don’t know what will happen next with the show. We are doing a rewrite that will be completed in the early fall and then we will seek out a home where Hart Island can be fully produced. We don’t know where that will be, but we are hopeful that it will happen, and that it will be somewhere fantastic.
We are looking for venues for two of our other shows – Cloaked and Catch the Wind (formerly Maiden Voyage), which were also presented as part of Village Originals in previous years. We have an idea for a television series/podcast, and the wisp of an idea for a new musical, but it’s too soon to discuss it.
[Bonus question] What’s the weirdest or wildest thing that happened during the process of writing this show, on this trip or otherwise?
(Michelle Elliott): It’s not weird or wild, but before the first presentation of “Hart Island” at the Village Originals Festival in 2017, we learned that, tragically, earlier that day a white supremacist drove his car into a group of people protesting racial injustice, killing one. There was a feeling in the theatre that day that I won’t ever forget.
The Village Originals Festival of New Musicals runs 8/9 through 8/11 at Village Theatre in Issaquah. Admission is available only through Village Originals membership, starting at $200 (full series) or $75 (single-day admission); info and festival schedule available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered in both locations; gender-neutral single-stall restrooms are available on balcony level by talking with house manager. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
The Village Originals Beta Series developmental production of Hart Island ran June 7-16 at Village Theatre First Stage in Issaquah; info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.