A guest post from Mindi Dickstein, Nolan Gasser and Kirsten Guenther, the writers of this year’s Festival show Benny & Joon.
We cannot believe we are only a week away from the NAMT Festival presentations. From the moment Ciera Iveson called us with the wonderful news that we had been selected, it has been a whirlwind of activity. Casting sessions with Michael Cassara, a flurry of excellent advice from the wonderful Kent Nicholson and Paige Price (what a godsend the consultant part of NAMT is), intrepid support from Karin Nilo and gracious leadership from Ciera (who somehow manages to wrangle 8 teams of writers effortlessly), and, oh yes, feverish rewrites, re-rewrites, new songs written and discarded, and deadlines, deadlines, deadlines!
Most challenging has been the 45-minute cut. We chose to do an abridged version of our first act (which runs about an hour and 10 minutes when fully performed). And we’ve made several drafts since we started in July. A friend said: “Why not just do the first 45 minutes?” Of course, that would have been so much simpler. But then there would not be the pleasure, again, of hearing Hannah Elless, Mamie Parris, Andrew Samonsky and Zak Resnick singing our act one closer: “Dinner and A Movie.”
At this point the work continues and most likely there will be tweaks and revisions till the last minute – when aren’t there? – but we are digging in to this last week feeling blessed to have this wonderful chance to share a little of our show. Indeed, at moments like this, poised to go forward but feeling the energy of our work together so far, we look back with wonder.
To the earliest days, when Nolan and Mindi – who met through a mutual friend – began writing spec songs for MGM based on Benny & Joon to demonstrate the title’s musicality as well as our passion for the story and the characters. To connecting with Kirsten and beginning work in earnest on our first draft of book and score, which culminated in our first reading – when there was only a half a score – in January 2014.
After that there were two more readings (with full score, thank you) and a trip to the Running Deer Musical Theater Lab in the mountains around Washington State’s Columbia Gorge region, a glorious and inspiring setting. We went with Larry Hirschhorn, our producer, and Jack Cummings III, our director, and we all bonded over notes and rewrites and cocktails at 5 PM with our hosts, Brisa and Mark Trinchero and Sally and Jim Peters. We wrote furiously there but also somehow found time to visit an alpaca farm, explore local caves, and to make the discovery of an ancient box of Chicken in a Biskit at the local general store.
When we did our Developmental Lab last fall at The Transport Group, we got a taste of what it will be like to see this musical move on its feet, which was thrilling. In January of this year, we were invited on retreat to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Redwood City, CA, where we were able to work intensely on revisions under the aegis of the kind and generous Robert Kelley, artistic director, and Giovanna Sardelli, New Works director. It was a gift – as all retreats are – to be able to gather as writers and work without interruption, to try out changes, and to explore the rich culinary variety of the area.
And so here we are a week away from this great NAMT milestone. It’s a week away from what feels like the culmination of three years of work. We feel poised to begin what we hope will be the next phase of our journey: finding a theater to host our first production. Just writing those words makes us say “whoa” – but we are ready.