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Interviewing the composer and writer of Stunt Girl
Interviewing the composer and writer of Stunt Girl
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Stunt Girl
Village Theatre
Through May 24


The Village Theatre continues its love affair with new musicals by world-premiering Stunt Girl this week. "World-premiering" is becoming a regular thing there, where they are pulling productions appearing first in their Festival of New Musicals (each summer) and producing them in full productions on their main stage. In fact, not only are they world-premiering Stunt Girl, they are also premiering Chasing Nicolette in September as part of the 2009-2010 season.

The amazing part is these musicals are both written by the same pair! Composer David Friedman and book (script) and lyric writer Peter Kellogg have teamed up since the mid-1990s on several musicals. It's quite a unique situation for two musicals by the same people to be presented so closely together in time at the same theater. Friedman and Kellogg hope that both of these musicals and another they've written, Desperate Measures, will all be Broadway-bound in the very near future. Especially since the two Village productions will be worked on like a pre-Broadway launch.

The SGN had the privilege of talking to these gentlemen about themselves and their shows and how they develop their musicals. Today's discussion is about the musical opening now, Stunt Girl. Later, we'll hear more about their development as writers and get a great description of what songs are supposed to "do" for the story.

You may know of these artists from previous credits. Peter Kellogg has two Tony nominations for his work on Anna Karenina, a musical he wrote with composer Dan Levine based on the classic Leo Tolstoy novel, which went straight to Broadway in 1992.

David Friedman had a long history as a music director on Broadway. He worked on an early musical, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (a musical adapted from a Kurt Vonnegut novel), with Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Friedman relates, "One night Alan Menken called and said, 'I just signed a three-picture deal to do Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas. Wanna do 'em?' 'Sure!' So I did vocal arrangements and music direction for those movies." He wrote a number of hit songs for Diana Ross and Barry Manilow, and went on to also write songs for other Disney movies.

Stunt Girl is an oddly titled musical about historical, internationally-known journalist Nellie Bly. Peter Kellogg explains the topic and the title. "When I started working on this, there was nothing about Nellie Bly except chapter books for young girls about inspirational women, and Nellie Bly would be one chapter between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Blackwell. She was a fascinating person, but there was no depth to her life. I had never heard of Nellie Bly, but my wife suggested it. Of course, the more you learn about her, the more fascinating she is. And the most fascinating thing is that people don't know her today, and she was the most famous in the world when she went around the world in 72 days." Kellogg feels like this musical could resurrect Bly as a historical figure worth knowing about. "Our hope is to do for her what [the musical] 1776 did for John Adams. John Adams said history is not going to remember me, they're going to remember Jefferson and Washington and he was basically right until 1776."

The name "stunt girl" came from Bly's remarkable undercover journalism, getting herself checked into an insane asylum and writing an exposé. Kellogg explains, "The article was so successful that it spawned an entire generation of 'stunt girls' [women writers]. Everyone 'had one.' The irony is all these amazing things in her life were treated as a stunt, something that women shouldn't do. She was a trailblazer in many things." David Friedman jumps in to add, "She ran a major corporation. She introduced health care to the corporate world."

"She paid women and men the same wages, which was unheard-of in those days, and still is unheard of today," Kellogg adds.

Friedman continues, "Those are called 'stunts,' as opposed to if a man did it. From that standpoint, it is a women's story, but as I sit and watch the rehearsals, what I see is that you have somebody who plays big and goes for things, and gets into all sorts of trouble. The kind of trouble we all get into. People get divorced. People lose their jobs. People go bankrupt. People have love affairs that don't work out. At so many points, you think she's down for the count, and then you see what happens next."

Friedman wants the audience to identify with celebrities as real people. "I have the deepest belief that everything that happens once you set your intention is leading you towards that intention, even if it seems like it's not. If you want to find true love, the person you're currently with might leave you, because that's what has to happen. If you said, 'I want to get the job of my dreams,' your house might burn down and you're forced to live with your aunt in another city and that's where you find the job of your dreams. In her life, she went for it, a lot went wrong, a lot went right and it will be very inspiring in this time to see a person who persevered, who felt the pain. People think that people who are successful, are stars, don't get pain. They feel tremendous pain."

Stunt Girl came as a workshop musical to Village's Festival of New Musicals in the summer of 2005. As it happened, the Village was evaluating musicals "blind" (didn't know who wrote them) and liked it. Then they found out that Desperate Measures, a musical based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, was also included. They were both Kellogg-Friedman musicals!

Both Kellogg and Friedman are thrilled with the cast and crew working on Stunt Girl. They are extremely happy with the Seattle-based cast, and even in New York, when they did casting, they found Sarah Chalfy, who turns out to be from the Seattle area, and is coming home for the production to play Nellie! Kellogg explains that "it's a difficult role because you have to be funny, you have to be touching, you have to have a lot of vocal stamina, a lot of vocal power and a beautiful voice and be charismatic on stage. We liked Sarah the best! We're very excited about the whole cast. It's a great cast."

Friedman continues, "This theater has its heart and its eye in the right place. It's all about art, all about collaboration, all about getting the best thing. You walk in the first day and you see the gorgeous costumes and the sets and the attention to detail. & R.J. [Tancioco] is the best music director I've ever worked with! In my whole life!" Since Friedman was a music director, himself, that is extremely high praise for Tancioco.

Writing about a real, historical person means a lot of research, but then, you have to determine what to dramatize. Friedman explains why audiences will relate to Nellie's life. "She had a life where she had tremendous triumph and great loss and where her whole life, as we now tell it, was about figuring out what matters. Is ambition more important than relationship? Will relationship be enough? Is achievement important?"

Both have left their relationships in New York for their extended stay here. Kellogg has a wife and young son in New York, and Friedman leaves his partner, Reverend Shawn Moninger, who was formerly a lighting and sound designer, and became founding president of The Unity Church of New York. The Unity Church teaches that God is good, and so are His creations. Friedman works with his partner in the Unity movement, and writes music that emphasizes that sentiment. Stunt Girl's aim is to lift our spirits and encourage us to keep moving forward in times of trouble. Pretty much a necessity, these days. For more information, go to www.villagetheatre.org or call 425-392-2202.

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