I am waiting to pick up my ticket for the opening night production of ROOMS a rock romance at New World Stages when I suddenly find that I am nervous. From the moment Carolyn Griffin called me to tell me about this new musical she had just landed for MetroStage, I had a feeling that ROOMS had a special destiny. But since the end of the show’s successful run at MetroStage, it had gone on to the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York, and to further refinements. What’s more, half the cast had changed: Leslie Kritzer had replaced the excellent Natascia Diaz as Monica P. Miller. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
And…this is New York, the ultimate test of any show’s mettle. I admit to a little DC pride: I want New York audiences to know and understand how great Washington theatre really is. I get my ticket and turn back to the lobby – and lock eyes with Associate Producer Larry Kaye, who has invited Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba to the show. I draw a deep breath and slipped into the World Stage’s bar, one long flight of stairs down – around the corner from Stage 2, where Rooms a rock romance is playing.
I grab a diet Coke and tried to grab hold of my nerves. I see a promo card for the show, with a pull quote from DC Theatre Scene’s Steve McKnight splashed across the top. Those New York critics who hadn’t already seen the show opening week are all here tonight; they can kill the show. Will they?
It’s time to go into the theatre, and I see producer Van Dean – the coolest guy this side of Barack Obama – walk in, eyes twinkling with anticipation – and hug composer/lyricist Paul Scott Goodman. Broadway legend Steven Schwartz is here, arm around his son, the show’s director Scott Schwartz.
I walk up to Paul, who I had grown to respect over these past eight months. “Not bad for a Scottish Jew!” Paul said, looking around the snazzy setting. I laughed because it was something that Monica P. Miller could have said! We looked at each other, one nervous Jew to another, and recited together the “Schehecheyanu”, thanking God for helping Paul, and everyone involved in the show reach this wonderful moment.
At the after party
We file into the Calle Ocho, ecstatic at what we’ve seen. Rooms is a hit…different than what we had seen at MetroStage, but absolutely a hit! I could feel it in the audience’s reaction.
The lighting was more amazing in this new production, as lighting director Herrick Goldman, explained to me, “MetroStage’s physical plant itself dictated the overall design of ROOMS a rock romance. I went with only 6 moving lights and a handful of the LED’s that lit the cyc, and the set. The LED’s are very low wattage and can plug into the wall. The same is true for the moving lights we specified. It just so happens that we loved some of the effects these tools gave us so much, it strongly informed the design of the Off-Broadway production. We now have 20 moving lights and twice as many LED’s, but you’ll notice many of the moments are the same. “Bring The Future Faster”, “Scottish Jewish”, and” Fear of Flying” are almost identical to what we created at MetroStage, and Alejo Vietti designed some new even more outrageous costumes. ” Alejo added “The essence of the show is the same. Yet, every department was incredibly careful to pay attention to the smallest details to improve the show even more. It has been such a perfect collaborative project. There is of course Doug Kreeger as Ian and the addition of Leslie Kritzer as Monica, and – in my case – we have new costumes specifically designed for this production. But I was very lucky! I have amazing actors to dress…”
I was worried about the critics’ reactions before, but after this, my feeling is: bring them on. Great reviews pour in through the night from “the biggies”- AP, The NY Daily News, The NY Post, WOR Radio. Even though the NY Times review is still to come, we all share big sighs of relief and great joy as we exchanged emails. After 3 days of nervous nail biting , Neil Genzlinger of the NY Times posts his review, which contains a rave for Leslie and Doug. Leslie Kritzer is superb: vocally astounding, heartwarming, and hysterical, Her Monica has a really comic edge to her, and it gives the show a completely different spin.
The restaurant is full of exotic smells – mini shrimp, beef and chicken empanadas, and cerviche . A waitress comes by with a plate full of something I’ve never seen before. “What’s this?” I ask. “Datiles,” she says. When I say nothing she explains that they are dates stuffed with almonds and wrapped in bacon. “Oh,” I say. “That’s great! I was really looking forward to having a date for the party!”
She blinks. “I’m sorry, sir?”
“It’s all right.
” I see Doug Kreeger and head to him. Doug, who is even better as Ian than he was in MetroStage – glows as he gives me an earful about working with Leslie Kritzer. “She is so funny,” Doug says, “and her humor is so natural and unforced that it helped him understand the humor in his own character”.
The booze flows; flashbulbs flash; the food comes in waves. This is a happy crowd, thick with accomplishment. I walked around the room, looking at the people who contributed to this singular accomplishment. They did it, I think. They showed New York.
I leave about 1:30 am, and walk the two blocks to H & H Bagels, where I grab a sesame bagel with a schmeer of light cream cheese – and a wheat bagel as well. I think of getting a subway train, but decide to walk the thirty blocks to my hotel instead. “La la la la la,” I sing, oblivious to the looks I’m getting, “Love you for all time.”
An online conversation with the people who made ROOMS possible
I am on my computer, now, along with the creators, producers, and other artists who took Rooms from MetroStage to World Stages. The cast party is over, but the glow lingers on.
“What was opening night and the party like for you?” I type in.
“Opening night was an amazing experience because it was a culmination of three years of developing and nurturing a project that we are all so passionate about,” Hillary Cutter responds immediately. She, along with Van Dean, formed Van Hill Entertainment, who produced the show. “As a producer you have to pick projects that you are willing to live, breathe, and die for years to come. You also have to love it every step of the way. My favorite part of opening night was walking around at Calle Ocho and thanking everyone for their passion, commitment, and energy…”
Hillary reminds us that Rooms had a life before MetroStage – it began at NYMF in 2005, so it’s been a long four years for Miriam Gordon, Paul Scott Goodman and Director Scott Schwartz to get to this night. “Opening night and party was glorious and nerve wracking. Like your wedding or Bar Mitzvah, you can’t quite relax properly, but you’re having an amazing’ish time nevertheless,” Paul says.
Scott agrees. “It was an amazing night. I truly thought it was one of the best performances we have ever given of ROOMS a rock romance. The whole evening was emotional for me since I have been working with Paul and Miriam for six years on this musical, and it was overwhelming to finally see it premiere off-Broadway.”
I wondered about the changes the show had gone through on the way from MetroStage to New York.
“Inevitably the New York production was different than MetroStage’s,” Carolyn Griffin responds. “For starters – by about 200 seats. It is a lovely production getting great reviews, but inevitably my heart is with MetroStage’s production.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, she wasn’t the only one with a soft spot for the DC version. “Don’t tell anyone, but the MetroStage production was my personal favorite,” scenic designer Adam Koch says. “Something about the intimacy and scale of how the set felt in that theater, I’ve been working to recapture that quality ever since. As a musical and a story, however, everything has gotten tighter and more detailed. The nuances within the lyrics, lines and orchestrations have all evolved over the months. The New York production just feels complete.”
It falls to book writer Miriam Gordon to describe what happened to the script since it left MetroStage. “Everything in New York is just bigger – bigger theater, bigger risks, bigger scrutiny, bigger money! As far as the performances, songs and script are concerned, we tightened moments in the script, kept tweaking, adding a little and replacing some lines or moments which created an overall feel of a tighter and clearer more exciting production. Since time is money – especially in NY – all the changes had to be made quite quickly as well. It has always been our goal to base the show on reality, and give the show a realistic tone, and so we continued to refine the story and performances towards that end.”
People who loved Natascia Diaz as Monica – which is to say, people who saw Natascia Diaz as Monica – may wonder whether Leslie Kritzer is up to the role. Don’t worry. “Natascia Diaz was brilliant,” Larry Kaye notes, but “Leslie brings a new and different dimension to the role, and has won some rave reviews for her performance. Her chemistry with Doug Kreeger, who plays Ian, is great.”
Doug agrees. “Because of [Leslie],” he says, “there are some brilliant new moments between Ian and Monica… I’ve learned a lot from Leslie about comedy, which I typically find the most difficult thing to play.”
The feeling appears to be mutual. “Doug Kreeger is wonderful,” Leslie says. “Really talented and down to earth and most of all easy to work with. I tell him all the time how lucky I am to be working with him.”
Time to wrap up, so I asked the question that artists ask themselves, all the time. What did they learn from this experience? The answers seem to be a catalogue of virtues: they learned hard work, willingness to compromise, and generosity of spirit.
“I learned that a production is collaboration and it is inevitable that at a certain point, for better or for worse, no matter how hard one tries, there is a loss of personal control to a certain extent,” Miriam Gordon writes . “I am fortunate that the team involved in ROOMS a rock romance is a talented and dedicated one.”
“I have learned that hard work, passion, commitment, and teamwork leads to success,” Hillary points out. “As young emerging producers we were looking for materials that we believed were commercially viable. We knew that we needed a strong marketing tool to help launch the piece. We were familiar with Scott Schwartz and Paul Scott Goodman’s work and thought they were a perfect duo to create a successful new musical. I remember our first meeting with Paul, Miriam, and Scott in the West Village. They were really excited about having new, young producers present their piece. It’s been an honest, open, and creative relationship and we have all learned so much from each other!”
It falls to Carolyn Griffin to remind us of the purpose of investing in new works. “It was a great privilege to have the opportunity to produce the first production at MetroStage,” she says, “and give it an opportunity to be seen by others who were in the business of producing new work in New York. By its transfer to New York, it will be in a position to be seen and discovered by regional producers all over the country, and around the world. And isn’t that the point of working on new plays and musicals – to help them be discovered and seen by others so audiences everywhere can enjoy the work?”
ROOMS a rock romance has earned 5 Helen Hayes Award nominations, and we’ll be on hand April 13th, along with members of the show’s production team, to see whether, in the very competitive category of Outstanding Resident Musical, ROOMS emerges the judges’ choice.