Liberal Arts: The Origin Story

As we’ve just signed with our venue for the Chicago debut of “Liberal Arts: The Musical!,” you’re going to be reading or hearing a lot from me about the show in the next few months. Let’s be honest, most of you reading are my parents and thus already know the story behind how a mild-mannered English major wrote a musical with her friends and decided to start a theatre company. But in case there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know, I thought I’d tell the story.

In the winter of 2008, my dear friend Alex came to visit me in Boston during our winter break. We joked about my “introducing him to the parents,” and so I wasn’t too shocked when he fake-proposed to me with a giant glass ring in my friend’s basement at 3am. We spent the week pretending to be a couple, sitting on the laps of Mall Santas, and freaking out people in Legal Seafoods who wanted to see my ring.

One day, we were sitting in my room, probably about to watch something on YouTube, when Alex mentioned that he’d been working on an idea for a musical. He’d made good friends with a brilliant pianist, David, when he’d directed “Rocky Horror” (deja vu, right?), and they’d been talking since the summer about writing a show called “Math Major: The Musical.” It was basically going to be a vehicle for lots of math jokes and puns. They wrote a song together, “The Derivative of Love,” and realized that they’d put in every math joke they could think of. So they decided to expand the concept.

Alex asked me, in my tiny jungle-print room in a suburb of Boston, if I’d be interested in helping them write a show about the liberal arts. There would be songs with jokes about various disciplines, and the moral would basically be that “the liberal arts are ridiculous, but we love them anyway.” And immediately I was in.

We knew we wanted the process to be as collaborative as possible. Alex had devised a show with Barbra Berlovitz, a founding member of the Jeune Lune Theatre in Minneapolis which is now sadly closed. He thought we could use some of the methods they’d employed to write our show. So when we got back to campus, I met David and the three of us cloistered ourselves in a room in our student center, brainstorming and writing the college president’s introductory song together. There was one other person who had mentioned interest in collaborating, but he left after one session, so it was the three of us for goodsies.

With a loose outline, we auditioned actors, musicians, people with strange talents, and writers. I took the writing team, Alex took the actors, and David worked on music with everyone while also sitting in on acting and writing rehearsals. Even splitting things up between “actors” and “writers” turned out to be a false distinction–the actors generated lots of material and the writers gave ideas that turned into direction for the characters. David and Alex and I would take material, gather the writers, and “punch it up” or edit it so that it all tied together with one voice.

Somehow–don’t ask me how we did it, all I remember is no free time and a lot of cookies from the dining hall–we wrote an hour-and-a-half musical in ten weeks. Well, we’d had some songs and ideas before then, but we made it into a real show in ten weeks, in my senior spring, in the basement of the Economics building. And Alex, David and I fell in love. Not with each other, except platonically as bee-eff-effs. In love with the feeling of getting just the right word for a song, giving it to an actor to play with, and seeing a story that came out of your head enact itself in front of you.

We loved it. The question was, would anyone else love it? Were we just biased because it was our baby? Were we blind to gaping plot holes or disappearing characters? By the time performances rolled around, we didn’t really know. We just hoped some of what we’d worked on would resonate for people.

The tables were rigged, of course. We’d written a show about life in college that was sure to seem familiar to most of our audience, since they were right there in it with us. Still, we watched with amazement as the lines outside the theater got longer every night, as the laughter got louder and as people cheered aloud during the penultimate song.

I won’t say I was surprised when our parents and professors came up and all told the same story: “We were expecting another mediocre student show, but this is really something. Have you thought of marketing it to other colleges? What are you going to do with this?” By that point, the creative team had started to experiment with ideas of touring productions and combining feedback into a new draft. But people kept asking us what we were going to do with the show. I had to perform one of the songs at every English Department function for the rest of the year. My intellectual property lawyer of a mother asked if we were copyrighting material. And we realized that this really wasn’t the end of the show, and that we didn’t want it to be.

We edited over the summer and remounted in the fall to fans who now knew the words to our songs, and to some freshmen who’d already heard buzz about it. We held talk-backs and started compiling information about college activity centers with whom we could get into touch. And then life swallowed us for a little while, but not before we’d decided that we wanted to do this for real, in Chicago. We were going to start a theatre company, and I was the first of us to graduate, thus the first to inspect the scene.

The rest, as they say, is history. We got into the Midwest Fringe Festival Tour and wrote a new show, “Grind: The (coffee shop, comic book) Musical” about a coffee shop in Minneapolis. We auditioned students for it, got housing for the summer, and drove around the Midwest performing and realizing that people outside of college environments did care about what we had to say. We incorporated this summer and produced “Rocky.” And now, in the sweetest way, we’re back to where we started. We’re finally ready to show “Liberal Arts,” the show that began it all, to audiences outside of Minnesota.

We’ve got a new writer now: Brendan, who’s our Director of Development and played a character named Brandon (guess who we were thinking of for the part when we wrote it) in the initial production. We’ve gone through the script, retooling, raising the stakes, even adding some new songs. And as of right now there are nearly 200 people who would like to audition for us. It is absolutely thrilling.

So if I’m busy in these next few months, don’t worry too much about me. I’m working on something that makes my heart expand in my chest. I’m singing songs that made my mom cry. And I know that I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where I’m meant to be.

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3 Comments

Filed under Story Time

3 responses to “Liberal Arts: The Origin Story

  1. Carolyn

    Remember when we went to the Econ poster session in the Great Hall because we knew there would be free food? I think this was during the twelve-plus-hour day we had, and I definitely remember we had multiple stacks of cookies as the result of our raid.

    Anyway, I am SO excited that Liberal Arts is coming back. Though I’ll most likely be in Japan when it gets performed (hint: film it and send it to me), David mentioned a possible invitation for me to bus down to Chicago at the end of January to sit in on the read through/whatever is happening between auditions and callbacks. If that’s the case, cool, if not I’d still bus down to Chicago just to see all of you more before I leave in March.

    • I highly approve of ALL of that. And I remember pretending to be interested in a couple of presentations to justify our taking that food…did I learn anything? Just how to BS my way to free food. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty valuable life skill.

  2. Rita

    I’m so proud of you! 🙂

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