A Conversation with Stunt Girl Creators Peter S. Kellogg and David Friedman
By Joel Markowitz
Washington audiences have another chance to see a musical in development when The American Century Theater (TACT) presents a free staged reading of the new musical Stunt Girl on June 27 and 29th. Stunt Girl was written by TACT Board member and Tony-nominated playwright Peter S. Kellogg, (two Tony nominations in 1993 for the book and score of the musical version of Anna Karenina), with music by David Friedman (Saving Aimee).
Peter and David along with director Larry Kaye talk about Stunt Girl, their collaboration, and how the staged readings at TACT will help in the musical’s development.
Joel: Tell us about Stunt Girl.
Peter: Stunt Girl is about the life of Nellie Bly. If you just said “Nellie who?”- you’re not alone. But once upon a time, she was world-famous.
Nellie Bly was New York’s first female reporter and probably the first investigative journalist. To win a job with Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World, she pretended to be insane, got herself committed to the Women’s Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, then wrote a series of articles about the appalling conditions.
She was so successful that she spawned an entire generation of “stunt girls,” women who risked their lives for a story. At one point, every paper in New York had a stunt girl. But Nellie was the first.
If she had done only that, she would have been a good subject for a musical. But all through her life, Nellie pulled off a series of firsts: the first woman to run a large company, the first female war reporter; she even created the first steel barrel. And all this at a time when women weren’t allowed to vote.
What we like about the title is the irony. No matter what she accomplished, there was always this condescension by the male establishment that what she did was a stunt, not to be taken seriously.
Joel: How did you both get together to work on this project?
David: This is our second collaboration. Our first musical, Chasing Nicolette, has had two successful productions. Our third musical, Desperate Measures, has had four productions. This one’s taken a little longer to get right. (Biographies are hard.) We like to say we’ve been working on it for ten years, but in truth, it might be longer. In fact, our first reading in New York featured a young ingénue named Kristin Chenoweth as the second female lead. Whatever happened to her?
Peter: Jack Marshall, the head of The American Century Theatre, is an old friend of mine from college. When the Prince Theatre produced Chasing Nicolette in Philly, I invited Jack to come see it, and he reciprocated by inviting me to see TACT’s Moby Dick Rehearsed, which I thought was terrific.
When we were looking to present a reading of SG in DC, I called Jack to ask his advice. Jack said he’d be happy to do our show in TACT’s reading series, since it fits part of their mission statement: to present works about important 20th century figures. SG takes place from 1888 to 1918, which means only about two thirds qualifies for their mission. But Jack has magnanimously allowed us to do the whole show – which is good, because it wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.
Joel: What made you select this topic for a musical?
Peter: My wife suggested the idea, and I’m always quick to credit her when we’re having trouble with the rewrites. We’d never heard of Nellie Bly, and what attracted us initially was the fact that this woman who did so much, who was praised at the time as “the greatest reporter in America” is largely forgotten today.
Once we started working on it, though, we came to realize that reporting back then was as much about entertainment as it was news (unlike today?), and her story especially – playing parts, going undercover – worked naturally as a musical. The song she sings to get a job – Tell me what you need – is a song any actress could use as an audition piece to showcase her talents. Yet it makes perfect sense in context.
Joel: Talk about the score.
David: Stunt Girl takes place in the late 19th and early 20th century, so many of the songs give a flavor of the time. But the songs that have to do with emotion are contemporary, because what she was going through has a clear emotional relevance to today.
Joel: How has the show evolved since Larry Kaye came on board to direct the reading?
Peter: Our previous readings have had little movement – mostly actors standing behind a music stand. Larry’s come up with a lot of innovative ideas for staging. We think they’ll go a long way toward showing the potential of the piece – which is, after all, our goal.
Larry’s also had some great suggestions on the script. One song in particular, Around the World – which describes Nellie’s attempt to circle the globe in less than eighty days – we’ve never been completely happy with. Larry had some editing and staging ideas which we’ve embraced totally. So now if the number doesn’t work, we all know who to blame.
Larry: I would also add that both Peter and David have been terrific about collaborating on changes to the book and music/lyrics. A lot of times when you do projects like these, the authors say that they are flexible, but then you find out that they don’t really want to consider changes. With David and Peter, it really is the case that they are interested in fine tuning the material. I think they have done a great job, too, of condensing a very large story into one which will play well on stage, with a clear through-line.
As for the movement/staging, the trick in a reading like this is to give the audience sufficient movement to enable them to better understand the story and relationship between characters, as well as the potential theatrical power of a full production – while reminding them at the same time that what they are seeing is not a full production, but instead a reading. In the case of Stunt Girl, the story has a certain quality which lends itself to more cinematic staging – which is great for the reading.
Joel: David, you worked on Saving Aimee at Signature Theatre. What was your contribution to the show, and what was that experience like for you?
David: Saving Aimee was unusual in that there were two composers: David Pomeranz and myself. Kathie Lee Gifford wrote the book and lyrics. Though the two of us have different styles, David and I worked together to try and create a seamless score, and it ended up being a very enjoyable, successful experience.
Joel: Is Stunt Girl a love story, a comedy or a feminist musical?
Peter: It’s a romantic comedy. There is plenty of humor, we hope, but the love story is what pulls us through. It’s not a feminist musical at all, or if it is, it’s not preachy. Nellie herself was no feminist. She was an ambitious, complicated person, who just happened to be a woman and played the cards she was dealt. If she blazed a trail for other women, it was an accidental by-product of her ambition. But her story is one that should appeal to and resonate with women today, because they’re still juggling and struggling with the same career/marriage/life issues Nellie took on 100 years ago.
Joel: What are you hoping to discover with these two readings at The American Century Theater?
David: We’re hoping to discover that the Gunston Arts Center has air conditioning. We’re doing this in DC for two reasons: first, there are two theatres in the area that have expressed enthusiasm for the script and wanted to hear the complete score; second, we’ve rewritten two songs and a scene and want to test them out before the Village production.
We’re also excited about seeing Peggy Yates play the part of Nellie. We’ve never seen Peggy perform, but the reviews online are stellar, and anyone who can play the lead in She Loves Me and Oliver, and then receive praise for her acting in Pinter and Chekhov is an intriguing option for Nellie.
Joel: What’s the next step?
Peter: We’re thrilled to say we’re doing our premiere production in March of 2009 at Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington. Robb Hunt, the executive producer, read the piece when we submitted it to NAMT a few years back and loved it. So Village presented it first as a reading, then as a workshop (with us rewriting all the time, of course), and now Stunt Girl is part of their 2008-2009 season.
Listen here to the creators play and sing highlights from Stunt Girl: “Now You” and “Black and White.”
Two performances of Stunt Girl will be held in Gunston Theatre One: on Friday, June 27 at 8:00 pm, and on Sunday, June 29 at 2:00 pm. Admission is free. Reservations may be made by calling TACT at 703-998-4555 or sending an email to [email protected].