Festival Shows in the News


Festival Show Update: THE SANDMAN

Last month, we caught up with alumni Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor about the development of their 2013 Festival show, The Sandman, with Playing Pretend and their upcoming production in Denmark.

Drawn from the more nightmarish fantasy of E.T.A. Hoffmann, author of 
The Nutcracker, comes a new and darkly comic musical tale: The Sandman.  When Maria, the wife of an ingenious German clockmaker named Albert Strauss engages a new nanny, Fraulein Kaeseschweiss, to care for the two children, Nathaniel and Theresa, a series of bizarre and unnatural events begins to unfold.  As Theresa falls mysteriously ill, a flamboyant and unconventional physician, Dr. Copelius, is summoned upon the nanny’s recommendation. The doctor comes with a young ward in tow, Clara Stahlbaum, recently orphaned after her entire family was incinerated in an inexplicable Christmas tree fire.  And as the Strauss family is thrust ever deeper into chaos, the sinister and Machiavellian forces at play are gradually revealedforces from which only the children may be able to save them.

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Reflections on the Festival

A guest blog entry from Rob Taylor, writer of The Sandman, presented last weekend at the Festival of New Musicals.  

Now a mile high and two hours behind, the weeks just past in New York in preparation for the NAMT Festival presentations of our little nightmare musical “The Sandman” feel less as if they occurred in a distant time zone, and rather more as if they happened within a time warp.

Can it be over already? Did we actually find and rehearse a cast, slice and shrink an entire Act into a 45 minute cliffhanger, and convey the essence of the macabre little world of our imagining to all those people? Impossible.

And it all would have been impossible – were it not for the surreally magical way in which a dream cast and creative team seemed to materialize around us, and were it not for the outstanding and intuitive support NAMT seemed ready to provide at every turn.

Eight years ago, Richard and I participated in another NAMT Festival. As happy as we were to have been included in those 2005 proceedings, the organizational improvements put
in place by Betsy, Branden and the rest of the NAMT staff in the interim – well, they made participating in this year’s Festival an absolute dream.

To be introduced through NAMT and our consultant (Stephanie Cowan, we adore you!) to a director without whom we now can’t imagine moving forward (Sam Buntrock, where have you been all our lives?), to have a line producer in place from the get go (Robb Nanus, you rule!), to have access to a casting director (Michael Cassara, we owe you big time), to be provided with a stage manager who knows the ropes (Lisa Dozier, thank you for all you do, and for hooking us up with Josh Quinn!), to have such thoughtfully and clearly laid out deadlines throughout the entire process and the support to help keep us on top of them – it all made such an enormous difference. You afforded us the absolutely crucial commodity of time to focus on just being writers, and for that Richard and I are deeply, deeply appreciative.
And because we felt so supported this time around, when things did go awry – and something always does – we never actually spiraled into panic. Mild bouts of anxiety perhaps, but never true panic. Even being locked in our rehearsal room at CAP21 for what seemed like an eternity on our first day, and having to MacGyver our way out with a nail clippers as the clocked ticked down on cast members locked outside the door as well as inside, everyone not only remained calm, but it ended up establishing a terrific sense of all being in it together for the entire company.

So, thank you NAMT for including our bizarre (and apparently somewhat polarizing) piece in this year’s festival.  We hope we did you proud.

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An interview with Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor, writers of the upcoming Festival show The Sandman, about  adapting the horror genre for the stage and writing “a little nightmare musical” for kids and adults alike.

NAMT: The Sandman is a true horror musical, not something that we see a lot of. Have you always wanted to write in this genre?
Richard Oberacker: Ever since I was a very young child, I had two obsessions: musical theatre and haunted houses. I think I understood that a good haunted house was actually interactive, immersive theater. And, oddly, throughout most of my youth, I became a bit of an entrepreneur, designing and building haunted attractions. I guess I always wondered if my two obsessions could be combined—but, of course, it had to be the right story. The best horror movies are always of a singular vision and have a delicate balance of fright and comedy. Both of those are authentic and therefore work only if they are organically connected to the story—they arise out of the givens of the circumstances. That means only the perfect story can give rise to the perfect recipe. If we had not happened upon Hoffmann’s work, and “Der Sandman” in particular, we would not have attempted a so-called horror musical.  

NAMT: How did you discover the stories The Sandman is based on? Did you immediately know you wanted to adapt them into a musical?
Robert Taylor: Saying “we happened upon Hoffmann’s work” as Richard indicated is somewhat disingenuous, in that German romanticism in general, and the complete works of E.T.A. Hoffmann in particular, were a major area of study for me in my years at the Universities of Bonn and Princeton. Further, every child of the Western World knows Hoffmann’s Nutcracker. Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann actually contains elements of The Sandmanstory, as does Delibes’ classic ballet Coppelia. So in truth, I’ve known and been fascinated by Hoffmann’s sinister fairy tales (as well as those of Edgar Allen Poe, who counted Hoffmann among his favorite writers) for most of my life—and they seem to naturally lend themselves to musical theatricalization. I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with Hoffmann having been a brilliant musician and composer in his own right, with chamber music, symphonies, ballets and operas to his credit, as well as an unparalleled writer of fantasy. His fiction is filled with music and tales of musicians. He worshiped
Mozart—the “A” in E.T.A. Hoffmann stands for Amadeus, a name he took to honor the composer he considered to be the greatest genius of all time. And though never a playwright, his story–telling is inherently and brilliantly theatrical. So, how could we resist trying our hand at adapting some of Hoffmann’s tales for the musical stage? We’re certainly in good, though it must be admitted, rather intimidating company.

NAMT: While adapting, what did you consider the most important key to staying true or honest to Hoffman’s original work?
RO: The most important elements were two-fold. One, that the horrible or disturbing actions be presented as truthful experiences within the world of the play. Hoffmann often presents supernatural or nefarious happenings as perfectly plausible in the lives and environments of his characters. And secondarily, that Hoffmann’s sense of humor and social satire be honored. We found that when we combined both those elements, filtered through the conventions of a musical theatre piece, we landed on a style that closely resembled the sensibility of Tim Burton’s animated works.

NAMT: Tell us about the musical style of this piece, as it relates to the horror genre of the story. 
RO & RT: The Sandman is set in Germany in the late 1830’s, about as horrific a setting for a musical as one can imagine, with the possible exception of Germany in the late 1930’s, so it gave us an opportunity to pay homage to the great German masters—Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann—while infusing the score with more nefarious and satirical sensibilities a la Kurt Weill, and the classic German horror film techniques of a Franz Waxman or Bernard Herrmann. I think the key to a successful horror film, and therefore a horror musical, has to do with the creation of a unified world which gives the viewer a very specific set of rules within which the plot and characters will function. Many of these rules often make no logical sense in the real world, but that is in fact the fun and the attraction of the medium.  This ‘base line’ set of rules and the unified vision of the world serves as an entry point, an invitation to participate in the story. It’s a sort of seduction so that one is ready and willing to accept the dreadful and unnatural things that will surely follow. In the score of The Sandman, we do much the same thing. We create a very specific vocabulary which is at once melodic—and therefore accessible—and slight cartoony, which tells the listener the rules of this slightly odd-ball world and seduces them with a sense of play and a fairly assured ‘entertainment value.’ It’s showy. It has musical theatre in its DNA. That should please the listener, invite them to notice the German homages and enjoy in the winking acknowledgment of them, and gain their trust and participation before the real fun begins. Then of course, those themes and motifs begin to twist and distort. They begin to become aggressive and dissonant. The music becomes as unnatural as the goings on of the play. But it never loses its initial vocabulary.

NAMT: What was it like to marry the music and the text of the play together?
RO: The text and the music are really cut from the same cloth. It wasn’t a matter of having to “marry” them exactly because they are both born of the same off-kilter, darkly satirical vocabulary. The language has a certain musicality built into it. It all seemed to unify itself once we fully understood the world of The Sandman as we interpreted Hoffmann’s original.

NAMT:  The Sandman, and another of your Festival shows, Ace, features a story based around children and their way of interpreting the world. Why does this narrative appeal to you, or is it just coincidence? 
RO & RT: Though our musical Ace has matured, and no longer employs the theatrical conceit of a ten–year–old boy’s dream adventures to deliver the narrative as it did when it first premiered at NAMT in 2005, a child’s imagination, quick to enhance, distort, exaggerate and altogether alter reality, is something that does hold immense theatrical appeal for us—especially when telling a fairy tale of horror. Irrational childhood fear of ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night, is a state to which most of us gladly regress as adults when we want to be entertained – horror films, haunted houses, cemeteries, abandoned buildings or farms on dark moonless nights.  
A child’s imagination can be so much more facile than an adult’s. They have the capacity to return over and over to stories and films, willing to experience the same journey many times and even extend it through their own playing, writing and art making.  When a child experiences The Sandman, there should be a slightly naughty sense of getting away with something, a sense of seeing something just slightly beyond what they suspect their parents might have thought they were going to see (or would have even approved of their seeing). And in that experience, their imaginations are the most alive. They fill in voids with what they want to see. They believe in the most outrageous possibilities. They imagine what is not there. They delight in blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

NAMT:  Have you enjoyed a particular response to your shows from young audiences in the past?
RO: We were fortunate enough to have a first reading of The Sandman in a beautifully restored jewel-box theater with an extraordinary cast and full technical support—sound, lights, a few projected images and even a Foley artist.  It was presented as a benefit performance and attended by a large audience including many young children and teens. This was a huge gift to us because we could gauge if our gamble on creating something that would appeal to both children and adults was successful. As it happened, the performance was enormously successful, and children in particular ate it up. So based on that experience, I would say we’re more encouraged about how this show will be received by young people and look forward to continued development on the piece in ways that will only strengthen their enjoyment of it.  

NAMT:  As mentioned, you guys are no stranger to the Festival. What keeps you coming back?
RT:We just thought it would be good to let everyone know we still existed. And we hear the Festival is still a really great place to pick up chicks. But beyond the obvious… It’s the best, most organized, well–respected showcase for new works in the country. The industry actually shows up, pays attention and has direct access to the writers in a way that leads to real productions—and for those of us who live and work outside of New York, that is absolutely invaluable.

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A guest blog entry from Richard Oberacker, writer of The Sandman – a little nightmare musical to be presented at this year’s Festival of New Musicals.  

In 1999, I became the first American conductor ever hired by Cirque Du Soleil.  It was for their new Big Top tour, Dralion and it was at a time when it was still really chic to even know what Cirque was.  My theater friends were confounded by how a New York musical theater industry guy had managed to break into the mysterious inner circle of this seemingly impenetrable rising giant.  The truth was it had to do with one small connection followed by about three months of extensive interviews.  Many of these interviews focused on my work as a musical theater conductor, composer and lyricist.  It began to dawn on me then – and continued to be even more clear once I was on the inside – that Cirque was as confused and intrigued by (but ultimately ignorant of) musical theater as the American musical theater industry was by and about Cirque Du Soleil
That same year, I was selected to present my original musical In That Valley at the NAMT Festival of New Musicals – another organization that was a new frontier for me.  Of course I was thrilled to learn about NAMT and to have the opportunity to showcase a very challenging musical that I knew had very little chance of ever being produced commercially (or otherwise, for that matter given its subject).   I set about trying to figure out how I would be able to deliver a great presentation at the festival – with all that NAMT demanded – while doing 10 shows a week on the road with a brand new Cirque show that was still at
the time making substantial changes daily as it prepared for an American premier in Los Angeles.  As it happened, the answer was simple and at that time the only answer possible as far as Cirque was concerned: do NAMT only on my days off. 
Now, in 1999 the Festival was a slightly different animal.  The physical presence of the writers was not demanded to the extent it is now.  Rehearsals could be scheduled over a longer period of time and lots of rules that concerned Equity could be gently bent. And so with the help of my co-author, I learned how to present a NAMT Festival show by way of telephone coaching sessions, mailed rehearsal tapes and many Sunday night red-eye flights.
The fact was that those three months of interviews to get the job with Cirque turned out to be their way of determining how committed I would be to them and how serious I was about continuing to be a writer of musical theater.  Working for Cirque is a lifestyle change.  It is a completely different philosophy about the performing artist and his relationship to his chosen discipline, the show and the company as a whole.  There are very specific clauses in the contract about what an artist can and cannot do outside their work with Cirque. Some of these clauses would appear to an American performer as going way above and beyond a standard “non-compete” clause.  However, once I had accepted this contract and indeed this entire approach to the work, I saw its value as it related to creating and maintaining a Cirqueshow.  It isn’t anything like doing American theater – musical or otherwise – and it must function by these rules to be everything that the world has come to admire. 
After my first NAMT show, my challenge became how to gently guide my Cirquecolleagues to an understanding of my work back in New York.  I knew that I would not simply stop writing and if I was writing, I would naturally be looking for opportunities to develop and present my work.  And that would mean I would have to ensure there was some protocol in place at Cirque that would allow me to get away when it was necessary to fulfill future writing obligations.  And so began my education of Cirque.

The first step was to introduce them to the idea of an associate conductor.  I’ll pause here while you contemplate the full implications of that statement… Remember, they had never hired an American conductor and never dealt with the structures of a standard musical direction team as we know it on a musical.  Subs in the pit? Unheard of. I mean really, REALLY unheard of. As in, “What’s a sub? How does that work?”  My Cirque colleagues and I can laugh about it now, but at the time I had to develop a pretty good poker face so that I wouldn’t damage my jaw by all the many times it was sent dropping to the floor.  I then had to carefully explain to them the concept of how a musical is developed – the many different paths that it can take.  I had to explain what readings were, what workshops were, what a standard rehearsal and tech period was.  I had to explain where in those processes an author or composer might be required to be present and why. I had to explain to a large degree, and delicately of course, revenue streams.  At what point was a composer being paid?  Where is the line between time away to develop a piece without being paid and pursuing “other employment” based on future royalties?  How might these new works of mine be considered in competition with what I bring to Cirque in terms of my own (uncredited) composing for them?
These conversations took place gradually over the next several years and eventually they began to see the value to the company as a whole to having at least some measures in place that would allow other Cirque artists and employees to explore creative endeavors outside their commitments to Cirque.  But most importantly I gained the trust of my colleagues.  I let them know that my work with them would always come first and that my gratitude to them for taking a chance on me back in 1999 was absolute. When they invited me to be the original conductor for the creation of a new show in Las Vegas titled Kathat mutual trust was a given.  Within the first year of public performances of Ka,I was selected to present another original musical for the 2005 NAMT Festival.
However, I still requested of Cirque only the least amount of time away because Ka was so new.  As it happened, I needed only 2 days away because at that time
NAMT still didn’t require the writers to be “in residence” as it were. I also found to my surprise that my colleagues at Cirque asked many more questions about my show at the Festival – how were rehearsals going? Did I get the cast I wanted? Will important people be seeing it? And even (gasp!) – can I hear some of the music from it?
From that festival presentation forward, I noticed that other Cirque artists were taking advantage of this newfound idea of pursuing personal artistic endeavors outside of the regular show.  Some were doing independent films, some were showing in art galleries, some were founding improv troupes that performed late nights in small clubs. And I saw the upper management of Cirque begin to embrace the idea that their artists could find a healthy balance between their work within Cirque and outside it; that these independent projects could fuel their passion and pride in Cirque and give them a much longer run in a given show before burnout might set in.  That was certainly my case. Since that second NAMT presentation, I have been able to balance my weekly show schedule in Las Vegas with five full scale regional premiers of my various works, another
New York new works festival premier, a fringe festival premier and all the attendant readings and developmental stages along the way.  My days have become very structured over the years with writing and phone conferences, various rehearsals and such followed by the consistency of going to the Katheater Tuesday through Saturday evenings to disappear into the world of Cirque.  Conducting Ka has become a foundation, a grounding and not a distraction or a competitor for my energies.  And yes, come Saturday night, I am very often on the red-eye out to New York or wherever I need to be.

To get the demo recording of The Sandman that we knew we needed, I had to fly to New York on three consecutive weekends to accommodate a studio schedule that afforded me the ideal cast.  And the mixing and mastering of the demo was done long distance – daily rough mixes were emailed to me and I would send notes back to the engineer.  This went on for a few weeks to get just what we knew the show would require. It cost us more money but the truth is, doing what we do long distance will always cost more money.  That’s just part of the deal I’ve made with myself.
With this year’s invitation to present The Sandman at the NAMT Festival, I was a bit concerned about scheduling a full two weeks away from Ka since writers are now required to be in residence. And Cirque contractually reserves the right to grant or deny any requests for leaves of absence.  I was also concerned about my daily schedule before my evening show times because I happen to be preparing another new musical for a New York reading and yet another new musical for a series of work sessions with a new director.  I have found that the trick is to deliver any assignments for NAMT as soon as they are requested.  “5 Things you should know…” – hand it in that week.   Song clips? Do it that night.  Script edits? As soon as humanly possible.  It’s a bit like being back in school and knowing if you got your homework done early, you would have more time for the fun stuff.  We were all that disciplined in school, right? Well, at any rate, this has certainly been a second chance to do it the right way.
And as it happened, Ka experienced an unimaginable tragedy in July that forced us to temporarily close the show for over two weeks.  While much of that time was filled with meetings and rehearsals to bring the show back into performance as soon as it was appropriate, I did find that it afforded me extra time to focus on The Sandman.  I was able to deliver a more considered edit of the script still very much ahead of the deadline.  I was able to schedule phone conferences at more convenient times, especially with the East Coast without worrying too much about my rigid performance/gym/sleep schedule. And I was able to get an enormous amount of work done on the other two musicals so that when the NAMT crunch time rolls around, it will be my one and only concern. To quote Dot by way of Sondheim, “You choose things, and then you lose things.”  It’s very true.  I chose to accept the original offer from Cirque. I chose to be away from New York for most of the year, to be away from all the opportunities of the city with showcases, parties and chance meetings on the street that can lead to wonderful connections and even more wonderful new work.  I chose financial security over the bohemian thrill of piecing together a living as a freelance musician in the city.  I have lost out on opportunities for sure.  Out of sight is indeed out of mind, although a good showing of the right material at a NAMT Festival can make up for years of being off the radar. But I have thirteen years of creating magic with Cirque Du Soleil.  I have been in the inner circle for the creation of two magnificent and groundbreaking productions. 
My own musical contributions are on those stages nightly.  And most importantly to my future, I have taught a behemoth company that has always prided itself on being the first to do things, that sometimes it’s okay to adopt some of the long-established practices of the musical theater world.  I taught them a thing or two about how a new musical is made.  I taught some of them what a musical actually is… I know, breathe, take a moment… And thank heavens, because really, what on earth would they have done if they had to learn it from “SMASH”!?

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