The world premiere of Beatsville, a musical set in the late 1950s in the world of Greenwich Village beatniks, takes place May 6-28 at Asolo Rep. The piece is a collaboration between husband-and-wife team Glenn Slater and Wendy Leigh Wilf; we asked Slater about the process of bringing a new musical to life.
Q: How did this collaboration come about?
This is the first show we’ve done together. Wendy and I met in the early 1990s at a BMI [Broadcast Music Inc.] workshop, a sort of launching pad for composers for the past 30 years. After going through that program, Wendy went back to her first love, jazz. But she wanted to combine her love of jazz with musical theater in the style of “vocalese,” which goes back to bebop music that used instrumental solo lines as melody. That can feel like a song, but with the looseness of jazz. So we needed to find a story that would work with that style of music.
Q: And you chose the Roger Corman movie A Bucket of Blood.
A: When people think of beatniks, everybody recognizes the berets, the goatees, the bongos, but there was never really a show about them. They’ve been used as flavor, like Maynard Krebs in Dobie Gillis on TV. When we saw Corman’s movie, we loved that he was satirizing beatniks, who wanted so much not to conform that they ended up actively embracing a different kind of conformity. Almost every generation has some sort of hipster community that acts this way, and it gave us resonance for our era of hipsters in New York today.
Plus we loved that it was just 60 minutes long. Usually when you make a musical from a movie, you have to trim it down to make room for the music. Here, we could take a very slight story and actually expand it.
Q: You’re known for writing lyrics, for The Little Mermaid, School of Rock and Sister Act. But you’re not writing the lyrics for this one?
No, Wendy is a fantastic comic lyricist, and her lyrics for this show are steeped in the beatnik lingo of the era. I wrote the book, and we’ve worked very closely, talking through ideas we’re adding to the original story. She would write the songs, and I’d write the words around them.
Q: How different is this show from an earlier production you did in New York nine years ago?
The original version was very closely based on the film; it was a test run to see if vocalese could work. We both felt we wanted to expand the story, add characters, up the tension. Beatsville caught the eye of [director] Bill Berry of Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, and we liked his style. He wanted to find a partner, so he reached out to Michael Edwards at the Asolo.
Q: Is Broadway the goal?
First we want to move it to Seattle, do a run there incorporating what we learn from the production in Florida. So right now we’re completely focused on that task—to make the show the best it can be in Florida.
Q: Are there any drawbacks to working with your spouse?
Maybe that we’re each highly aware of everything that’s going on in the other person’s life. When I work with other collaborators I can be very tough about deadlines, but when you know the reason the other person may be late is because she’s taking care of your children…it’s a bit different. It’s so much fun, though. We call the show our third child.