The In Conversation series brings together theatre artists of all disciplines together to discuss their work, their process, their passions, and their teeth. In this installment, composer Anna K. Jacobs answers questions from the cast of Teeth, an upcoming reading presented by Musical Theatre Factory at Playwrights Horizons.
Adapted from the 2007 Sundance Award-winning indie horror film by Mitchell Lichtenstein, Teeth tells the story of Dawn O’Keefe, an evangelical Christian teen with a dirty little secret: she has teeth in her vagina. When the men in Dawn’s life try to exploit her, she is forced to confront the teeth and decide whether to sacrifice or harness them.Hana Slevin (Apostlette) asks:
How did you come to know the film, and what made you think, “This will make a great musical?”
I only watched the film once Michael approached me about working on the musical adaptation of it, which is funny, because since working on Teeth, I’ve learned just how huge and passionate a following it has. When I watched the film I immediately saw a fun challenge in taking the visual horror and suspense (and prosthetic penises) of the film and finding a way to evoke that horror and suspense (and those prosthetic penises) through music instead.
Was the film your first encounter with the folktale/myth behind it (vagina dentata)? (I know it certainly was for me!)
Actually, no! When I was an undergrad at music school, I hang out with this one set of very intellectual, mostly gay, male grad students (music theorists and composers, to be exact) and one of them swore that he had never been with a woman owing to his fear of Vagina Dentata. I’d be interested to know what his relationship with his mother is like.
What was the toughest scene or moment to get on the page, and how did you push through creatively?
Was? 😉 We are trying to write the penultimate scene of the show right now, and that’s proving to be a tough one to crack. Something I’ve found through writing a few musicals now is that if you nail the details of your Act 1, the second act kind of just writes itself, but if you get any of those details wrong, you’re screwed.
Bruce Warren (Dr. Godrey/Principal) asks:
Considering the source materials are of a somewhat similar ilk, did Little Shop of Horrors inspire any structural elements and/or characters in Teeth (i.e. PKGs / Urchins, Gynecologist / Dentist, etc…)?
I actually only saw Little Shop after people started making that comparison! So, for me, no. I guess there’s just something universal to the idea of a Greek Chorus of ladies singing in simmering 3-part harmony and a mentally unhinged medical professional with a penchant for teeth.
Christiana Cole (Melanie/Promise Keeper Girl/Apostlette) asks:
The subject matter – and the lyrics – of Teeth are often very edgy and can be graphic. During your creative process, have you dealt with fears that the piece might be too scandalous for Broadway audiences? Are there other boundary-pushing musicals you have looked to as models for how to introduce audiences to Teeth?
I’ve always felt that mine and MJ’s job as the writers of Teeth is to honor the source material and themes of our show and realize them with 100% commitment. If that means composing a Kurt Weill-style number for a singing gynecologist, then so be it. I do take time to reflect on who the audience of our show is, but I don’t bother worrying about whether that audience is a Broadway audience. There are so many factors that ultimately determine whether a show makes it to Broadway or not, and though I’d love to have a show of mine represented on the Great White Way, I don’t think Broadway is be all and end all of musical theater. Being from another country helps to remind me of that.
One thing I particularly love about Anna’s writing is how she uses the whole range of a woman’s voice (especially our oft-neglected low register), and in sophisticated, fresh ways. Anna, what is your secret? Why are you so good at this?
I mean, I wish I could say it’s just ‘cause I’m brilliant, but it’s more likely because our Greek Chorus of Apostlettes sing a lot of 3-part harmony in Teeth. I came to musical theater from the world of classical music, where I worked predominantly as a composer and arranger of choral and a cappella music. When you couple that with my years of conducting schoolgirl choirs and a cappella groups, it’s no surprise really that I know how to get the most bang for my buck when writing for the female voice. Also, I have one. I just don’t show it off much in public!
I love that your music is so catchy and soulful but also so theatrical! Who are your musical influences?
Geez, thanks! MJ and I definitely cite Tori Amos as a key inspiration for the score of Teeth. But generally speaking, I love mainstream music, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Jessie J., Sia, John Mayer – all that good stuff. MJ is a big influence on me too. When setting his lyrics, I’m always asking myself what musical choices he’d be making if he were setting them himself.
If your vagina was an animal, what animal would it be and why?
Easy – a lion, because it’s fierce and has a little mane.
How long have you been working together/ Is this your first piece together? How did you come to your partnership?
Teeth is our first full-length project together. Otherwise, we’ve just written a few trunk songs and a 10-minute musical together. MJ and I met at the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. We weren’t in the same cycle (he was in 14, I was in 17), but we used to hang out in the common area of the program’s building on 2nd Ave and bond over Pommes Frites. I’ve been a huge fan of MJ’s since the moment I heard his songs. He is so freaking talented and brings out the best in me as a writer-composer.
What do you hope the audience learns/takes away from seeing Teeth?
That to be the hero of a musical, you don’t have to have a penis.