This month, we chatted with Festival Alum Adam Gwon (Fest ’08, Ordinary Days; Fest ’11, Bernice Bobs Her Hair; Fest ’14, String) and Jill Rafson, Director of New Play Development at NAMT member Roundabout Theatre Company, about the theatre’s upcoming world premiere production of Scotland, PA. The piece, written by Gwon and Michael Mitnick, is a Roundabout commission and will be opening next month.
This deliciously dark new musical comedy, based on the cult film (and the bard’s Macbeth), springs to life in a sleepy Pennsylvania town (population 1,203—and dropping), where a burger-joint manager and his wife cook up a plan to super-size their lives. As their ambitions grow and the bodies fall, the couple finds out just how far they’ll go for a taste of the oh-so-tempting American dream.
Jill Rafson: New musicals are really the final piece of the puzzle for Roundabout. We’ve done a few over the years, but as we really committed to musical revivals in the ’90s and then new plays in the past 15 years, it was almost inevitable that we’d find ourselves in the world of new musicals. Our Roundabout Underground program is all about fostering the next generation of American theatre-makers, and there’s no genre more American than the musical. It’s been a while since we did one on the large scale of Scotland, PA, but given our long relationship with Adam [Gwon] and our love of this piece, we realized it was time to make the leap and really invest in this area.
Scotland, PA is a Roundabout commission—can you tell us a bit about the commissioning process, and what kind of developmental work you have done with Adam and Michael as you’ve worked towards this production?
JR: We commission every writer who comes through Roundabout Underground—it’s our way of saying that they have an artistic home base to develop their next work, no matter what. Adam wrote Ordinary Days by himself, but he knew he wanted a collaborator for his next work, so the fun for us was in playing matchmaker and landing on this incredible relationship he’s developed with Michael Mitnick. I think they bring out the best in each other, and I feel lucky to have watched them do that over the past five years, from readings to workshops, to casting, to rehearsals. We’ve constantly asked ourselves what the show needs at each stage of development: Should we get on our feet? Do we need to talk more before bringing in actors? How will design affect this moment? I feel like it’s been one long conversation with a lot of active collaboration among everyone involved to get us to production.
Why should NAMT members put this show on their “must-see” list for the fall?
JR: I’ve had Adam’s score stuck in my head for YEARS now, and I can’t wait for all of you to do the same! This show cracks me up and cracks open my heart (not unlike Ordinary Days, as it happens), and that’s a very special combination. There’s one song that makes me cry every single time I hear it. This show has ambition, desire, danger, belly laughs, and an insanely talented cast—it’s the full package.
Adam Gwon: Jill Rafson at Roundabout introduced me to the playwright Michael Mitnick, who suggested I watch the movie, and that it could be a musical. For me, it had all the right elements for an adaptation—it’s a great story fueled by epic emotions, it lives in a fun world, and asks a big question. The movie itself is based on the Scottish play, so the question at hand is about greed and ambition, but set in a burger joint in a working-class Pennsylvania town. It struck me as a smart new take on an old story, and one I was excited to explore more fully. We’ve changed quite a bit from the film, but got to connect with the filmmaker fairly early in our process, and he’s been very supportive, offering a lot of great insight into the world and spirit of the thing, which we’ve tried to be faithful to.
How has your vision for the piece evolved over time?
AG: I’d always loved that Scotland, PA takes the plot of Macbeth and drops it into a downtrodden American town. When I think about ambition, I think about the American Dream, and these are characters who’ve been denied their ambition, denied that shiny American promise of greatness—so they try to wrest it back. We started working on the show in 2014 and in the years since I feel like I’ve watched a version of it play out in real life. We tried to look that in the eye. And what started out as a straight-up musical comedy became laced with something bigger and a little more dangerous. But that was an exciting part of the process—the show was always evolving, and keeping us on our toes.
What has it been like to work with Roundabout on this piece, and what has made the staff at Roundabout great partners in preparing for this world premiere?
AG: Roundabout’s been my artistic home ever since they saw Ordinary Days in the NAMT Festival and produced it at Roundabout Underground. They’ve been so supportive of this project and generous with the time and resources to bring it from inception to production. One thing Jill does uniquely well is put equal effort toward developing relationships with writers as she does toward developing the work we’re making. Building a community is an investment in building new work. It reminds me of NAMT, actually. You can feel the payoff when you get to production—you’re doing it with people you trust and who really get you. Premiering a new musical in New York City is stressful as hell, and it helps to do it with people who feel like family.