Wednesday, July 8, 2009

40 is the New 15 Interview w/ writers Johnson & O'Connor


40 is the New 15, a new musical from Larry Todd Johnson (book and lyrics) and Cindy O’Connor (music), is set to open July 22 in North Hollywood. Produced by the Academy for New Musical Theatre (ANMT), it follows the lives of five 40-somethings as they look back to when they were 15 and wonder…if they’d known then what they know now, would it have made any difference?

The show has been in development with ANMT for the past couple of years and has received several staged readings in Los Angeles, in addition to its most recent reading at Theatre Building Chicago. 40 is the New 15 is currently in rehearsals for its first full scale production, opening July 22 at the Secret Rose Theatre. The cast will feature Taji Coleman as Winter, Tod Macofsky as Kevin, Ed Martin as Robby, Kevin Noonchester as Oren and Angela Wolcott as Sarah. The director is Michele Spears and Cindy O’Connor also musical directs.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to Larry and Cindy about their experience writing the new musical.

MLA: I’ve seen two previous readings of 40 is the New 15 and audiences seem to really resonate with your message. What inspired you to write this particular show?

LARRY: Cindy and I were coming up on 40 ourselves, and have known each other since we were teenagers. We had a series of conversations about turning 40, and about how little our perceptions of ourselves have changed since puberty. I still see myself as that awkward unattractive kid that I was then, no matter how I try to change my exterior… and I think this is a very common thing among forty-somethings. Also, we didn’t think people our age were being adequately represented in the musical theatre, so we decided to write a show about us.

CINDY: We wanted to write a fun show about turning 40, but also examine the idea that the basic essence of who we are, our authentic self, doesn’t really change with age - we still have the same needs and hopes and special qualities that we had as teenagers.

MLA: Are your characters based on real people?

LARRY: Once we decided on the concept, I based the characters on people I knew in my childhood. Some characters are direct parallels to me, my best friend, and an acquaintance of mine, and others are amalgams of various people I went to high school with. The ‘action’ of the 1983 portion of the story is somewhat autobiographical. One of the characters is very much my personal story.

MLA: Have the two of you worked together previously or is this a first time collaboration?

LARRY: Cindy and I have written quite a bit together. We wrote a one-act together in college, then when I was in graduate school, we wrote my master’s thesis together, a show called
All That He Was, which was our first full-length show. It was a surprising success; we won the ACTF musical theatre award and the Kennedy Center National Playwrights’ Award. We also toured nationally and internationally with the show, it was published by Samuel French, and we ended up with a Los Angeles production that was pretty successful. After that, we wrote a series of murder mystery musicals that were a lot of fun, but nothing that reached the same sort of emotional peak as All That He Was. We took a break for a few years, while I was producing for Disney, and Cindy was performing and composing for Film and TV. Then we came back together for 40 is the New 15.

MLA: What comes first – the music or the lyrics? And how does that work with the book?

LARRY: We usually do a very loose draft of the book first, somewhere between an outline and a draft, with Cindy and I going back and forth until both of us are happy with the structure. Then the lyrics follow from there. Of course, there are always exceptions. Sometimes Cindy brings a melody to the table that really works for a sequence and we start from there. Sometimes my lyric is just an inspiration, and when the melody happens, the lyrics change drastically to match it. But most often, the lyrics happen first, and they don’t change all that much with the melody.

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MLA: What has been the most challenging or unusual aspect of writing a new musical?

LARRY: I guess the most challenging thing, from my perspective, is how long it takes! We both write pretty fast, really, and can come up with a solid first draft of something pretty quickly. But for something to get to a point where it really works, theatrically, it may take multiple drafts; the perspective one can only get from hearing the song or scene performed and tweaked and performed again, is invaluable, and all that means lots of time.

CINDY: The hardest thing for me is deciding to throw out a beloved song because it doesn’t work in the context of the show! And we have thrown out several. But if it slows the story down or doesn’t reveal anything new about the character, it’s got to go.

MLA: And the most exciting aspect?

LARRY: The most exciting moment is always when the actor reaches the audience… when you can feel that the audience ‘gets it’… and there is electricity. There is no greater high that I can think of. It’s an amazing feeling.

CINDY: Definitely seeing it all come to life is exciting. Theater is such a collaborative art, and there are always new elements and discoveries that a director and actors will bring.

MLA: Speaking of actors, how has working with different casts in the previous readings in LA and Chicago affected your rewrites?

LARRY: The Chicago cast was a real eye-opener for us. Some things didn’t work nearly as well as they originally did in LA, and I think we realized that at least one of the roles required a certain type of performance in order to be really accessible. Other things worked MUCH better…and we realized how going with a different type altogether could really enhance the role. When we did our rewrite after Chicago, we had these things in our heads, and tried to play up the new facets we had found in the characters.

MLA: Were you involved in the casting process for the current production in LA? If so, what was it about these particular actors that made you choose them?

LARRY: Yes, thankfully, we were totally involved. Our director, Michele Spears, is very open and we are able to express ourselves fully as to our vision of the show. In the end, I think we went with the people who most resembled the vision we had in our heads of how the character would look, sound, and act. And, since it’s going to be a pretty intimate production, we really wanted a naturalistic approach to the characters.

MLA: Who have been your influences (musical or life....).

LARRY: As a child, I was raised on country and folk music, and I didn’t get into theatre until my parents shoved me into it because they didn’t know what else to do with me. (My brothers were all athletic… me… not so much.) Of course, the school groups and community theatre groups all did the classic musicals over and over… and once I discovered the classics, I was hooked. I’m still a big fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Jerry Herman. Can’t beat the classics. Also, I’m addicted to Sondheim and I think he’s a genius.

CINDY: I'm such a hodgepodge of musical influences - I love good music of any genre. I grew up playing classical piano and listening to pop and dance music, show tunes, jazz... West Side Story was one that blew my mind as a teenager. I love melody and adore the great pop songwriters - Burt Bacharach, The Beatles and Elvis Costello are a few random favorites.

MLA: So, if YOU could go back, what do you wish you'd known then that you know now?

LARRY: I wish I knew that there were lots of other gay guys at my high school! I thought I was the only one! I also wish I knew that my Dad loved me and was proud of me. Sadly, I didn’t really know that until it was too late.

CINDY: I wish I had known how to feel comfortable in my skin and stop worrying about what everybody else was thinking and doing. And how to tell if a boy liked me.

40 is the New 15 will run Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood July 22 – August 27. Tickets are available on ANMT’s website at
. Several dates are already sold out, so make sure you get your tickets now.


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