From Page to Stage: the Making of a Musical
Member to Member
Volume 117, No. 10October, 2017
Creating and writing an original musical and bringing it to successful production is a time-consuming – and often arduous – labor of love. Local 802 member Dan Manjovi, a keyboardist, composer and arranger, debuted his original musical, “I Am, I Will, I Do,” last month at the 2017 New York Musical Festival. He wrote the following essay for Allegro about the process of navigating an original musical from the page to the stage. Manjovi has had a wide-ranging and interesting career as a musician, vocalist, actor, composer and teacher. His song “Somethin’s Comin’ My Way” appeared in the 2009 Oscar-winning film “Precious” (and its soundtrack recording). He’s also recorded several solo releases, and his credits in theatre include numerous regional and Off Broadway productions. Dan is a proud longtime member of Local 802, Actors’ Equity, and the Dramatists Guild, and is especially proud that the first New York production of “I Am, I Will, I Do” was all union. Manjovi was also thrilled to utilize Local 802’s Referral Service in recruiting the band personnel for the show.
How does a musical get born? Before I had ever thought about writing one, I had served in many productions as either a performer or musical director – or both, in a few cases. But my first foray as a musical theatre writer began in the early 2000s. I was approached by a small theatre company to write a musical revue and some scenes built around a few of my existing songs. I came up a loose plotline and three characters: a gay musician and his two best friends, who were boyfriend and girlfriend. We performed it once, but the company folded and the show went nowhere. But writing was fun and intriguing for me. I enjoyed creating characters, developing and writing scenes and songs, and combining elements of drama, comedy, lyrics and music.
Afterward, I spent the next few years on the road, musically directing or performing in various productions throughout the country, among them “Master Class” by Terrence McNally, and “Gunmetal Blues,” by Craig Bohmler. I also performed in staged readings of new works, including a 2006 workshop of a musical revue called “The End,” by George Furth (“Company,” “Merrily We Roll Along”), and Local 802 member Doug Katsaros. I credit those productions, and the directors and writers with whom I worked, with giving me the training ground, guidance, and valuable lessons in how a show is honed, staged and produced.
In 2010, back home performing, teaching, and recording in New York City, the initial creative impulse for what eventually became “I Am, I Will, I Do” came to me, ironically, through my work in the single engagement club date field.
Working, teaching, and doing occasional single engagement club dates, I found irony, poignancy, and humor in seeing so many LGBT people (myself included) who were part of the wedding business, but legally unable to get married. I also drew from my experience of how people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and walks of life seek the same things: love and fulfillment. I created a plot line that tracked the lives and struggles of a diverse group of friends, all connected to each other in some way, all at that pivotal age of 29 to 35, and all not quite where they had expected to be in life in one way or another. The ongoing national conversation about same-sex marriage was also part of the plot. I envisioned a romantic musical comedy about the ups and downs of 21st century relationships, not from a political, polemical standpoint, but from a human one.
Writing continued over the next few years, with continued character, plot, and score development. Rewrites were also required as the legal battle over same-sex marriage worked its way through the court system.
The three initial characters now became Dave Abbott (the musician) and Nancie and Richard Peterson (now married and Dave’s business partners in a wedding planning business). Dave is perpetually disappointed in his search for true love, and frustrated with his stalled composing career. Nancie and Richard, married ten years, are facing unresolved strains in their marriage around money, career and family planning. Valerie and Tony, a bickering couple whose imminent wedding is being planned by the three, are taking their second trip down the aisle due to commitment issues. The best man, Harris Barnsworth, an African-American human rights attorney, and would-be singer is not living his own life. And Dr. Lara, a minister, and Oprah wanna-be, is a 40ish single woman, whose dreams of success have been dashed. When Dave and Harris are suddenly thrown together to rehearse Dave’s song “I Am, I Will, I Do” for Valerie and Tony’s wedding, the two men are forced to confront each other and their foibles. Simultaneously, the different yet related struggles of the other two couples and Dr. Lara emerge. For the NYMF production, a small feature role was added for Grace Hightower DeNiro, who plays an elegant night club singer at the Bijou, the local Karaoke bar.
By 2015, having completed a script and score draft, I set about finding a theatre to stage a reading, and eventually found a developmental home at Amas Musical Theatre. Amas has developed many shows to successful fruition over 49 years. With their help and expertise, we mounted two developmental readings of the show in 2015. Extensive book, music and lyrics exploration and revisions were made, with songs and scenes edited, revised, re-written or replaced. That development process is so necessary for a show to move forward.
In 2016, I pursued every opportunity to move the show forward. Then, unexpectedly, in January 2017, I was invited by the New York Musical Festival to stage “I Am, I Will, I Do” as part of their Beta Series. The Beta series focuses on shows that are further along in their development, and the production focuses on one or two elements. I quickly accepted, and decided to focus on the elements of staging/choreography, and implementing the full orchestrations, which I had written during the course of the show’s development.
“I Am, I Will, I Do” is scored for a four-piece band: keys, guitar, bass and drums. As an 802 member, I felt it was important that our musicians and creative team be union, because union talent is simply the most professional and the best. I recommended David White (bass) and Brian Radock (drums) for the project. They had worked together on another show, “The Illusionists,” at the Palace, during its Broadway run.
The guitar chair was still unfilled, however. I was very committed to equal opportunity and diverse hiring at every level of our team, and I conveyed that to the music director, who contacted 802’s Referral Service. The union recommended the wonderful Ron Jackson to us, and we were all set!
From May to July, the various elements that go into putting a show on its feet began to take shape. The arrangements were an important part of the show, and I took a lot of care in rehearsing them with the band. We ran down each arrangement, and the musicians contributed 100 percent in making the charts sound their best – they were terrific! In July, during our final week of rehearsal, when we finally brought the band and the cast together, everyone was really excited and energized.
David White told me, “It’s always a pleasure to work on shows in development and be able to have one-on-one interaction with the composer and creative team to be able to really help craft the show. ‘I Am, I Will, I Do’ was no exception. Local 802 has been making such outstanding headway in the NYMF festival and I look forward to see what the show has to offer going forward!”
Guitarist Ron Jackson said, “I was really happy to be recommended by the Local 802 Referral Service! I got to meet such great talent!”
“I Am, I Will, I Do” ran at the NYMF Festival for three performances this year. All were sold out, and enthusiastically received with standing ovations. In attendance were luminaries such as composer (and 802 member) Alan Menken, and actors Robert DeNiro and Judith Light, among others. Seeing and hearing the show performed onstage by a wonderful cast, and the score played by excellent musicians, with everyone giving their best, is thrilling. And big thanks to 802 for creating a positive work environment for its members, so that new shows can be developed and produced.
Dan Manjovi is a longtime member of Local 802. If you are a Local 802 member with a story idea for our “Member to Member” column, send an e-mail to Mikael Elsila.