By Bridget Morgan, Associate Director of Branding and Communications
“There’s something tricky about the pronunciation of ‘Sam, hey we can see you,’ so we’re going to go switch that to ‘Sam, now we can see you,’ so please note that on your script and make sure that you’re doing that throughout the ‘Henny Street’ number.” The creative team is in the final throes of preparing Here and Their for an invited presentation at the end of a 29-hour reading. The cast received new pages this morning and still minor adjustments are being penciled in as they run through the numbers in the show, zeroing in on pronunciation and clear delivery.
Here and Their is the first musical of the First Draft: Raise Your Voice new musical development program at The 5th to complete its development cycle. Designed to create early opportunities for new voices in the musical theater landscape, First Draft in its inaugural cycle solicited musical pitches from women, gender queer, trans, and non-binary writers. From 80 submissions, ultimately four were selected to receive a first draft commission from The 5th which in addition to a stipend, granted the writers a writer’s retreat in Seattle with dramaturgical support and a final 29-hour reading in New York with a professional cast and creative team that included direction by Hunter Bird and Music Direction by Matt Hinkley.
Written by Seattle locals Jasmine Joshua (they/them) and Alexei Cifrese (she/he/her/him), along with Los Angeles-based composer Heather Ragusa (she/her), Here and Their is a wild and joyful story about letting go of the world’s expectations and trusting the voice within that cries out who you are. Sam O’Malley, a 33-year-old accountant from Butte, Montana, is happily engaged to a loving chef and working at the family restaurant. But Sam uncovers a carefully guarded family secret—a long-lost relative is in fact the lesbian punk rock icon Vikki Vektor—that lights a fire of self-discovery for Sam, particularly when they stumble across new concepts like “non-binary,” “trans masculine,” and “gender queer.” As Sam digs deeper into a world that is simultaneously completely unknown and innately familiar, they find themselves on a journey across the country and through the gender spectrum.
A diverse mix of genders, ages, and races, this professional cast is committed to telling the story as authentically as possible, but there is an eagerness in the room. Few of the trans performers in the room have had the opportunity to share a story that is so close to home, particularly one that is this joyful and honest.
After an hour long lunch break, the cast and creative team arrive to a room transformed to accommodate nearly 40 invited guests. Some are friends and family of the show’s creators. Some are staff and Board Members from The 5th. Some are have connections to Broadway while others have connections to regional incubators for new musicals. But as soon as the performance begins, the love in the room is humming in rhythm with the show.
When the show was pitched in 2018, the writers initially thought the focus would be much stronger on the family members in Sam’s community and how their understanding of the gender spectrum grows in relation to their understanding of Sam. But over the course of the last year, the writers spent extensive time writing the show to completion, and then getting out the red pen and slashing it back until at last the truth of the story began to take shape and the focus of the storytelling lasered in on Sam and the upheaval that comes with this kind of game-changing self-discovery.
At the end of the presentation, celebration and hugs abounded. The cast and creative team left and made their way to the Holdfast, a little bar on W. 46th street where they shared drinks and stories for the next two hours. “You know this is unusual, don’t you?” one of the cast said to one of the writers. “In New York, when you do a 29-Hour Reading, at the end of the week you say ‘it was so nice to work with you, goodbye.’ But this work really touched all of these people and they are out here celebrating with you.”
The next morning, bleary-eyed from the emotional rush of seeing their baby performed by professionals in this setting, the writers met for breakfast. “Okay, I’m not working or anything, but…” Ragusa says, and immediately they spiral into a conversation about what they learned from the presentation – places that the storytelling could be tightened, characters who need some focus, hiccups in the tone. When you’ve spent a week eating, sleeping, and breathing a story that you have spent the last year shaping from the raw mana of creativity, you don’t just move on and talk about the Seahawks over breakfast. The joy of creation is a high, and being in New York for a reading like this isn’t something any of these writers every thought they’d have the opportunity to do.
What’s next for Here and Their? The 5th’s formal commitment to the musical is at an end with this reading. But the writers have formed relationships here that will help them as they continue to develop and workshop the musical and work toward a first-staged production. And the impression they made on key people in New York City will serve them as they continue on their creative journey.
That’s what the First Draft: Raise Your Voice program was designed to do – to create early opportunities enabling new musical theater voices to tell new stories, and to help new writers get their foot in the door.
Next month, The 5th will support writers Isabella Dawis and Tidtaya Sinutoke as they do their 29-Hour Reading in New York of Half the Sky, a story about a Thai-American woman who has set out to fulfill her dream of summiting Mount Everest. Then in January, Lauren Taslitz and Emily Chiu will present their new musical, Bak Chang—a cartwheel through the complexities of grief and family recipes—and Kit Yan and Melissa Li will present their new musical, Miss Step—the story of one unremarkable trans woman’s commitment to take the competitive aerobics world by storm.
And that will draw the inaugural cycle of this program to a close. How bittersweet it will be to say farewell to all of these incredible projects, and what a thrill it will be to see what the industry has in store for all of these writers. If you’re interested in following the journey of each of these projects, or if you would like to be a part of their continued development, please reach out to Associate Artistic Director Kelsey Thorgalsen.
Meanwhile, The 5th Avenue Theatre will move on to its second cycle. We will open submissions in March of 2020. Stay tuned to learn more!