Saturday, December 11, 2021

Exploring the World Premier Musical Now Getting a Run at City Theatre

 

Julianne Avolio as Beth in An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake

        Fans of musical theater might want to venture over to Pittsburgh’s South Side where a new musical comedy five years in the making is getting its world premiere.

        Starting out as a play with one song, An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake got its first look as a Playwright Union Writing Challenge in June of 2016 as part of the union’s First Peek reading series. If you’re anything like me, your first glance at the title has you thinking OMG, has Justine Timberlake written a play? Nothing could be further from the truth.

        My guess is that the actual playwright, Matt Schatz, formulated the enticing yet somewhat misleading title to underscore the premise of the narrative, namely the battle of wits between an idealistic literary manager and her theater’s managing director as to the type of play they want to slip into a vacant programming slot. The literary manager aims for high art and plays by new and inclusive playwrights while the managing director wants more tried-and-true commercial programming guaranteed to put buts in the seats. Like something written by a celebrity such as Justin Timberlake.

        Schatz’s play got an early boost in April of 2017 when Untitled became a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. Nearly a year later, Schatz added more songs, transforming the play into a musical. In April 2018 City Theatre and the Pittsburgh CLO collaborated on a reading of the play in the CLO’s SPARK Festival of New Musicals.

        After Untitled was featured in the ASCAP Foundation Musical Theater Workshop in May of 2019 and won the same foundation’s Harold Arlen Musical Theater Award that December, the CLO included Untitled in its Kara Cabaret Series, in which it was to get its world premiere in April 2020 at the CLO Cabaret. However, the corona virus epidemic postponed the production in March of 2020. Now, with the ebbing of the virus to some degree, City Theatre and the CLO announced a co-production in July of this year with an opening on November 27 at the City Theatre’s Mainstage. The show is currently running through December 19.

Lara Hayhurst (El Yamasaki Brooks) and Julianne Avolio (Beth)

        What follows is a Q&A session with City Theatre’s co-artistic director and co-dramaturg, Clare Drobot.

Q: As I follow the play’s timeline written so clearly in the playbill, I keep wondering who or which organization first discovered Untitled and the mechanics of how the CLO and City Theatre decided to collaborate on a reading as part of the CLO’s SPARK Festival of New Musicals. Could you enlighten us a bit?

A: Matt had shared the script with me when it was still a play with music—at the time it only featured one or two songs for Beth. It rang very true to me and after sharing that with Reg (Director Reginald L. Douglas, then Artistic Producer at City), he, brilliantly, wondered what would happen if the show was a full musical. The collaboration with CLO started in true Pittsburgh fashion at meeting over pierogis with Mark Fleischer, he invited City to bring a project to CLO’s SPARK Festival. CLO was interested in another musical of Matt’s, and we teamed up to develop both in the 2018 festival and the rest is history.

 

Q: I’m also wondering why the decision was made to transfer the venue from the Cabaret Theater Downtown to City Theatre’s Mainstage on the South Side.

A: The pandemic forced the postponement of the production of the Cabaret, as Marc, Monteze and I were putting together City’s season, we realized, we could collaborate with CLO and bring the production to South Side. It’s been wonderful to see Untitled fully realized after so many years of development.

Q: I understand that the playwright developed the play over time, adding songs and fleshing out the narrative. Was he present during rehearsal to provide input and collaborate on its development? How much did the musical change over the course of rehearsals?

A: Absolutely! That’s an important part of the new play process. Much of Matt’s presence was digital in rehearsals. We had a very sophisticated zoom set up and a lot of long text chains with Matt, Reg, and Co-Dramaturg Olivia O’Connor. That was possible because of all the previous development. The play has changed and morphed a lot of the four years, adding and subtracting songs, clarifying character arcs, and being augmented through collaborations with the full creative team. Matt joined us in person for previews and even added a new song after the third performance!

Q: I see that the score is performed by a four-piece ensemble under the musical direction of Douglas Levine. Was that the intention for the original production as well? 

A: It’s actually a three-piece ensemble—we have two guitarists Ken and Jay who rotate in and out for various performances. That was the design; in building a small cast musical, it’s also advantageous to have a small band. Matt worked with Doug and Orchestrator Rona Siddiqui to realize the music fully.

Q: During the performance the musicians are out of sight of both the cast and the audience. How is the music director able to communicate and cue the singers during the production?

A: The band is backstage in a room we refer to as the Belfry (it’s a script library that used to be a literary office which feels especially appropriate for this production). We have a monitor that’s hung above the audience so the cast can see Doug conducting. A big shout out to Brad Peterson, City’s sound and media engineer who crafted that system in collaboration with sound designer Zachary Beattie-Brown.

Q: As to the future of Untitled, is there anything concrete yet as to further productions elsewhere? Have any other theater companies expressed an interest in producing the play? What is the consensus among the CLO and City Theatre staff and audiences as to the musical’s future?

A: We’re excited to see what’s next for the show. It’s been so wonderfully received by audiences and is a piece both theater’ deeply believe in. Fingers crossed it will be headed to new homes in future seasons.

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