To help us understand what it takes to get a new musical from the page to the Broadway stage, the creators of the new musical in development The Tapioca Miracle are allowing Joel Markowitz exclusive access to the show’s development process and performances.
Since Joel’s last column, on April 27th, 2009, the team assembled a Broadway cast for two readings before a critical crowd of producers and potential investors.
Here’s Joel’s coverage of what happened and a follow-up interview with:
Larry Kaye – co-author of the book and lyrics
Eric Coble – co-author of the book and lyrics
Dan Kazemi – composer
While riding up to New York City on the Tripper Bus, I kept pinching myself. The Tapioca Miracle, this quirky, funny, melodic, and laugh-filled musical about pudding which I have fallen in love with, was having its first New York readings at Chelsea Studios.
Here were three young guys who I have come to admire and love – Larry Kaye, Eric Coble, and Dan Kazemi – putting everything on the line. Would the NYC audience – theatre mavens, producers and their guests, and the creators’ families and friends – find the show as funny and endearing as I have, or would they dislike it?
I was thrilled that John Rando was putting his mark on these readings. John, who directed Urinetown and The Toxic Avenger (read my The Toxic Avenger interview with him here) directs quirky and off-the-wall shows better than anyone I know.
To be in the same room with Tony winner Karen Ziemba, Michael West, Brad Oscar, Jason Kravits, Justin Brill and Annie Golden, what can I say? These are stars I love and admire. And to watch the audience cheering Philadelphia actor Michael Philip O’Brien’s amazing performance as Danny – I thought I was in theatre heaven! It was a great day watching the audiences “eating it up”, I knew that it was “believe time”, because I sincerely believe that this loveable show is going places.
So did they laugh? I kept score! During both readings, I kept a list of what the audiences laughed at, and what worked before, and didn’t get laughs this time. I was amazed to see they laughed 155 times during the afternoon reading and 175 times during the evening reading. Look, I have been to musical comedies where I didn’t laugh 5 times all night. This was amazing!
Let’s hear what Dan, Larry and Eric have to say.
Joel: Take us through the process of arranging the two readings in NYC?
Larry: We had been planning a New York reading for about 8-9 months. We knew that after a prolonged period of development and rewrites, we eventually wanted to have a reading in NY to move the show to its next phase in development.
Larry: To cast the show, we hired a casting director, Geoff Josselson, and began to have discussions with him – and then eventually our Director, John Rando — about casting choices. It was a fairly involved process which took more than 8 weeks to finalize. In preparation for the casting, Eric, Dan and I had already begun developing a list of prospective actors for each role to discuss.
We were really happy with the cast for the show. Karen Ziemba was ideal to head the cast. She is a terrific actress, with a wide range, and consistently turns in exciting performances. The other principals were strong choices as well. Annie Golden, Annaleigh Ashford, Noah Weisberg, Michael O’Brien, Brad Oscar, Jason Kravitz, Michael West, Ronica Reddick, and Justin Brill. All were very adept at comedy, and brought interesting personal qualities to their roles. We were really lucky to get Annie, since she was an 11th hour replacement for Kathie Fitzgerald, who had to step down because of her involvement in the new production of 9 to 5.
John Rando was a great choice as well for this reading. He had directed a play of Eric’s a number of years before, and they had a good working relationship. John understands comedy so well, and fosters a comfortable creative environment for actors. We really enjoyed working with him on this.
Joel: What did John Rando see at the MetroStage reading that made him agree to direct The Tapioca Miracle NYC readings?
Larry: John was already on board before the reading at MetroStage. We were lucky that he was able to get down to see it, since he was able to spend a good bit of time with us after, making suggestions for the upcoming NY reading.
Joel: What changes did John suggest, and how many of them did you incorporated in the NYC readings?
Larry: We incorporated pretty much all of his suggestions — including a clearer opening, new finale to Act II, and moving a couple of key plot points to the first act from the second
Joel: Dan, what changes to the score after the MetroStage reading?
Dan: Since the DC reading, some pretty significant changes were made to the score. We crafted a brand new opening number (with only bits and pieces of old material, and plenty of new material) that utilized the miraculous quality of the former opening along with a new feel (think Danny Elfman meets The Munsters). This provided a more “dangerous” sound for a song about the dangers in your fridge. I also musicalized the moment where the pudding face is discovered, through the women googling the face, and Lucene calling up Eye Witness News. The version of “Eating It Up” that was found in the middle of Act One at MetroStage was dropped, and replaced with “Believe Time” (which was at the end of act one in MetroStage. This full version of “Believe Time” was tweaked, and eventually majorly cut down.
I crafted various new reprises of “Don’t Be Afraid of Falling Down”, and extended “See The Face” to make it a new act ender. The version of “Eating It Up” which opened act two was reverted to the version which was created for the Cleveland reading. “Don’t Say You Knew Me”, and “When and Seeing Red” were revised. “32 23 and Me” was cut and replaced with a new song, “I’ve Got to Face It”. “Taste the Miracle”, our finale, was severely revised and transformed into “Face The Light”… which I finished on the Wednesday night before the reading, and taught on Thursday morning!
Joel: Now that you have seen the audience reaction in NYC, what changes in the score are you planning to make?
Dan: I definitely have some questions about the direction of the piece after the New York reading, which may lead to changes in the score. I found that the actors’ and the audience’s response to the music was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, but I continue to question where we’re headed with the piece. What is the balance between the book, lyrics, and score? Are they always living in the same world and helping each other tell an interesting story? What choices made in earlier iterations of the show stick around as relics of old ideas that need to be trimmed away?
Joel: What were your expectations when you walked into the readings in NYC?
Larry: I expected that we would get a really good view of the show from start to finish — how it sounds, and plays in front of an audience.
Eric: I didn’t have any particular expectations. I hoped it would be funny and strike a chord with most of our audience, which it seems to have. I knew there would be a lot of work over the week, having worked with John Rando before – neither of us is afraid of a big rewrite. I was eager to hear the new music and new scenes – all of which was very pleasing.
Dan: I think that my expectations were high, as a music director walking into a piece that is going to be read in front of an audience. I knew that the ensemble sound made my hair stand up (in a good way) and I was excited to share that with other people. I also expected that the piece would be put up in front of a supportive audience… and I was very curious to hear what they thought about the work we had done, and where we needed to take the piece to make it succeed.
Joel: Were those expectations met?
Eric: It was a hard week of work, and the final reading went very well, so I supposed my “expectations” were met. We aren’t at the finished product yet, which would have been nice, but it’s not unexpected that we have more work to do.
Dan: I do think that my expectations were met. I played the show well, the score was delivered well, and we got plenty of feedback on the piece.
Joel: What changes did you make between the first and second readings in NYC?
Larry: Between the afternoon and evening readings, John asked us to make a cut in one of the numbers which felt too long and too much like a finale number. We tried the cut in the evening and it made a big difference in the feel of the show
Joel: How do you feel the readings went in NYC?
Larry: The audience liked the show generally, but we got really valuable constructive criticism for improvement, which is always the most helpful thing.
Eric: I thought they went pretty well. There were a lot of laughs, and people continue to tell me they can’t get certain songs out of their heads (which I take a s a good sign). The readings revealed certain areas that still need work, which is always helpful.
Dan: I think the readings went well. The environment that had been created all week long was supportive and creative, and we got to share the work we had done with an audience. Of course, in a reading, there is room for flubs and slip ups… it reminds the audience that this is in fact a reading! But I think the cast did a really fine job and the audiences certainly laughed and cheered.
Joel: Was John happy with the readings?
Larry: I think like we all were. John was happy with some things, and in other places, he would make changes. He has provided some really helpful constructive criticism – which we expected. I think the changes deal mostly with character and making the show more real for the audience. We have to continue to refine the tone, and create opportunities for the characters to make active believable choices
Joel: Has John agreed to stay with the show for future readings and/or workshops?
Larry: Nothing is finalized yet. We definitely want to explore that with him though.
Joel: Now, that you have seen the audience reaction in NYC, what changes are you planning to make?
Larry: We have gotten lots of helpful critical feedback. I think we feel comfortable with the comedy in the show. The jokes landed very well throughout. The challenge is to continue to make Doris as interesting as she can be, and give her active choices to make throughout the show. We are also looking at ways to strengthen her relationships with all of the characters, and to make her character arc a little larger, so when she loses sight of her goals and values in Act II, she does it in a bigger and more interesting way — ultimately so she can learn more by the end.
Eric: We’re still working on strengthening Doris’ journey, and I think we have a really strong handle on that now. We’re going to work on grounding the world of the play more concretely while still letting it fly in crazy directions.
Joel: What worked better than you expected?
Larry: All of the new changes to the show worked well. They did not feel rough, or recently written.
Eric: Moving the Tappy/Marty story into Act I. Putting the three clerics into more of the action – I love their presence and lack of anything to offer when the moral crises of the show hit – our lead characters are on their own…
Joel: What didn’t work as well as you expected?
Larry: I think in general we still need to cut some time off the show — another 5-7 minutes will do it. We had succeeded in getting in down time wise, but I think we need to be even more streamlined.
Eric: I don’t think Marty’s journey was as clear as it had been in previous readings. We still haven’t locked in the “rise to fame” montage as I’d hope we would.
Dan: This time around, I tried not to walk in to the reading situation with huge expectations from the piece. I wanted to have a clean slate and be able to really take a look and see what it is… and see what the holes are… and try not to get too whipped up into the excitement of the event (while taking some time to enjoy myself as well). I have been really concerned about our main character, Doris, at its conception. Does this kind of woman exist today? Is she believable? Is she interesting? Is her story interesting? Is this a show about the pudding or the people? Can our projected audience base relate to her?
I have always felt that the believability of this show is really important. We are writing a show about pudding and religion… which is already difficult. With that in mind, I have always thought that we need to make sure that there is a reason for people to believe in this little pudding and that we need to see the real, actual results of their belief. The question is… who is making the change occur? The pudding? God? Or… the people themselves, when inspired by Doris? This idea leads to more questions about Doris. What does she do with the pudding that makes it believable? Why does she believe in it? What does she believe in because of it, and how does it affect the people around her… her best friend, the pilgrims, her daughter?
We need take a new look at the piece and discover the development of interpersonal relations and use them to tell the story of the mistakes that people make on their journey to find themselves. Then, we’ll make the audience believe in the piece, laugh, and also be moved by it. I think the big mistake may be… they thought the pudding was a miracle that they needed to change their lives, but it was worthless. They need to learn that they have the power to deal with their problems, and to make people believe, within themselves, and had it all along. I don’t think we have nailed this down yet… and we need to think, not only about making Doris FUN, but about making HER story an interesting, believable one. She will be a victim until we can write HER story, and not the story of her pudding
Joel: What’s the next step for the show?
Larry: We are going to be doing another rewrite to take into account our own observations and the criticism from NY, and then we will record a demo CD, and begin looking across the country for a Fall 2010 production.
Eric: More rewrites, a possible “Pre-Broadway” full production at a regional theatre. I’m taking it one step at a time, which means for now…more rewrites.
Dan: Rewrites! Rethinks! Recording?
Joel: Tell us how the money comes together for a musical like The Tapioca Miracle.. How much money will you need to raise to produce the show in NY?
Larry: Money comes together in a variety of ways. Most likely in the next step, we will find a producer who will be willing to provide an “enhancement” to a regional production to develop the show as a pre-Broadway tryout.
Joel: For a musical like this headed to off-Broadway, how much is the capitalization?
Larry: I could not begin to give you any idea on that. One of the things that we will be doing in the next 12 months is to try to nail that down more so prospective investors will have a better sense of that.
Joel: Investing in a show is a great way to support a play you really believe in. DCTS’s NYC Theatre Buzz columnist Richard Seff has talked about how each season he bought small shares in 5 shows. If someone is interested in getting into such a high risk venture today, is there an organization to help them?
Larry: The best way is to make contact with individual producers, many of whom develop their own lists of interested investors,
Joel: What is the minimum amount they should be prepared to invest?
Larry: It varies from show to show. Depending on how the investment solicitations are structured, there can often be opportunities for smaller investors to participate.
Joel: If someone is interested in investing in The Tapioca Miracle, who should they contact?
Larry: If someone is interested in The Tapioca Miracle, they can contact our agent, Jonathan Lomma, at William Morris Endeavor at (212) 903-1552.
Following the Tapioca Miracle, Part 2 – the Philadelphia reading
Pudding It Together – the first reading in Silver Spring