Behind the Music(al) : Adam Gwon

Do you love Adam Gwon? Because we do.

He’s an awesome writer in Musical Theatre who recently made a huge splash in NYC with Ordinary Days, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company.

The CD to Ordinary Days was just released and the show is now available for licensing through R&H Theatricals

He took some time to do a little interview with us:

K&D: When did you start writing Ordinary Days? Where did the idea come from?

AG: I started Ordinary Days as part of my fellowship with the Dramatists Guild in the fall of 2006. I had a heart-stopping moment on the very first day, when we were all sitting in the board room and Stephen Flaherty asked if we’d go around the table and talk about what we were going to work on over the coming year – I suddenly realized I hadn’t prepared a single thing and had no idea what I was going to work on! When it got around to me, I said I wanted to start something new and that I wanted it to be contemporary. And that was that. I just started writing songs and bringing them in, and thought maybe I’d build a song cycle, a very fashionable thing for young writers to do. But I got bored with that idea really quickly, and started exploring how I could create a narrative piece out of these songs, because I’m such a story-driven writer. I was in the fellowship without a collaborator, and wanted the project to be something I was confident doing all on my own, so I decided to stick to the song cycle format, and came up with a story that made sense to tell through that structure – in this case, about people whose lives aren’t quite connecting the way they think they should.

K&D: What aspects of Ordinary Days came the easiest? hardest?

AG: The characters’ voices came very naturally to me in this show. And while I wouldn’t call it “easy,” I do have tons of fun trying to get ludicrous amounts of mileage out of a fairly economical song structure, and there was lots of that with Ordinary Days, since the whole story is told through song. The hardest aspect was the “big picture,” to steal a phrase from the show – I don’t consider myself a playwright and so I did a lot of grunt work on the shape of the show as a whole. Sketching out story maps, erasing them, sketching again. (Oh, you should have seen that first story outline! There was a fifth character, and a case of mistaken identity, and some weird, creepy seduction song that my brain isn’t letting me remember…!) The great thing about the Dramatists Guild fellowship was that half the group were playwrights, who had wonderfully insightful things to say about how they saw the songs succeeding or failing within a bigger story. It was an illuminating experience, because I realized that songwriting and playwriting essentially share the same storytelling principles. That realization has guided a number of subsequent collaborations of mine in a very positive way.

K&D: You’ve done a lot of workshopping/rewriting of the musical through places like The Dramatists Guild, ASCAP Musical Theaterworkshop, etc
What parts/character/aspects did you focus on most during rewrites?

AG: Since a number of the songs were born as stand-alone songs, a huge part of the rewriting process was about re-shaping those songs into pieces of a true, narrative musical, making sure each one pushed the bigger story forward. Most of the initial batch of songs I wrote now exist in two versions: a lovely cabaret version that requires no outside context to understand, and then the actual show version, which is full of references to events that happen elsewhere in the show. Character-wise, I think the trickiest for me was Claire, a woman who harbors a secret the whole show, one that isn’t revealed to the audience until the very end. It’s a secret that ultimately explains her erratic behavior throughout the show, and it was a delicate balance keeping her character likeable and interesting even as she is putting up her defenses without any apparent explanation.

K&D: Congrats on a successful NY run and getting the show published. Now that you’ve had time to reflect on the show, is there anything kind of meaning or undertone that you didn’t intentionally write during the process? Do you feel it has a “message”.

AG: I think I was always fairly certain about the “message” of the show, or, in other words, What The Show Is About. I took this master class with Adam Guettel while he was writing The Light in the Piazza, and he talked about how he saw each of his characters on a spectrum with a particular relationship to love, the central theme of his show. This has been an incredibly useful image to me as a writer: you’re writing the show for a reason, because it has Something To Say, and that Something becomes the filter through which you look at every character, every song, every moment. The sooner I can nail down What The Show Is About—put up that central pole, as it were—the sooner I can start to wrap everything I write around it. It makes writing the show so much easier.

The interesting part comes like you say – after the show is in front of an audience. Then it matters less what I think the show is about, and becomes more interesting to see what other people think the show is about. Ordinary Days has had a number of productions in very different places, with audiences made up of a wide spectrum of age groups, and it’s most surprising to see how different parts of the show speak to different people. I’ll get emails from high school students who say the show made them less afraid to take their first steps into adulthood, and also from retirees who will open up about their own experiences of loss, regret, and second chances. I was 26 when I started writing Ordinary Days, so I certainly wasn’t writing with either of those viewpoints in mind. But that’s the beauty of writing plays. You try to be specific and true to a particular character in a particular situation, toss it out into the world, and suddenly people see themselves inside what you wrote.

K&D: Do you have favorite song from the show?

AG: If I had to pick one, it’d be “I’ll Be Here.” It was the first song I wrote, so it was the start of this whole crazy journey. I’m proud of it.

K&D: Of the projects your working on now, which are you most excited about?

AG: And who do you love more, your mom or your dad? Just kidding. I have to say the one I’m most excited about is the one that’s gonna be up on stage next, a show called The Boy Detective Fails. It’s based on a novel I read while I was writing Ordinary Days, and it was one of those moments where I finished the book and said, this has to be a musical, and I have to be the person to do it. The author of the novel, Joe Meno, is also a playwright and he’s written the book for the musical, which is about a former child super sleuth who’s now 30 and struggling to solve the impossible, existential mysteries of life. The premiere hasn’t been announced yet, so I should stay mum, but it’ll be up next season.

K&D: Who would you say are your major influences?

AG: Well, it was Audra McDonald’s first CD that made me want to be a musical theater writer. Those composers – Adam Guettel, JRB, Ricky Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa – hearing their work made me see musical theater in a totally different light than I had before.

K&D: What’s your favorite Musical?

AG: West Side Story.

K&D: Song?

AG: Either “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” or “Ain’t No Sunshine”

K&D: Band?

AG: I’m very fickle and this is always changing. Right now I’m obsessed with Punch Brothers. I would say Tori Amos and Sufjan Stevens are my good ol’ reliable answers to this question. But are they even bands??

K&D: TV Theme Song?

AG: Is it too gay to say The Golden Girls?

: Stupid Youtube Video?

AG: This one’s easy. Total Eclipse of the Heart: Literal Video Version. Spin around, ninjas!

K&D: What have you seen lately that you’ve been really excited about?

AG: I was really swept away by Brief Encounter at Studio 54.

K&D: If you could go back in time, when would go?

AG: I mean, I might as well commit and go back to see some dinosaurs, right?

K&D: What’s the most embarrassing song on your iPod?

AG: Oy, so many. I have an A*Teens album, they are these four Swedish teenagers who do super peppy covers of ABBA songs. I listen to this album more than I probably should.

K&D: What awful 1980’s movie would you most like to musicalize?

AG: Goonies! But I heard someone else is doing it. And that movie’s not awful at all!

Next “Behind the Music(al) : Natalie Weiss”

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