The Tapioca Miracle – Part Two
by Joel Markowitz
The musical – that most complex collaborative theatrical form – poses the biggest risks and rewards for its creators. If the creative mix is right, if the show gets constructive feedback and support in its early stages, if the writers make wise decisions in rewrites, and the show gets lucky enough to attract talent and investors, we might – just might – be able to see the birth of a brand new musical.The Tapioca Miracle was the brainchild of Washingtonian Larry Kaye (director, Musical of Musicals), and Philadelphians Eric Coble, (they co-wrote the book and lyrics) and composer Dan Kazemi.
Joel Markowitz was invited to the first read-thru of The Tapioca Miracle at Blake High School in Silver Spring, MD, May 21, 2007. “There’s something about this crazy show.” he said. “I think it could make it.” And thus the decision to have DCTS follow the show, all the way to opening night. A second reading was held at the Cleveland Playhouse. Joel caught its third reading Monday, January 19th at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
Here is his report.
An air of excitement permeated the 4th floor rehearsal room as the folding chairs were assembled, the music stands adjusted, the “spread” of rugelach and tapioca cupcakes and hummus, in honor of a song from the show, laid out for intermission, and as the cast and the creators warmed up and composer Dan Kazemi paced back and forth, and the guests were slowly arriving. Would this third workshop give the writers the direction they needed?
Here’s a quick synopsis of the show as read:
DORIS BLODGETT hasn’t left the house since her husband’s funeral 2 years ago. The middle-aged woman finds herself in a self-inflicted trap of baking, cleaning, and watching “The Accept Your Fate Bible Hour”. Until the fateful day when she and her thrill-seeking best friend LUCENE discover the face of Ezekiel the Prophet in an expired cup of tapioca pudding. Now the world is opening up for them, as they are beset by DANNY DANBERT (a questionable accountant with dreams of his own), MARTY (Doris’ estranged hyper-skeptical daughter), and a host of pilgrims wishing to be healed by the miraculous pudding. It’s not long before Doris finds herself the president of The Dairy Miracles Network, dancing with TAPPY, the official mascot of the network, and working to crush anything that stands in the way of Ezekiel’s ever-expanding empire. How far will she go? And do any of us ever truly pass our expiration date?
There were lots of laughs and applause and “Oys” at some of the corny jokes. It was an evening of great fun. And those regelach and cupcakes and that creamy hummus were a hit, too.
The post-performance talk back was provocative. Was it helpful for the team? We decided to ask them. Here is our interview with Larry Kaye, Eric Cole and Dan Kazemi.
Joel: Now that you’ve been through three readings with numerous changes and rewrites – what is The Tapioca Miracle about?
Larry: The Tapioca Miracle is about our journey to find a place in the world around us. When we venture out of our homes and into the world, inevitably we have responsibility for caring for the people we come in contact with. In our show, the miraculous discovery of a face in an expired tapioca pudding cup gets our main character, Doris, and others around her re-thinking their place in the world.
Joel: Tell us about your second reading at the Cleveland Playhouse.
Larry: Eric is a member of the Playwrights Unit there, so we had a reading in Cleveland for the members of the Playwrights Unit, one of the artistic directors of the Playhouse and a number of other invited guests. We read the script at the Playhouse in late November 2008. I believe two of the actors from Blake High School were in Cleveland, as well, which was a great way to check in with some outside eyes and see where we’d been, and where we are now. [Cast members were} Nick Koesters, Maryann Nagel, Anne McEvoy, David Hansen, Sadie Grossman, Nina Domingue Glover and Alan Branstein.
Cleveland was exciting because it included at that time a complete score. We were really able to hear the entire show all together for the first time. We had also revised a number of character arcs, and had written new material for a few characters that proved to be audience favorites from our first reading.
Eric: We had all the songs from the first time, so we were actually hearing the entire show, which was a great treat. We had changed several songs and rewrote parts or all of every scene, but the plot and tone were still the same, as we knew they were working.
Joel: Tell us about those changes.
Dan: To put things into perspective, on the weekend before the Cleveland reading, Larry and Eric were introduced to about 12 new or updated songs that they had never heard before! These included a new and improved, streamlined and significantly chopped and focused opening number, “Who Would Believe”, “What Would Betty Do?”, “Hook Me Up”, a spun out “The Pudding Will See You Now”, “We Doubt It”, “Rugelach Hummus and Fish”, a new draft of “Another Nudge Please”, “Eating It Up”, “Don’t Say You Knew Me When”, “When the Water Comes Arisin'”, “Bad Snake”, and “Taste the Miracle.”
So, there was much excitement in the process of sharing new material. I flew out to Cleveland with Larry and some talented singer/actor friends of mine, Alex Keiper, Maureen Lynch, and Mark Murphy on Saturday, November 15th on little sleep, and with two numbers that were incomplete and still plaguing me (“Rugelach, Hummus and Fish”, and “Taste the Miracle”). Between the four of us (myself, Alex, Maureen and Mark), we learned the entire score… well all except the missing pieces which weren’t completed and put together until around 5pm on the Sunday afternoon before the reading. Larry, Eric and I shared some valuable time shaping the material.
Joel: Wow! What a night that must have been! What suggestions did the audience make during the post-performance discussion?
Dan: I think the suggestions that resonated with me the most were that we had to make sure that songs weren’t being bogged down by too many variations in phrase structure, and more importantly, that we had to make big decisions about what this piece is really about, what we want people to take away from it, and to not be afraid to dive in and mold the piece toward this goal.
Joel: What were your expectations for the Philadelphia reading?
Dan: My expectations when I arrived at the Walnut on Monday were somewhat clouded by the winter storm that had pelted some of the Philadelphia Region. I showed up for rehearsal at 3 PM with only 5-7 out of 13 cast members present due to big delays on major roads. I didn’t know what to expect from our audience who would also be
traveling in these conditions.
Inclement weather aside, I always knew that a Philadelphia reading would probably bring about big changes to The Tapioca Miracle. Not only was this the first ever reading with a nearly full cast who would be reading and singing the whole show, but also, Megan Nicole O’Brien Perri, resident director of 11th Hour Theatre Company helped coach the reading. She was the only outside director to date who had the chance to get intimate with the project in the setting of a reading. Having worked as part of the 11th Hour Team for years with Mike O’Brien, who read Danny, and Steve Pacek, who read Fred and various other roles, I knew that their opinions about theatre are ones that I have the utmost trust and respect for. 11th Hour has a knack for taking pieces that are in need of development and figuring out their flaws and issues in order to make a more complete whole.
What did I expect? Laughs, glorious singing, touching moments, encouragement, and invaluable feedback from some really great minds.
Eric: I wanted to hear how it played with different actors making different choices – would certain moments play the same way? Better? Worse? We had tinkered with twists and character work, which we needed to see if that helped or hindered our story, and we needed to see if the cuts we were making (and the songs we were adding) were going to get us closer to our final show.
Joel: Why did you choose the Walnut Street Theatre?
Larry: We chose the Walnut Street because it was a great venue for that type of reading, and because our core people in Philly were all so comfortable working there.
Joel: Who were the people that made up the audience?
Larry: Invited industry guests and friends mostly.
Joel: What changes in the book were introduced at the Philadelphia reading?
Eric: We trimmed the first scene to get to the revelation of the pudding faster. We added a scene of Doris and Lucene arguing over whether to let a reporter into the house to see the pudding, made a big change as to who discovers the overseas sweatshops that the Dairy Miracle Network uses, and the fallout from that (these changes worked very well, by the way!), punched up some jokes that had long bothered Larry, and/or trimmed a bunch of material.
Joel: Were any songs taken out and/or written for the Philly reading?
Dan: No songs were dropped between Cleveland and Philadelphia. We did make some minor cuts here and there for the sake of time. “The Revelation” – the moment where Doris finds the pudding face and Lucene convinces her that this is just the opportunity she was looking for – was added to the score. We also added “See The Face” a song early in Act 2 when Doris preaches to the viewers way out there.
Joel: How many songs have you written so far – up until the Philly reading?
Dan: Up until the Philadelphia reading I have written around 21 – 22 songs for The Tapioca Miracle.
Joel: How many rehearsals did you have to prepare for the Philly reading?
Dan: We had around 12 hours of rehearsal at the Walnut to prepare for the reading, along with separate individual coachings for each principle role and around three 4 hour rehearsals to prepare the ensemble.
Joel: Dan, what was your role at the reading?
Dan: I planned on playing the reading from a piano at the center of the room, singing in the ensemble and singing for the Mullah. Due to the inclement weather, Denise Whelan, who recently played Mrs. Von Tussle in Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Hairspray, who was set to read and sing the role of Lucene, was stranded in the Philadelphia suburbs. Two hours before the reading, a good friend and talented actress, singer, and musician, Sarah Gliko, ended up taking on the speaking role of Lucene, and I ended up covering all of Lucene’s sung vocals. This ended up being the easiest solution because I was most familiar with the material. However, neither Sarah, nor I, are a middle aged woman. I think we did our best under pressure.
Joel: What kind of notes were you taking during the reading? I found it very interesting that you were recording the timing of the songs.
Eric: The notes I was taking were specific line notes — things that surprised me by working or not working that I wanted to bring up later with Larry — “the set up to “The Mullah, Rabbi, and Priest” for example, as well as moments in songs that felt off, etc. I was timing the songs because I’m concerned with the overall time, and it helps for me to have a clear handle on exactly how long each piece of our puzzle is, as opposed to “I think ‘Tappin to the Glory’ is about 5 minutes, can we cut one?” We can say, “It’s exactly 6 minutes, can we get it down to four?” It helps me be clear.
Joel: How valuable was the post-performance talkback with the audience?
Dan: I think that the post-performance talkback was very valuable. Those present seemed to be really supportive of the potential of the piece, and offered some good criticism.
Eric: It’s always extremely valuable to have people tell you what they just saw. especially people who don’t have a history with the project (and some who do – you need both). Within a group, you can see which comments seem to speak for a lot of people, and which may be the opinions of only a few. Though, to be honest, the audience does us the greatest service by watching the show – our being able to see their reactions to the piece as it’s happening – gives us the most insight.
Larry: The post-performance talkback was extremely valuable. We love to hear good comments, but actually the best comments are ones that direct us to places which need work.
Joel: Which suggestions did you take special note of to make The Tapioca Miracle a better musical?
Dan: I think that the comments that resonated most with me revolved around Doris. I had a feeling that they were coming, and they sure did. It is important that we structure the story so that there is no question that Doris is the center of attention, and that she is a character that we care about, who we understand, have empathy for, and root for. I think that most suggestions involved clarity – planting more of a seed between Marty and Tappy, developing the mother daughter relationship, and developing and understanding the role of the ensemble.
I also think that the audience reaction DURING the actual reading is equally as important as what they have to say afterwards. I had the luxury of facing the audience directly at the keys so I could monitor reactions. I will never forget the audience’s faces during big vocal moments. I think they were “wowed” by The Tapioca Miracle.
Eric: We’ll be re-looking at Doris’ opening – who she is, and what she needs – prior to her discovery of the pudding. We need a song there, for her to connect with us. We’re moving some songs and changing the endings of both Act 1 and Act II (not in content, but in the way we show the content). We’ll be making Doris’ songs stronger, to keep her the center of this crazy universe.
Larry: Well, I think the biggest one that resonated with me was that audience members still felt like our main character needed a bigger presence at the end of Act I. So we have actually revamped the Act I finale to give Doris her own Act I finale number, now backed by the entire ensemble.
Joel: What comments or suggestions you heard from the audience disappointed you?
Dan: I don’t know that anything the audience said disappointed me much. I find that the best feedback is often our own feedback, or the feedback of our most trusted advisors. That’s the kind of stuff that hits home… the post show discussion with the artistic team and these select few has the most to do with reshaping the piece. I’m always disappointed to see material go, but I always want to build a stronger show.
Eric: I have had my work ripped apart (and praised, to be fair) in public so many times by some LARGE news organizations, that this was nothing. Plus, this was ALL positive, in that the people who stayed clearly liked it enough to want to make it better. AND most of their comments were complimentary, so it was easy to listen to this crowd.
There were some I disagreed with, but there are some of my own ideas I disagree within an hour after I’ve thought about them. My biggest concern, honestly, is that we cut enough and rearrange enough so that no one accuses us of running long, which I think we still are. The only point that leaps to mind that I disagreed with was the comment that Danny thought up the plan to take advantage of the pudding too quickly and easily. I think the timing on this scene is just about right.
Larry: Nothing I would say disappointed me. All feedback is valuable. You really just have to decide what resonates with you. When we were in the early part of the writing process, Dan and I were fortunate to be able to chat with Stephen Schwartz about it, and he reminded us that sometimes audience at these readings are suggesting changes that reflect they are thinking the show is different from the one you are writing. You just have to keep that in mind, because trying to please everyone is not really an option.
Joel: After you left the Walnut Street Theatre, the three of you discussed and worked on making changes. Help us drop in on that discussion.
Dan: Hmm… Joel, are you trying to test and see if we’re on the same page? I have to admit that I was a little fried from the stress of rearranging roles and putting up the reading. Once I finally got my car packed up with the gear (oh how I hate wires and pipes and amps and such) I had brought to the Walnut, I headed to CoCo’s, a likely post-Walnut hangout. I enjoyed a Sierra Nevada or two to cut the edge off, and Larry, Eric and Megan O’Brien Perri and Mike O’Brien were already talking through the piece.
There was a lot of back and forth about the obvious changes that had to be made, and silly lines, lyrics, and musical moments that need to be dealt with swiftly. Then we dove in and got down to business – rearranging, filling holes, dealing with any plot inconsistencies, and coming up with ideas that would strengthen and clarify Doris’ character. The most important developments probably included the need for an “I Want/I Am” song in the first scene, so we know to follow her story, understand her, and root for her to find that pudding! This has proven to be the most difficult spot to deal with in the entire show.
In DC, it was “Rosita and the Five Food Group Pyramid”. Cut. Doris was too psychologically damaged. In Cleveland it was “What Would Betty Do?” Moved. No reason to sing yet. In Philly “What Would Betty Do?” was moved to later in the first act to the moment where Doris decides to let a reporter in the house. Cut. We’re now focusing on a song that will come out of Lucene’s provocation of Doris to get the hell out of the house… and will express Doris’s inability to just move on, and make any real changes… she feels “stuck”.
Eric: We talked for 4 hours that night, and Larry and I talked for another 3 the following morning. We talked about how to end Act I (On Doris’ signing of the contract, rather than on the first production number of the Dairy Miracles Network). We discussed “The Pudding Will See You Now” number, and how to tighten it. We discussed Doris’ arc, including her final moments with the pudding, which is a major change, but which I won’t give away just yet.
Larry: Yeah, we were up ’til around 3 in the morning as I recall, just gathering our thoughts and talking with the director and actors about smoothing things out. Well, it’s hard to relate it all here, but the general idea was that much of the material was solid; we needed to smooth out a few rough edges, make a couple of bold moves and changes to push our main character even further, and use the proverbial scalpel to edit. Our goal is to trim about another 10-12 minutes from the show. At least it’s a scalpel now, instead of a hatchet!
Joel: Why will audiences love The Tapioca Miracle?
Dan: I think audiences will love The Tapioca Miracle because it is completely original and uplifting. Everyone could use a little dose of the power of believing these days. When you take the message and deliver it with the hilarious and zany, but warm and magical, book, lyrics and music that inhabitant this world, the audience is bound to
Eric: It’s a very new classic musical. Meaning, it’s fresh, but feels very classic in style. It’s fun, it’s witty. It’s silly, but explores some serious themes about belief, the nature of organized religion, and the need to take action in the world. And the songs are damn hummable!
Larry: I think they will love the show because it is a great and original story. The characters are offbeat and fairly lovable, the music is sharp and funny, and I think the book and lyrics will entertain them as well.
Joel: When will the next reading take place?
Larry: We are doing another reading in the DC area in March, and then the big one is taking place in New York in late April. We are excited because John Rando, who won the Tony Award for Urinetown, will be directing. The DC reading and NY reading will feature some great performers. We’ll let you know as soon as they are all set.
And, if people want to get periodic updates, they can check out or website and sign up on our mailing list.
Related: Tapioca Miracle, Part 1 – a podcast with Larry Kaye