Goodspeed Musicals is in rehearsal for their upcoming world premiere of Deathless, written by Zack Zadek. We chatted with Donna Lynn Hilton, the Line Producer at Goodspeed, to learn more about the musical’s history, current production and hopes for the future.
The Serling family is taking its annual road trip to Niagara Falls, but this time they’re saying goodbye to Mom. Along the way, memories of past trips, old wounds and family secrets are navigated in a not-too-distant future where no one dies of disease. For daughter Hayley, the journey means facing the big questions of life and death.
How did Goodspeed’s relationship with Zack Zadek first begin, and what about Deathless inspired you to produce the show?
We first became of aware of Zack and his work in the fall of 2015 when Zack was nominated to participate in the 2016 Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed. The Mercer Colony, created at Goodspeed five years ago with support from the Johnny Mercer Foundation nurtures the work of writers, composers and lyricists of all backgrounds and in all stages of their careers, by providing a safe haven for creative work and collaboration. Zack applied and was quickly invited to attend the Colony in February of 2016 with his project Deathless. Each day during their colony residence, writers are given the opportunity to gather for a communal breakfast and again each evening, to share their work and to exchange thoughts and ideas. Otherwise, they are free to spend each day in the manner that best suits their individual projects and writing styles. Along the way, we strive to provide each project with individual support that best suits their needs. On the final day of his residency, Zack requested that several other writers join him in a very casual read through of his completed script of Deathless. At the last minute, I was invited to sit in on the reading. My presence that day wasn’t a given. The Colony is very much by, and for, the writers participating and if Zack didn’t want to expose his work, we wouldn’t ask him to. But in this case, Zack was comfortable and invited me to stop by. So on a snowy Saturday morning in February, I wrapped up and trundled into town…and I am very glad that I did so. The reading—while completely cold, with five other writers reading scene and Zack performing the songs—was transformative. I left that reading and called Michael Gennaro…”You gotta read this piece.” He did and had a similar reaction to my own…we were off.
What has the musical’s development process at Goodspeed looked like up to this point?
Pretty soon after Zack left Goodspeed that February, we requested a meeting with Zack and his agent, Max Grossman at Abrams. While Goodspeed was very interested in introducing our audience to Zack and to his work, it’s critical that our goals match those of the artist. Over tea, I was reassured that those goals did match; we wanted to give a young, emerging and inspiring artist a platform for his work and Zack was eager to dive in. Michael and I met alone with Zack to learn more about what drove him to tell this particular story and left that conversation even more certain that here was a piece, and an artist, that we wanted to share with our audience. Over several months we built our creative team which is led by the astounding Tina Landau as our director. Michael Gennaro had worked with Tina when he was the Executive Director of Steppenwolf and he thought of Tina immediately for the project. With the help of some great agents, we quickly got the script in front of Tina. Her response was as enthusiastic as ours had been and she quickly committed to the project. Since late last summer, Tina has been working with Zack to refine his story. We held one table read in New York this past winter and script development continued in response to that reading. Shortly thereafter we received the great news that Deathless had won the 2017 Weston Playhouse Award and would receive a developmental reading and a demo recording as a result of that prize. That was a huge boon for us at a critical time, giving Zack the chance to hear some very recent rewrites and to walk away with the first complete demo of his show. We are all grateful to our friends at Weston for that opportunity.
Goodspeed consistently puts together excellent teams to support a new musical’s development. Can you tell us about who’s in the room for Deathless and how the rehearsal process is helping shape the show?
We began rehearsal on May 9th with our incredible cast of Kelli Barrett, Jennifer Damiano, Sean Allan Krill, Jessica Phillips and Johnny Shea. Julie McBride is our Music Director and Zack is being assisted with creating this first orchestration of five pieces for Deathless by Justin Goldner. The rewrites—to script and score—are rolling out of rehearsal daily as Tina, Zack and Julie work through the piece together with actors for the first time. And, for the most part, we are staying away right now. It’s important at this early stage of rehearsal that they be given the opportunity to get the show onto its feet without producers leaning over their shoulders. One of us is in the room at some point each day, but we aren’t really watching the work right now. That will come in about a week when we get to our first stumble through.
Pretty soon after Tina came onboard, we made together the decision to reduce the cast size from six to five in order to support some physical elements that we all agreed were important to Zack and Tina’s approach to the story. It’s our practice at the Terris with new musicals in development to create a physical space that, although enhancing of the storytelling, allows flexibility for changes to the script and score. Tina and her team of designers—Dane Lafferty on sets, Scott Zelinski on lighting and Tilly Grimes on costumes—have designed a simple space which will fully support this road trip of a musical but which will adapt as scenes and songs come and go. We move into the theatre on May 30th and have our first performance on June 2nd . We fully expect that work will continue for at least a couple of weeks after that first performance as the most critical piece—the audience—is added to the production.
What are you most excited to share with your audiences, and what do you think they’ll take away from the production?
I think all of us at Goodspeed are most excited by the opportunity to introduce this incredibly talented young man and this story that he is driven to tell with our audiences. Each time I discuss the show I am taken back to that snowy Saturday when I first heard the entire piece and first experienced this beautiful, provoking and ultimately moving story of a family’s journey to acceptance and, thereby, to peace. It’s an experience that I wish I could have over and over again for the first time. Since that’s not possible, it’s our hope that our audience will embrace that experience as much as we did and, in that, learn a little more about themselves.
What do you hope is next for Deathless, and how can NAMT members who are interested in the show’s future development get involved now?
We are looking for the next opportunity for Deathless to continue its development beyond Goodspeed and to that end, invite our NAMT colleagues to visit us during the run of the production. We begin performances on Friday, June 2nd at our Terris Theatre in Chester, CT and continue through July 2nd. Email me at email@example.com or call me at (860) 873-8661 ext. 724 to arrange tickets. For more information on Zack and other projects he is developing please contact Max Grossman of Abrams Artists. If you want to hear Zack discuss DEATHLESS himself you can do so here.
For more information about Deathless visit the Goodspeed website.