This past Sunday, I had the honor of being a part of one of Musical Theater Factory’s first public events: a screening of HBO’s The Normal Heart. The evening was a little impromptu, sort of ragged and exactly the sort of experience I dreamed of when I moved to this city.
Over the past few months, Shakina, the beauty, brains and brawn behind this company, has been hard at work building a safe-space for musical theater development. And I mean literally building! With her very own hands, she took a dirty, empty, I’m-not-sure-I’m-allowed-to-say-in-writing-what-this-room-was-used-for space and turned into a beautiful new black box theater. It’s a process that I, and many friends, have been lucky enough to witness and even help out with. (If you don’t get a splinter from the wooden surfaces, you can thank me. If you do…just pretend you never read this.)
Sunday night, Shakina planned on having a few folks over to the space to watch The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s harrowing 1980s era AIDS play that has now been turned into an incredibly emotional, important film by Ryan Murphy. Sunday afternoon, Shakina texted me asking if, after the movie, I would mind playing a few songs from Eighty-Sixed. Eighty-Sixed is a new musical I’m in the process of developing with my gifted bookwriter, Jeremy Jordan King, and our wonderful producer, Aaron Glick. Based on the David Feinberg novel, our musical is set in the 1980s. It revolves around one gay man’s relationship with the AIDS outbreak and its effect on his ability to connect. There are obviously a lot of parallels to The Normal Heart, but David Feinberg’s writing has this incredible, unique sense of humor that he maintains in the face of (or even to better understand) absolute horror. It’s a new show. We have a draft and a couple of demo tracks that are making their rounds, but I’ve never performed songs from it to anyone other than our producer, a few friends and my neighbors who, because of thin walls, have no say in the matter. So…even though it made me nervous, I said yes to Shakina and agreed to play. We text, tweet, facebook, all of that silly modern communication stuff we do now and before we know it, this little low-key evening turns into a pretty well-attended event.
In this not-quite-finished theater, a combination of friends and strangers—gay, straight, trans, who cares—poured some wine, squeezed together on couches, grabbed extra folding chairs, and watched The Normal Heart together. We laughed when we saw the silly parts of our lives acted out up there on the screen. We held hands when it was terrifying. We passed each other tissues when needed. When the film was over, we sat together in silence for minutes, overcome by the experience. We were united. It’s a feeling I will never forget.
Jeremy and I then had the pleasure of sharing our work with this room of people we were now able to call friends. We talked about the story and our goals for the piece. I banged my way through three songs, at one point even singing a duet with myself. Clearly, it was not the most polished performance in the world. Hopefully, the show will go on to be performed by people who can actually sing and that’ll all be just swell, but this…that night was something special. It was our first: the first time those words and those notes were ever performed in front of an audience. It was a beautiful experience for me. I think people liked it. I also think Jeremy and I learned so much about our piece just by simply presenting it to an audience. That’s an important step in the creation of new work and I am so, so grateful to Shakina for giving us the opportunity to do so.
I am beyond thrilled to be a part of the Musical Theater Factory. Shakina is bravely creating a home for young theater artists to practice their craft. It’s a place where you can be daring. You can be foolish. You can be wild, but most of all, you can be supported. Sitting at that piano, pounding out brand new songs in an almost-finished theater will one day be a memory I look back on with a fond tear in my eye. Today, however, I’m using it as a beacon—a call to create, and create fearlessly.