Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting Reale - Q&A With Tony-Nominated Composer Robert Reale (Part II)

Getting Reale - Q&A With Tony-Nominated Composer Robert Reale (Part II)

Yesterday, I provided the first part of my recent sitdown with Tony-nominated composer Robert (Rob) Reale.

Today, I'm pleased to provide the second part of my interview in which Reale, discusses the world premiere of Johnny Baseball, which begins performances this Friday at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Boston.

ART describes Johnny Baseball as follows:

It traces the origin of the Curse to a collision of three orphaned souls: Johnny O’Brien, a hard-luck right-hander on the 1919 Sox; his idol, Babe Ruth; and Daisy Wyatt, a dazzling African-American blues singer and the love of Johnny’s life. These three lives contain both the reason for the Curse and the secret to its end off the bat of Big Papi in 2004. Johnny Baseball packs a thoughtful commentary on American social history into a fun and spirited musical that will bring cheers and tears to baseball fans everywhere.

Directed by Tony Award-nominated director Diane Paulus (Hair), Johnny Baseball's impressive company includes Colin Donnell as Johnny O’Brien, Stephanie Umoh as Daisy Wyatt, Burke Moses as Babe Ruth, Charl Brown as Tim, Jeff Brooks as Tom Yawkey, Charles Turner as a fan, as well as Joe Cassidy, Paula Leggett Chase, Kaitlyn Davidson, Alan H. Green, Carly Jibson, Robert McClure and Kirsten Wyatt.

Here's the second part of my interview with Reale, conducted jointly with Patrick Lee of Just Shows To Go You:

Reale on Getting Started in Musical Theatre

I think at the very beginning, I was most struck by -- it was 25 years ago when I moved here -- and we were doing shows with the 52nd Street Project and we had people donating their time. Like A-List people coming in to help out with these inner-city kids, and I was struck by generous the community is. One of the things I love about theatre in New York and the reason why I think it’s very hard to create theatre outside of New York unless you’ve got an extraordinary town is the support from your peers. That’s extraordinary.

I like to think we’re getting to some of the sweeping stuff. You start out writing musical theatre and you sort of know your own musical history.

For me it was a lot of jazz. I started late. I started at 17. I learned guitar and tried to go to music school and then found out I loved all kinds of music, not just rock and roll. I didn’t get into as much opera in the beginning, but jazz … jazz ensemble … I discovered that.

My brother who founded the 52nd Street Project called me up -- and I was living in Phoenix before I finished school -- he said, “Hey what’s up? Have you thought about writing a musical?” Which I had not. He said, “Because I wrote a play for these seven kids -- a Christmas play -- and now the next year 30 of them showed up, and I don’t know what to do with them. I’ve got to give them a dance number or something.”

So he flew out to Arizona -- we went up to Sedona for a week -- and wrote some songs together and we decided we liked it. I quit the band I was in and moved back here. You know I was out of work for the next ten years. But it was really fun learning to write together. So that’s how we started together. My influences were James Taylor, rock and roll of the time and then a lot of jazz, so I incorporate that.

Reale on Writing Johnny Baseball's Score

This score, it was interesting, and it sounds like a recipe for disaster. It starts in 1919 (but) it’s couched in the 2004 (World Series) Game Four Yankees-Red Sox when Red Sox are on the brink of elimination from the Series, and we’re in the middle innings and a couple characters start telling us the story that happened of why they think the Curse exists, and it’s not in fact the curse of the Bambino -- Babe Ruth had nothing to do with it -- but the curse was based on something else.

In this case, (the curse was) based on racism. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate. So we have an interracial love story, plus love for baseball, and not just Red Sox fans but Yankee fans and any other baseball fans.

It does spread from 1919 to 2004 with the big stops in 1919, 1948 and then back to 2004. So in 2004, I can write whatever I want, obviously. For 1919, I’m restricted to really simple harmonies and then in ’48 I can stretch out a little bit more swing wise, you know. You can still take liberties so when the characters are singing material that is just character-driven, you take a little bit more freedom, liberties with what they’re singing from that point of view.

(In Johnny Baseball, there are) basically three (musical stylings) – 1919, 1948 is a little more advanced harmonically, and then 2004 or what we call our main musical suit for this show.

Reale on Working with Diane Paulus

You know, we did a reading with Diane before Hair. We were doing a play called The Last Snowman and we needed a director. (My brother's wife) Jenny said, “You should really meet with Diane Paulus -- you’d really like her.”

Of course, she hadn’t done any of the good stuff we all know now. But she was great. We did a one week workshop with her and Willie and I felt like this is our first reading, can we have her all the time.

And then we asked her to do this production -- a reading, a workshop, of Johnny Baseball -- and then she got the ART position. So then the stars lined up. She’s in Boston. We have a show about the Red Sox. It made sense.

Reale on Diane Paulus' vs. the Volcano

Diane Paulus was stuck by the volcano.

We had an extra week of rehearsal built into the schedule, it was great. And she was here for the first two days, we did read throughs, we started working on the big strokes and with this great music department, we had the cast to ourselves for ten days. So they really know that score cold. Before you go ripping songs out and putting new ones in, they knew it, and the steps and some of the movements with the choreographer and all that sort of thing.

Then the day she was supposed to come back, the volcano happened. So then we lost out on her for like another six days. So they really got to learn the music more than they ever wanted to.

But what was so impressive to all of us on the creative team was that she -- they always refer to her as “The Laser” -- because she knows what needs to be done immediately. She blocked the first act in three days.

It’s like you know how you get an assignment and you’ve got to write something. They give you three days to do it, but you know you can do it in a couple hours. But you still have the time allotted. She really asked if she could direct the whole musical in that time. She spent three days on the first act, three or four days on the second act. We got a good sense of what it would look like. So that was our first hurdle.

Reale on Johnny Baseball's Beginnings

Willie (Reale) and I talked about this while we were in this process over the last year because we got the idea for the show right after the 2003 Series when the Boston Red Sox collapsed. Rick Dresser -- writing the book -- is a rabid Red Sox fan.

They’ve been picking on me up in Boston a little bit because we’re Yankee fans and they’re saying “You’re not mentioning the fact that you’re a Yankees fan.” It’s not really about the team, it’s about how much you love the game and how much you love the story.

Rick and Willie -- Red Sox fan and Yankee fan -- having an idea that is so dramatic, such high drama, it’s this rivalry and this collapse of this team, how interesting the losers are in life, so we wanted to talk about it. So we started kicking it around and by about 2006, we had enough for a reading.

It goes back to what we were just talking about. Willie and I said look at how long it actually takes us to write a musical because we both write for television for a living to support our families that way. We figured out it took us roughly three months to do a first draft and really focusing on it. We could do it in six weeks, but in three months you have enough time to go away and come back and really write a draft.

Plus there’s everything to do with when are you going to get a director, is there a theatre interested, is this a commercially viable idea?

Reale on Comeuppance when Show Comes to New York:

The original title was Red Sox Nation. The people up there asked, “How come you changed the name?” Rick said, “You know, it’s really because this open to a lot more than just Red Sox fans." Red Sox fans should love it because it takes place in their town. But it’s about a lot more than that. And it’s really about this character Johnny O’Brien who they call Johnny Baseball in the play so it makes sense.

Reale on the Liberating Effects of Musical Theatre:

Once you get musical theatre gets into your blood, you’re thinking of any way whether it’s country western, rock and roll or operatic or light opera or even some jazz-type things. There are a lot of things you can do in theatre. You get to take liberties, which I love.

The love for Johnny Baseball just may begin this coming Friday when the Reale Brothers' musical world premieres at Boston's American Repertory Theater. I'd say "Break a leg," but they'll need them to slide into home.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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