Festival Show Update: Benny & Joon

This month, we chatted with with Mindi Dickstein, Nolan Gasser and Kristen Guenther, the writers of 2016 Festival show Benny & Joon. The show is about to open a production at NAMT member Paper Mill Playhouse, the show’s second production following the world premiere at The Old Globe. We chatted about what has changed since the world premiere and the process of getting to a second production.
Based on the 1993 film starring Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson, this new musical is a smart, funny, tender-hearted celebration of love: between children and parents; romantic partners; friends; and, most of all, siblings. The pair at the heart of the show are Joon, a young woman dealing with mental illness, and Benny, the big brother who’s determined to take care of her. When a charmingly eccentric stranger comes into their lives, he throws their carefully calibrated world off-kilter—maybe for the better. Large in emotional scope and artistic ambition, Benny & Joon embraces a difficult subject with warmth, honesty, and wit.

The last time we checked in with you all, you were getting ready for the show’s world premiere at The Old Globe. What work have you been doing on the show since that production?
We had a wonderful world premiere at The Old Globe. It’s such a terrific place to have a first production and we made the most of the experience, honing the show and discovering and deepening it as we went. After we froze the show, we continued to take notes and plan for a “next” production, even though we didn’t know yet where that would be—we felt there would be more. And we are relentless rewriters, so we had a healthy “to do” list from small tweaks to big ones. 

How did this second production at Paper Mill Playhouse come to be, and how has preparing for this upcoming production been different from preparing for the world premiere?
Like the production at The Old Globe, the upcoming East Coast premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse came as a direct result of our appearance at the NAMT Festival in 2016. Mark Hoebee, who saw and loved our presentation at the NAMT Festival, was interested from the start. As it happened, The Old Globe schedule opened up first, so Mark came out to see our production there and loved it (he tells us) and offered us this Spring 2019 slot at Paper Mill.

Preparation is not all that different: we meet and talk a lot, we make and share notes, we retire to our corners and effect changes, we meet again. Rinse and repeat. Constant attention to detail. The time since we closed at The Old Globe till now has been wonderfully creative. We were invited to Rhinebeck Writers Retreat over this past summer, which was a great time for us to check in and work in the same space for a change. We had a reading this past October (for ourselves) to hear changes (some new songs and scenes, many revised moments). We did a movement workshop in November with our choreographer Scott Rink and Lorenzo Pisoni, who joined the team this fall to help with the staging of key moments—silent movie-based choreographic and clowning moments featuring the character of Sam, who is a movie buff—and met with our director Jack Cummings III periodically to review changes. This has always been our process so, if anything, the only thing that is different is the huge amount we learned about the show from having had a full production.

What has made Paper Mill a great partner in this new stage of development?
Simply providing us with this next step—in such a gorgeous and supportive theatrical venue—has been priceless. We are mid-rehearsals as we write this and it is a joyful experience. Hard work, to be sure, but can we put these weeks in a bottle to savor?

Why should NAMT members make sure they plan a visit to New Jersey this spring to see the show?
For anyone who did not see the show at The Old Globe, it’s another chance to see it. For anyone who DID see it at The Old Globe, it’s a chance to see how the show has grown. And New Jersey IS the Garden State, right? Millburn has some great restaurants, is a half hour away by train, and the Paper Mill is making a beautiful production for us.

For more information about Benny & Joon to buy tickets to the upcoming production, visit the Paper Mill Playhouse website.

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