Ellen: Highway Blue has had quite the journey (no pun intended). Could you tell us a bit about the initial kernel of the idea, any other various incarnations, and where you have currently landed?
Caroline: Highway Blue is one in a trilogy of fantastical love story musicals. The other two are called Motel Blue and Western Blue. These "Blues" are my take on the eternal pleasure and pain of falling in and out of love. Each one builds it’s own world around its heroine and hero and all contain a character Siglinda who serves as a kind of guide for the audience as they travel through these worlds.
In Highway Blue, Mary Belle and Benjamin begin as friends then lose track of one another; our story picks up with them reconnecting later in life now maybe ready to face the love between them. We're used to seeing romantic comedies begin with a "meet-cute," the traditional form follows that after their initial meeting we watch a series of complications play out before they end up together happily ever after... I wondered how epic these complications keeping them apart could become?
When we experience the loss of someone close to our hearts our world feels their absence. So when it seems Mary Belle and Benjamin are lost to one another, perhaps now forever, their world together, a fantastical musical world, feels this absence in the loss of its fantastical musical elements. We move from metaphorical color to black and white until all can be made right.
Ellen: How are writing lyrics different than writing dialogue for you? Or is the process similar?
Caroline: I feel the similarities more than the differences. Hopefully all my writing—dialogue, lyrics, and music strives to operate in service of the story. One of the particular challenges of lyric writing is the question of rhymes. I enjoy the rigor of making true rhymes (sure, sometimes "enjoyment" might involve the pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth). Ultimately in theater, everything has to connect with an audience’s ear. Lyric writing provided me with a new approach and attention to thinking about how my dialogue sits in the ear.
Ellen: I know that in the past you have had plays with music, but if this is your first official musical I am curious how that term has shaped the process. What changed in framing the piece with the term: musical?
Caroline: I took the term “musical” as an invitation to push the boundaries of what I imagined possible on stage in terms of theatrical storytelling. I have a great respect for the traditional form of the American musical; I also love opera and the vaudeville and music hall traditions, so there are plenty of places I to go for inspiration for how music can work on stage.
Funny thing about me, I've been writing songs longer than I've been writing plays. I was that kid alone in her room with her guitar, not practicing for her lesson, but writing her own stuff instead. However, I couldn't sing to match what I heard in my head, which drove me nuts, so eventually I stopped playing guitar, writing songs and took up the bassoon.
Soon after I started writing plays, songs began to find their way into some of them, but I still wasn’t able to achieve the sound of what I was hearing in my head. Then I met Eli Zoller. He joined Estate, my last play-with-music, when our music supervisor Aaron Gandy brought him on board as orchestrator/musical director.
When I first heard Eli’s orchestrations for Estate, I felt he understood the music in my head and could expand on ideas in it to beyond what I could achieve alone. He committed to Highway Blue early on in my writing process, so I approached the music for this piece with a newfound sense of freedom and fearlessness. I redefined my definition of "sing-able moment.” I wrote full company numbers. I hurled myself headlong into the unknown (for me) knowing if I ran into serious trouble, I wouldn't have to find my way out alone. As a collaborator, Eli brings a passion to my music’s orchestration as tireless as mine for writing it.
So why isn’t this advertised as a new “musical”? Why do we call it a musical-play? Well, a third of the stage time is spent without music, which seemed to beg for the word “play” to be included in the definition. However, as we near the end of our rehearsal process on this initial production I’m ready to drop “play” from the description. Silence and all, this is indeed a musical through and through.
Ellen: What has been the most surprising thing about Highway Blue in the rehearsal room? And what did you find most challenging in this process?
Caroline: I find it incredibly thrilling to watch what other people’s imaginations bring to a world first conceived by me alone in my room. It’s why I write for the theater. Every day working on this production has had its share of happy surprises and when conflicts inevitably arise, I feel like we’re able to arrive at solutions comprised of the best parts of what everyone’s brought to the table. Our producer David Carpenter is a guiding force behind making this kind of collaboration possible.
This is my first time working with director Jennifer Sandella. Like Eli, I feel she can see beyond what I put down on the page. She has a wonderful eye and has done an amazing job of recognizing, articulating, and protecting the core essence of this piece.
There are several design challenges in this production, the foremost being two singing gas pumps. At the start the question was: are they costume or scenic elements? In the end, all three of our talented designers (as well as our dynamic comic duo of actors) have contributed elements to bring them to life.
We have a fantastic cast. Since this is my first musical, it’s the first time I’ve worked with trained musical theater actors. Hearing them sing is a revelation. But I’m not asking them “just” to act and sing, they also have to transport this story into a world without music… fortunately this company has phenomenal chops all round.
I would be completely remiss if in speaking about our rehearsal room I didn’t mention our stage manager Alejandra and her assistant Janette, who are diligent about keeping us on the road moving forward. Before I even made it to the rehearsal room I had you, Ellen my fabulous dramaturg, with your insightful questions and research to keep me personally on the road moving forward. And without Sarah Eismann, Karly Fisher, Ito Aghayere and all at Manhattan Shakespeare Project who commissioned this piece, I wouldn’t be writing this at all.
Ellen: What are you working on next? How can we see it?!
Caroline: Up next will be my thesis play, which will be part of the Columbia University New Plays Now 2012 festival in April at the East 4th Street Theater.
Ellen: Final question, I’ve been wondering about this for quite a while now. In Highway Blue there is a character Sunshine Ice Cream Man. What is your favorite kind of ice cream?
Caroline: Mint chocolate chip.
Ellen: And on that note, I highly recommend you see Highway Blue and get a cone of mint chocolate chip before or after the show to celebrate. Merci mille fois to Caroline for taking the time to answer these questions; your responses are illuminating, thoughtful, and full. Information about the show is below.
Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre at The Players Theatre
115 Macdougal Street
July 21, 22, 23, 28, 29. 30 @8pm
July 23 @2pm
August, 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 @8pm
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission.
For tickets please visit www.theatermania.com/new-y ork/shows/highway-blue_183 280/
For theater information and tickets please visit www.theplayerstheatre.com
Please also visit www.manhattanshakes.org and www.randomaccesstheatre.co m
Originally commissioned by Manhattan Shakespeare Project