Festival Show Update: My Heart Is the Drum

This month, we chat with Festival Alumni Phillip Palmer, Stacey Luftig and Jennie Redling about their 2013 Festival Show, My Heart Is the Drum, which opens at the Village Theatre in Issaquah tonight. The show previously received a Writers Residency Grant at Kent State University School of Theatre and Dance.
My Heart Is the Drum has had quite a journey since the 2013 Festival! How did the show make its way to the Village Theatre for this production?
It has been quite a journey! And along the way, My Heart Is the Drum has become sort of a poster child for NAMT-member development. At the NAMT after-party, we met Robb Hunt, Village Theatre’s Executive Producer, who told us he loved the show. A few months later, we had a formative week-long writers retreat at Goodspeed Musicals. That summer, Drum was part of the Festival of New Musicals at Village Theatre. That was followed in the fall of 2014 by a workshop at Kent State University, and, that winter, a developmental production there—which Robb Hunt attended, and where we signed our contract with Village Theatre. Two workshops at Village happened after that, and here we are—with opening night of our World Premiere at Village Theatre [tonight]!
The last time we checked in with My Heart Is the Drum, the show was preparing for a production at NAMT member Kent State University. What has kind of response has the show had since then?
We’re thrilled to report several honors since then to complement the BMI Harrington Award for Creative Excellence that Jennie Redling had earned a few years back for the libretto. In 2015, Phillip Palmer and Stacey Luftig won the Fred Ebb Award for Excellence in Musical Theatre Songwriting, and in 2016 Stacey won the Kleban Prize as Most Promising Lyricist—both awards based on songs from My Heart Is the Drum. The show was also a Finalist for the 2016 Richard Rodgers Award. And Village Theatre was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Grant to help expand understanding of issues raised in My Heart Is the Drum.

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Festival Shows in the News


Festival Show Update: MY HEART IS THE DRUM

This month, we check in on 2013 Festival show My Heart is The Drum and its authors Stacey Luftig, Phillip Palmer and Jennie Redling on their recent reading at NAMT Member The Village Theatre in Issaquah, WA and their upcoming production at NAMT Member Kent State University.

My Heart Is the Drum is a big musical set in West Africa with a driving, African-influenced score. It is about Efua Kuti, a 16-year-old girl who aches to leave behind her stifling, poverty-struck village to become a teacher, and Edward Adu, a traditional farmhand who is in love with her. Inspired by the spirit of her grandmother, Efua runs away to the city of Accra to attend the university, but on arrival gets abducted into prostitution. Edward sets out to find her. Efua has always been able to draw on her cunning to solve her problems, but will she escape these most desperate circumstances? And if Edward finds her, will he still love her now that she has been “disgraced?” At its core, the musical is about finding the inner strength to achieve your goals and create social change.​
What was feedback like for your show after you presented in our Festival?
Mainly, people told us they wanted to know what will happen to Efua, our heroine, in Act II. We took that as a good sign.
You had the opportunity to bring the show to Goodspeed’s Johnny Mercer Writers Colony this winter.  What did you work on during that time in snowy Connecticut? 
First, we went through the script and pinpointed the scenes, lyrics and music that we had always labelled “good enough for now” and that we’d fix “later.” Our time at Goodspeed was our “later.”
We also focused on two pivotal moments for Efua, one in Act I, one in Act II. We all feel very passionately about her, and it took several passes—including one serious crash and burn—before we found the monologue in Act I, and the completely unexpected song in Act II, that we all felt to be “effortlessly” right.
This month at Village Theatre, you had your first ever reading of the full show.  What was it like to finally hear the whole show aloud in front of a public audience? 
Thrilling and gratifying.  After so many years since its start at the BMI workshop, we could see that we had a full, working show and one that moved people. The audience also responded strongly to the script’s humor. For the songs, they not only clapped, but cheered for most of them and scene moments also drew applause.

When a member of the audience approached us afterwards to point out how moved she was by one of those key moments for Efua we’d labored over—the spot where a song had crashed and burned at Goodspeed, and which we’d gone on to reconceive completely—well, that was a proud moment.
What did you learn from that reading and what changes are you looking to make now?
As the reading at Village Theatre was only a week ago (and we’re still basking in the afterglow), we’re just now figuring out what changes need to be made. We’re also looking forward to receiving and reading the comment sheets from their audience members for additional feedback.  But we do know we’d like to trim and sharpen Act II, to create even more tension and a greater acceleration toward the end of the show.
Next season, you are heading to Kent State University, near Cleveland, for a full production!  What are you excited about working on when you finally get the show on its feet? 
Everything! But “on its feet” are key words. Dance is completely integrated with music in West African cultures and we can’t wait to adjust the show, as needed, as we finally discover how dance helps bring the show to life.
Also, it is an extremely visual show, with images that are unfamiliar to most of our audience. Daily village life and work, urban street hawkers, the clash of African traditions and poverty with modernity and rich businessmen—we think that these visuals will add many layers to the story.
Why should people plan to come to Kent State to catch My Heart Is the Drum?
We believe that My Heart Is the Drum is something rare today: an original story that is transporting and dramatic, told with warmth, humor and hope. It has a driving, African-influenced score that is deeply theatrical. And while the themes are universal, many of the timely details are particular to the hardships of those in West Africa, particularly of girls who struggle for an education, and who make great sacrifices as they strive for a better life.
For details about the Kent State production, please visit
For more about the show, please visit or like My Heart Is The Drum on Facebook. 

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An interview with Stacey Luftig, Jennie Redling and Phillip Palmer, writers of the 2013 Festival show My Heart Is the Drum, about how they explored African society to create such a dynamic piece, their musical and cultural inspirations and how NAMT has evolved their show throughout the Festival process.

What was the impetus to create a story around a young girl with dreams larger than her African village? 

Phillip, who had been traveling and studying traditional music in South Africa and Ghana, wanted to dramatize the people and important issues he encountered there, namely the intersection of the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic—particularly for women—and the deep poverty that is so different from what Americans experience. He also wanted to tell a story of a person with great potential who most likely would be wildly successful if she had been born into a middle-class American family, but who had to fight like crazy to have even the most basic opportunities where she happened to be born. Phillip’s original outline also explored the connection between people in different countries, including a separate plot line about a dynastic Virginia cotton farming family that lobbied for the American cotton subsidies that depressed the West African cotton market and drove Efua and her family into poverty. Jennie, who had written several plays with strong teenage female protagonists and who was also a rape crisis counselor, was drawn to the material. Keeping the core characters and setting Phillip created, she reshaped the story and breathed life into Efua and the coterie of strong women who surround her.

The struggle between embracing tradition and moving away in search of progress seems to be a central theme of this piece. What are you trying to negotiate in this discussion?

This has been a big topic for the three of us; not only the theme of tradition versus progress, but education versus ignorance. Efua, our heroine, rebels against tradition. Her main means of rebellion is her pursuit of a college education (rare for girls in her community), because she wants more for her life “than just marriage and babies.” In doing so, she looks down on some of those around her, whom she considers ignorant because they are less curious and more content with their lives. Understandably, her arrogance becomes destructive to these relationships. While she does have some book knowledge, what Efua lacks is experience and wisdom. While seeking the chance for a college education, however, Efua does acquire a degree of wisdom—a quality she didn’t know she needed. Her growth is characterized by a greater open-mindedness, compassion, and a new appreciation of some of the traditional values and beliefs that she pushed away in the first place. However, traditional beliefs
can sometimes contradict, as opposed to complement, what is learned through formal education. This is where “negotiations” became tricky for us. For example, there are characters in our show who believe in curses, and some who believe specifically that “the wasting disease” is brought on by a curse. While we strive to show the power of education in general, and its power to fight HIV in particular, we also worked to convey respect for beliefs much different than ours, and respect for those who hold such beliefs.

A lot of the language both in the script and the score seems rooted in agriculture and images of growth. What inspired you to express ideas in this way?

Stacey Luftig:Speaking as lyricist, there were many reasons for this inspiration. First of all, our main characters, who live in a small West African village where the economy is based mainly on farming, are much more connected to the earth than most Americans are, and are dependent upon its rhythms for survival. Whether or not people have food or the money to buy food is tied in part to global political decisions, but most basically to how well the crops grow. Efua, meanwhile, is trying to nourish her mind so that she, too, can flourish and grow. The first obstacle she faces, when trying to win a scholarship to college, is tied to the land; the day that Efua tries to turn in her scholarship essay, she is taken from school to work on the family farm. So, metaphors and language tied to growth and agriculture felt like organic choices.

There is a really intriguing mix of realism and the fantastical/spiritual in this piece. Was that always the plan, or did it evolve as time went on?

Jennie Redling:No, spirituality was not explicitly a part of the story at its earliest stages, when Phil outlined the piece. But as Phil and I began working together to dramatize the obstacles to advancement that would be typical for a young girl in Ghana, and as these obstacles became actual life-threatening matters, I felt that our heroine would turn to sources of strength that went beyond the human sort. I also had an instinct that the journey for this young woman, who was proud of knowing so much, would be to discover something within herself that she did not know was there. Phil’s concept depended on the language of drums, which led to the idea that the sound of Efua’s heartbeat, like the beating of a drum, might represent the voice of her true self.
My research confirmed the centrality of the spiritual realm in African culture, specifically honoring ancestors, so our story seemed to naturally evolve into one where so much is stacked against the heroine that a spiritual messenger or guide is called for to keep her steady and on course—though not necessarily to save her. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to the heroine identifying with a strong relative, no longer alive, who has always been a protective presence, and from there to all of the villagers having such a spiritual source of strength in the face of the hardships they are up against every day.

As the story progresses and Efua arrives in Accra, we are introduced to the discussion of HIV and malaria. How do those topics tie in to the earlier themes of education in the piece, back in the village?

There are times when becoming educated about certain subjects becomes a life or death proposition, as with health issues such as HIV (and malaria, which is not a main issue for us). And when you are an educated person in general, you are more likely to make informed decisions that not only enrich your experiences, but lead to a more healthy and prosperous life. Efua’s journey starts out as that of an extremely idealistic young person, despite the bleak circumstances of her life. She wants to leave her village unfettered by family of any kind, have exciting experiences anywhere but there and teach children all sorts of subjects. As she accrues life experiences, she gains greater appreciation of the culture that formed her.  Although she still pursues her education, she ends up going back to her village to teach the children there not only about poetry and art, but about how to survive in the world. So the term “education” takes on a more layered meaning.

The music is infectious and extremely percussive, at times haunting and exhilarating. What elements did you draw on to help you create this musicspecific to the Ghanaian culture, and otherwise? 

Phillip Palmer:I’m a big fan of many styles of traditional African music. Being able to incorporate some of them is a part of why I wanted to write a musical set in Africa. The first is traditional West African drumming and singing, which often includes a repeated rhythmic pattern played on a Gonkokwe (double cowbell), interlocking drum or marimba parts and simple, catchy melodies. I used these elements in the songs “Seeds, Dirt, and Cotton,” “Pretty Things” and “Today Begins Your Life.” I also love the tight, layered choir singing we associate with South African groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel Choir, and I used this style in “Funeral Chant.” I employed these types of sounds for the more traditional characters and song moments in the show (though the songs are far from traditional, incorporating a musical theatre sensibility as well). But my favorite songs from the show are those that more thoroughly blend traditional African and musical theater elements, such as “Welcome Sun,” “A World Beyond Kafrona” and “Your Heart Is the Drum.”

Has the NAMT process clarified or forced you to re-evaluate certain aspects of the piece? 
The process of tightening and shortening Act I for the NAMT presentation has been a great exercise in discovering what was essential to telling the story clearly. Our advisers and our director have also been enormously helpful in that process. Two changes in particular emerged. First, we were able to identify (and remedy) an important spot where the audience might have lost track of what our heroine was feeling, and do so with a new song—that subsequently got trimmed down, like everything else, for the presentation. Second, we found ways to create a more consistent atmosphere throughout the show—an issue that had been plaguing us for a long time. 

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FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Finding the Right Director

A guest blog entry from Jennie Redling, writer of My Heart Is the Drum to be presented at this year’s Festival of New Musicals.  

As a librettist and playwright, I’ve always considered rehearsals to be the most exciting part of a production. It’s when the characters who have allowed me to hear and write their voices and passions and who have lived inside and beside me are suddenly before me—alive.

In terms of preparing for rehearsal, choosing a director is, for me, the most important part. This is a story about how we discovered a director who is an uncannily ideal match for our NAMT presentation of My Heart Is the Drum.

You need to know that for this show I had developed a major case of the jitters. I had become unusually attached to, and protective of, the characters I had been writing for our musical, especially the two lead girls: a tenderly naïve sixteen-year-old protagonist from Ghana and her equally innocent best friend of the same age. Could the universe deliver the special person in whose hands they would be safe and bloom?

When Branden [Huldeen, NAMT’s Festival Producing Director] presented our team with a list of possible directors to choose from, Stacey, Phillip and I set about learning as much as we could about them on the Internet. I can’t remember in what order I reviewed the various (fine and highly reputable) directors, I only know (thank you, PBS Video) that the smiling image of
Schele Williams’ ingenuous, exhilarated (and lovely) face was easily the most compelling of them all.

In the video that followed that initial image, I watched Schele work with high school students as a drama and vocal coach. The video clip was part of a documentary about kids who won local awards for their performances in high school musicals throughout the country and were now in New York City competing for a “Jimmy Award” (dedicated to James M. Nederlander) given to the most talented actor and actress among them. In this segment, Schele was working with teen-aged girl on how best to deliver her song.

Naturally, as the main characters of our show are also teen-aged girls, this grabbed my attention. And if that weren’t enough of a coincidence, I had a personal connection to the Jimmy Awards; I had attended the very first Jimmy Awards presentation because, as an acting coach, I was a frequent judge for my area’s “Metro Awards” given to high school musicals in the New York suburbs where I live. As a result, I was quite familiar with kids like these, the pressure they were under and how the power of their emotions can be helped by sensitive guidance; on how to be specific, how to release defenses and how to commit to a song.

Schele Williams

Which is exactly the sort of guidance I watched Schele impart. She gave this young lady a crucial tip as to what a certain lyric really meant to her particular character, and with this new understanding, the student really delivered the goods. Then while commenting on the experience, Schele made it obvious that she sincerely cared about the young woman, rejoicing in her final discovery and success. Here was a director with insight and warmth that young people responded to who was saying that she felt her job was to let the kids know they could be real and honest and not have to pretend to be a Broadway star. Perfect much? I was sold.

My partners agreed she was at the top of our list but felt it was fair to consider several people. And so, although my mind was made up, I agreed to a meeting. Not only was Schele as caring, unpretentious and smart in person as she appeared on film, but she seemed to truly “get” our show, with its delicate balance of joyous celebration and dangerous events. And she more than got it—she was already immersed in it. While reading Act II on the subway, she had become so engrossed that she missed her stop!

After we unanimously chose Schele and she and I had a chance to speak one on one, she shared her goals with me. They included keeping everyone committed to the story, to giving a true interpretation of the play, helping the actors recognize that these are real people they will represent and that these people confront the challenges to health today caused by those who dismiss or deny the gravity of HIV.

So the universe came through. It brought us somebody who I believe is the somebody to bring the characters I wrote to life, in the strongest way possible. I can hardly wait for rehearsals to begin.

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