Is this your first experience with NYMF?
We submitted TRAV’LIN to NYMF last year but were not accepted. We were not even aware a Next Link applicant could become an invited show. When I read the e-mail from Lily, I didn’t go past the “We are sorry to inform you . . .” until Gary called that evening and asked what I thought she meant by an invitation.
How have you enjoyed your time in the festival so far this year?
With a strong drink in my hand. Bada-boom. But seriously, it’s been an exciting, exhilarating and exhausting trip. I am so grateful to the amazing group of people who have come together to make this happen. Attending rehearsals has been joyful, partly from sharing the process of discovery as the show has come to life and partly from the sheer delight of spending time with these wonderful artists.
Tell us about your journey to NYMF, has the show Trav’lin had any other incarnations before the festival?
My journey to NYMF began in 1984, when I was practicing music law and a young man and an older woman with a lovely British accent came to see me about licensing a song catalogue for a musical. It turned out, of course, the visitors were my co-author Gary Holmes and J.C.’s widow, Julie Johnson Nash. I was immediately intrigued when I read the script and thought it would be of interest to people I knew in the industry. However, it was 180 pages long and not yet ready to pitch, although the three couples in their 20s, 30s and 50s and key plot devices were there from the start. I offered to join the project as a creative producer and worked in that capacity with Gary for a few years. Then around 1990, life happened, he and I went our separate ways and TRAV’LIN went on the shelf. Around 2003 I received a call from him, out of the blue – he had tracked me down and wanted to know if I’d like to restart the project. He asked me to become a full co-author and I jumped at the chance. We worked on the project for a number of months, working mainly by telephone, until life happened again, this time in the form of a family illness, and the show went back on the shelf until 2005. We picked it up once more and committed ourselves to finishing the script. In 2009, we had the chance to participate in the York Theatre Company Developmental Reading series, our first public performance, and had a return visit this past May. We learned a great deal from our audiences – much of it encouraging, and much of it showing us what we had to do better – and we continued to refine the show through August when we froze the script to start production.
What drew you to the music of JC Johnson?
I enjoy music of the era generally so perhaps I was an easy sell. But three things about his writing attracted me in particular. One is its jazzy, tuneful character. His melodies have a natural bounce and swing that is infectious. Second is the strong dramatic point of view of many numbers. Just the titles – “You Better Finish What You Start With Me” or “Hold My Hand,” as examples – instantly put you in the story. This aspect of his work lent itself to dramatic settings and allowed us to weave the vintage songs seamlessly into the new script. Third, and maybe most important, is the emotional quality of his music. Working on the material all these years, what comes through to me is a wonderful gentle soul. I find a great deal of empathy for the human condition coupled with wry humor about how silly people can be, especially about love.
I see that there are characters named Billie and Ella, are these based on Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald?
Not in so many words, although they are named after those singers (as George refers to George Whiting and Ros to Rose Morgan). The characters are entirely fictional, but grounded in people J.C. knew or who are famous Harlem celebrities. Billie, for example, sells food from a street cart as did the real Lillian Harris Dean, who was known as Pig Foot Mary and opened a phenomenally successful Harlem restaurant. If you visit our web site, http://travlinthemusical.com, the “Characters” page describes their historical antecedents. The “Music” page also explains a bit about the history of the songs.
How has being an entertainment lawyer shaped your creative career?
Thank you for suggesting I’ve had a creative career. I will say that I could not have pulled off being a producer as well as a writer for TRAV’LIN without that experience. Although I never got into the daily details to the same degree as a lawyer, I did learn a lot about how the business works and what it takes to put a show together. I would go over production budgets with the GMs when I was preparing offering circulars, which gave me insight into all the moving parts as well as the finances. Negotiating contracts with the Dramatists Guild and with Actors’ Equity gave me chance to see the process from several different perspectives. I found being an entertainment lawyer to be something of a mixed bag, though: I loved dealing with many of my clients but most of them were having a lot more fun at work than I was.
Is there anything else we should know about your show? Why should someone see Trav’lin??
Here are a few things I’d like people to know. First, even though we’re using vintage songs, and in many cases exactly or very close to the original lyrics, one key writing objective has been to integrate the score with the book to drive narrative and character in the manner of a contemporary musical. Our goal is for the audience to experience the piece holistically, where the old and the new blend seamlessly together. Second, something of a corollary, is that we have endeavored to remain faithful to the gentle and generous spirit of J.C.s work. We have striven to create characters that have the same genuineness as the music. We have tried to introduce humor – and we have reason to believe the show is funny – that arises from people being who they are rather than from actors telling jokes. Lastly is why people should see the show — beyond having a good time and hearing terrific music sung by a enormously talented cast. Not to get overly serious, we are living in a period of great divisiveness and partisanship. TRAV’LIN is about people connecting across their differences, both in the narrative of the play and the roots of the project in Gary’s relationship with J.C.. Although the show is set in a specific time and place, the story is universal. If we have succeeded, the show will touch the audience in a way that reawakens their appreciation of the people they care about. See it with someone you love, and you’ll love them a little bit more.