How do musicals get written and produced? In past columns, I have been following The Tapioca Miracle, now preparing for its fifth workshop presentation. Here, we see a musical which went directly from the page to a full production in a small theatre in southern Maryland.
When I received an email from Roger Penycate three months ago to come see the world premiere of his and Rick Jones’ musical Laughing Daughter at the Black Box Theatre in Indian Head, MD, I was elated! I am always excited when I have a chance to see something new, and since there are very few musicals dealing with Native American life, traditions, and their assimilation into society outside the reservation, I jumped at the chance to go.
I’ll give Roger Penycate some credit – he is a persistent man! (He tells me his friends call him “The Little Terrier”). When he offered to pick me up at The King Street Metro and schlep me back home to North Bethesda after the show (which he graciously did with his lovely wife), how could I turn down that offer? He wanted me to see the show and be honest with him about what I thought, and you all know me – I’m an honest and blunt guy, and I hope my comments and observations were helpful.
But, the real story here, and why I really wanted to attend, was to meet Roger and Rick Jones, the composer, lyricist and co-book writer (with Roger) and to find out the story of how two guys took 30 years to write a show, why the Black Box Theatre was chosen to premier their musical, their thoughts on the production, and how they felt finally seeing their “baby” on stage.
So, let’s meet these two affable gents as they take us on their unique journey.
Joel: Talk about yourselves
Rick: I studied drama at the Webber Douglas school in London, England, and got my first professional work at the Library Theatre in Manchester, whose productions were mainly based on the local school curriculum, giving me a wide and varied sampling of dramatic literature. I toured the US with a company called Theatre Outlook doing Coriolanus and two unactable modern plays in 1961. The manager absconded with the door receipts and was found bruised and beaten in an alleyway in St Louis. American Equity kindly rounded us all up and flew us home, but not until, in lieu of payment for the hotel, the company performed School for Scandal in the Restoration room at the Sheraton Hotel.
Back in England, I managed to win a part in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, in which I sang relevant period folk songs. In the audience one night was a BBC producer who thought I was perfect for a new children’s’ project. and hired me on the spot, which led to 10 years of gainful employment as a presenter of Playschool, a creative play children’s show – handy for a married man with a mortgage and 2 kids – but which signaled the end of any serious thought of an acting career. (Although you can catch me in a British thriller called The Shuttered Room, with Gig Young and Carol Lynley – chilling!!!) This led to Rick Jones becoming presenter and puppeteer of the cult puppet show Fingerbobs (Google it, check out an episode on our website, or get a copy of the new book:” Legends of Kid’s TV” by Garry Vaux.
All that kid’s TV left me with plenty of time to develop my skills as a songwriter, but looking for something more meaningful than Mousie’s Tales and Teddybears. Getting a band together with my writing partner, Dave Pierce for our musical Captain Crash versus the Zzorg Women Chapters 5 and 6 – found me meeting 4 amazing musicians – Steve Simpson, Willy Finlayson, Jack Brandt and Chris Hunt. When they discovered that I was a songwriter – the one thing they lacked – they let me join the band, even though at that point my piano playing was less than perfect – hence the nickname “Knuckles”. We called it Meal Ticket. The blend was great, and we soon had a rabid following of happy little beer drinkers, and were filling venues from pub – size to arena regularly.
As a kid, I’d had to regularly stumble over a drunken Indian girl when I was sneaking into pool halls in my home town London Ontario whose plight touched me even at 16. She stayed with me all those years and finally emerged through Dave and me as the original song Laughing Daughter, which oddly – and against my better judgment – is not in this present production, but will return! Meal Ticket was the vehicle that drove the songs “Keeping the Faith” “Golden Girl” “Man from Mexico” “ Out of the Blue” and of course the lamentably missing “Laughing Daughter” into popularity.
In 1981, Captain Crash was performed in Hollywood at the Richmond Sheppard Theater. That brought me to the States, where the love of my life, Valerie Neale, joined me, and somehow we never went back to England.
Roger: My first ‘taste of the entertainment world’ was at the tender age of 18, as a Butlin’s Redcoat (at a holiday resort host), where my ‘duties’ included compering competitions such as “Glamorous Grandmother”, ‘Knobbly Knees’ and Miss Bultins, being chased around the holiday resort by 500 screaming kids, dressed as a pirate. I also organized all of the sports activities including soccer, snooker, and swimming races. I was a ballroom dancing host (banned from partnering with any ladies under 40 !!) a DJ, a bingo caller, a cinema usher, and a “meeter and greater” at the rail and bus terminals as the ‘happy campers’ arrived each Saturday. In fact, BBC television had a hit comedy series Hi Di Hi, based on similar experiences to mine.
You name it, we did it!
I spent 5 years working for British Airways. In 1973, I trained as a croupier at the London Playboy Club and in 1974, I worked for 2 years in Iran (When the Shah was still in power). I returned to England for a year, and then traveled to Australia, where I worked in an illegal casino, followed by a stint cleaning toilets in a hotel, where I was eventually promoted to Drive-In and Off License Manager. I was head-hunted by a casino in Mallorca (Balearic islands) as a Training Manager, and subsequently head-hunted as TM + Asst Manager for a casino in Cadiz, Spain.
In 1979, I returned to England and, by luck, set up the first ever mobile casino company in Europe. It was then that I first heard the music of Rick’s group Meal Ticket. My company expanded into team-building, convention organizing, incentive/motivation schemes, Gala evenings, managing artists and acts, in fact – a One-Stop-Shop for all!
When Riverdance exploded onto the world market, I saw a potential for a corporate Irish dance show, and subsequently formed a partnership with Celtic Feet (Colin Dunne was their principal dancer), and took the show around Europe, again doing everything from booking venues, liaising with agents/promoters, travel arrangements, press, and publicity. But, the highlight for me was performing for the staff of H.M the Queen at Windsor castle, where The Queen watched some of the rehearsals. We then launched a theater show which toured Europe called “An Evening in Ireland”.
I was owner of Roger Penycate Events, and owned 33% of Celtic Feet when I married my wife Ida, and then moved with my lovely mate to the USA, where she is from.
Joel: Tell us about Laughing Daughter,
Rick: The show is about redressing old balances – some people healing old wounds and some people taking new chances to discover themselves – three stories braided into a whole.
Joel: You never met until this week, so how did you write the show?
Rick: We had developed a working relationship using the internet, email, telephone, and that wonderful new invention – Skype. It didn’t take me long to realize that Roger was a formidable partner. His experience as a tour manager, summer camp entertainer, and counselor, owner of a traveling casino, and other ordinary jobs like that, had equipped him with the tools and toughness that it takes to get even the best new theatrical venture into even the smallest of regional theatres. Without his dogged determination, this little project would have remained nothing more than two middle-aged gents making each other laugh over Skype.
Roger: Writing the book of the show on the internet and by phone was similar to internet dating.
Joel: What were your reactions when you first saw each other a week ago?
Rick: We finally met each other at Dulles Airport on August 28, 2009. Roger was an avid fan of Meal Ticket in England, and proclaims to have brought a beer backstage for the band at one point, but Rick can’t believe that Roger ever bought a beer for anyone. Fast forward 30 years, and Roger finds Rick on the internet, and Rick’s life changes dramatically.
Roger: The first words I said jokingly to Rick were, “I don’t like you. You can go back on the plane!”
Joel: Where did the idea of the show come from?
Rick: Roger’s imagination. As far as I was concerned, the songs involved were “a dead catalog”, and I was surprised that anyone would want to resurrect them since the musical climate had changed drastically – not that the songs weren’t worth resurrecting, of course.
Joel: Talk about your score for Laughing Daughter.
Rick: Several of the songs were written a long time ago. As the script progressed, it demanded certain new songs. If I am under pressure to write a song, it comes very quickly. The Muse responds, and the song appears – it’s as simple as that. Without inspiration, I can easily linger over a song for a year, no problem. “Blue Bling” took ten minutes. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” took twenty minutes.
The song called “Laughing Daughter” in the Black Box production is not a Rick Jones song, That song was constructed by Bill and Jim to fill a need in the story line. It will not appear in future productions of the show. It is now called “Hanta Yo”. [You can listen to the original “Laughing Daughter” performed by Meal Ticket at the end of this interview.
Joel: Talk about the orchestrations we heard at the Black Box production.
Rick: For the Black Box production, I had nothing to do with the orchestrations. Jim did the musical arrangements and orchestrations, and Bill and Jim wrote additional dialogue and lyrics.
Joel: What artists and composers influenced you and this work?
Rick: When you are as old as me, to sort through your influences is an encyclopedic activity. Let’s just say Sarah Vaughn and leave it at that! Her artistry demonstrated to me – for the first time – that the human voice is a vehicle for the soul.
Joel: How was the book written?
Rick: Like everything else about this project, nothing would have been done without the driving of Roger Penycate’s determined character. Maybe I wrote more words than he did, but I would have written nothing if Roger had not started the project.
Joel: What is your favorite scene and song in the show?
Rick: My favorite scene is the show is not included. In the current production, my favorite songs and scenes are Jolene singing “Scrapbook” and the reunion of Stormheart and Shellflower.
Roger: My favorite songs are “Waking Dream”, “Golden Girl”, and “Out of the Blue”.
Joel: How did the show land up at the Black Box Theatre?
Roger: I had known Peggy Palmer, who was Executive Director of The Board of the Black Box Theatre. I worked as a volunteer production manager for a year, whilst working at the Indian Head Surface Warfare Center. I had previously worked on their first production, Pump Boys and Dinettes in 2004.
Joel: Were you involved in this audition process?
Roger: I organized all of the audition notices to the appropriate ‘sites’. I sat in on the auditions, but gave little input.
Rick: No. Since I live in California, I had to leave it all to Bill Graves (the director) and Jim Watson (the musical director and orchestrator).
Joel: What did you think about the Black Box Theatre production?
Rick: This is the show’s first production. Everything is new. We learn. We fix. The next production – wherever it is – will be that much bigger, that much better, that much closer to the dream. Any production of one’s work is of course – for many reasons – exciting and memorable. This one meets all the requirements. The talented cast took it to their hearts, and infused it with such honest emotion.
There is always room for change, additions, and subtractions, so each incarnation stands alone. It is irrelevant what I might add or take away from this production. Director Bill Graves has set it cleverly and musical director Jim Watson marshaled the cast into a singing machine. Due to the exigencies of every talent pool in each area, changes obviously have to be made, some for the good, some to the detriment. In a perfect world, all the clever dialogue and exposition will be reinstated.
Specifically, the character of a “Spirit Guide” for Laughing Daughter was excised from the Black Box production due to technical necessity. This spirit guide is a pure dance figure, with no spoken words. The Indian Head production has no dance, and a show about American Indians should have dance – think about all their wonderful rituals – thank about their traditional rhythms, and realize what a rich addition this would be .
Roger: There were some character and vocal disappointments for me, which Rick has described above. I was disappointed that most of the “rocky’ country songs were removed, as well as a lot of the plot and storyline of the original book.
We are both grateful to the hard working cast, crew, and the wonderful band. We were both blown away by Crystal Mosser, who played Jolene. Her soaring rendition of “Scrapbook” gave us goosebumps and joy! She has a great future in the theatre, and we hope that local artistic directors will hire her.
Joel: So what’s next for the show?
Roger: Our main objective was to get the show on the stage, and we achieved that. Having the book and score lying on our desks, was achieving nothing. We also hoped to attract the attention of people in the theatre to come and see the show and offer suggestions – like you, and we achieved that. Since nobody knew us in the DC theatre community, we hoped this experience would have opened some doors, and it did. We learned from speaking to you and knowledgeable people – like your editor Lorraine Treanor and her husband Tim – that we needed some conflict in the book to enhance the audience’s attention and their understanding of what we were trying to achieve. We knew there were gaps in the story, and Tim’s review on DCTS will assist us in plugging those gaps. Steps are now being taken to do that.
Rick and Roger: We would if we could clone Joel Markowitz, and place a version of him in every burgeoning theatrical community nationwide. Theatre would soon sweep the country. A greater advocate never existed.
Joel: Aw shucks. I’m blushing! It was a pleasure meeting both of you. Thanks for this wonderful interview.