It’s starting to make the regional theatre rounds, new productions are popping up, and there are no happier people than composer Paul Scott Goodman and his wife Miriam Gordon, who composed and co-wrote the book of the musical ROOMS a rock romance. DC audiences and critics loved the MetroStage production of the show, which won a Helen Hayes Award for the incredible performance of Natascia Diaz as the quirky and overly-determined Monica P. Miller, and which also co-starred the talented singer and guitarist Doug Kreeger.
When I heard that 11th Hour Theatre Company was producing ROOMS in Philadelphia starring two of my favorite Philly actors/singers Michael Philip O’Brien (who won the Barrymore Award this year for his riveting performance in the a cappella musical Avenue X) and actress Alex Keiper, who stole the show at many of the readings of the new musical The Tapioca Miracle, which I have been covering for DC Theatre Scene, and that Barrymore-winning musical director (also for his work on Avenue X) Dan Kazemi was musical directing this production, I had to see it! I love Paul Scott Goodman’s score, and couldn’t wait to hear Michael and Alex sing it.
MetroStage’s Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin, Paul, and I drove up to Philly on Monday, April 26th. For Paul, it was a nice break from performing Son of a Stand Up Comedian, which is playing at MetroStage through May 9th. What we all saw that night at The Prince Music Theatre stage was thrilling. It was “Industry Night” and local actors and directors, and others who work in the Philly theatre community came to watch Michael and Alex, and they cheered loudly throughout the performance. It was a night to remember!
I’ve asked Paul, Miriam, Carolyn and Van Hill Entertainment’s Van Dean and Hillary Cutter (producers of the Off-Broadway production of ROOMS) to share what they saw that night, and I asked Michael, Alex, Director Megan Nicole O’Brien, and Musical Director Dan Kazemi to enlighten us about their roles, vision, direction, and musical challenges of producing 11th Hour Theatre Company’s production of ROOMS. I also asked Carolyn, Miriam and Paul to talk about Son of a Stand Up Comedian.
Alex Keiper (Monica P. Miller) and Michael Philip O’Brien (Ian Wallace)
Joel: You are playing Monica and Ian. How do you relate to your characters?
Alex: Monica is an ambitious young girl whose life goal is to gain recognition and stardom. There’s nothing that can get in the way of her reaching her dreams, or so she thinks. I relate to her drive, the most. My work is so important to me that I am willing to put a lot of my personal life aside for it. But the difference between she and I is how we rate our successes. I find satisfaction and worth inside myself when I have decided I’ve done something well, or up to my standards, Monica needs others to give her recognition and when that’s the case – you’re bound for trouble, since the only thing we can control is ourselves.
Michael: Initially, I wasn’t sure about the best way to tap into Ian. I think ultimately I had to find the ways that he and I were alike. Once I was able to find those things, the character began to develop much faster.
Joel: Why did you want to play Monica and Ian?
Alex: As I was growing up and looking at becoming an actor, I was always told that I was not bound to be the leading lady type. Being a quirky, funny character actor was definitely in my future, but I had little hope of ever being the one who the story is about. Fortunately for me, the exciting and interesting ingénue is now coming into focus in contemporary musical theater! Monica is just that, and I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better opportunity as my very first leading role. ROOMS is a challenge for two actors who will get to show their range vocally and emotionally. What a ride!
Michael: I think this character was a challenge in every way. It is an extremely challenging role to sing. Also, the whole show is in a Scottish accent, you play the guitar throughout the show and the relationship between these two characters
Joel: What were your biggest challenges?
Alex: The biggest challenge in playing Monica has been truthfully creating her emotional arc. A lot happens to this girl from the beginning of the story to the end, and each difficult and emotional decision has to come organically otherwise the audience won’t be along for the ride. During previews, it was exciting to find her physical arc. To start, Monica is young, bouncy, and energized. She has a hard time sitting still. As the story goes on, she becomes manic and anxious to match her rising stakes. By the end – she is rational, calm and truthful, so it becomes important for her to stand her ground. What an exciting challenge to grow up with a character on stage every night.
Michael: Definitely making sure that Alex and I really created the chemistry between these two characters so that the audience was truly invested in the show and story.
Joel: How would you describe Paul Scott Goodman’s score?
Alex: Paul’s score is a constant in the show. Almost every scene has an underscoring and it informs each emotional moment. It is so fun to hear the audience humming the catchy tunes to themselves while they’re leaving the theater. During rehearsals we were really able to tap into how the songs could come organically from the scenes. For example – the fight scene is completely underscored and we technically sing to each other the whole time, but the melodies are so easily assimilated to the way that people actually speak or argue to make points that people forget we’re singing sometimes.
Michael: I think that Paul’s score is the thing that drew us to the piece at first. It is great to do a show where the composer has written lyrics the way that people speak. It makes acting the material much easier.
Joel: You met with Paul and Miriam. What advice and suggestions did they give you?
Alex: Before we started rehearsals, we had the opportunity to go meet with Paul, Miriam and Hillary in NY. When I started talking to them about Monica – I was putting a lot of assumptions on the character, such as, what was most important to her. I thought her dream of being a performer came from an artistic stand point. Wanting to write and make music that mattered. But, when I said that to Paul, he corrected me pretty quickly to say that her goal in life was simple – “fame” – which to me, changed the entire path to how I was going to relate to and find this character. A strong want is so important when telling a story, and thanks to Paul and Miriam I got on the right road.
Michael: They gave us a lot of insight into what they had in mind when writing the show. We were then able to start rehearsals with all of that in mind. We were then able to use that to create our own spin on the story.
Joel: What’s the most difficult song to sing and why?
Alex: In “Happiness” I have to make sure that I’m not pushing my emotions too much. Inside she is falling apart but outside she’s still performing for a crowd of people (however small or supportive they are). She has to fight breaking down on stage because it would ruin what she thinks might be her last chance to be famous in NYC. But her emotions get the best of her by the end of the cabaret act and have to peak at a specific point. As an actor, you can’t just tell yourself that it’s “time to cry”, that doesn’t work. You just have to allow yourself to go on the journey with her. The words in the song and the melody take you there naturally if you give over to it. So keeping it simple with a personal touch is the key to performing this difficult song.
Michael: “Fear Of Flying”. It is fast, vocally difficult, and an emotional roller coaster. If you stumble over a lyric – you are in deep trouble because the song just keeps going. You have to stay totally focused the whole song
Joel: What song of Monica’s or Ian’s is your favorite?
Alex: The song when Monica really falls in love with Ian is “The Music”, and since I get to be onstage with him and see him for the first time, I hold that song near and dear. It’s the first time she’s ever seen an artist like him, and it really explains his fears as well as his passions. It’s simple and clear and everything that Monica isn’t at that point in the show. Mike doesn’t love it, but if he’s singing it to warm up his guitar fingers I can’t help but sing my made up harmonies to that song.
Michael: I think “Bring the Future Faster” is the most important song in the show. I think it totally set the tone for the rest of the show.
Joel: What advice did director Megan Nicole O’Brien give you?
Alex: There was a lot of advice that Megan gave me. We’ve worked together several times and have seen each other change and grow for years. During preview week, Megan came into my dressing room for notes and ended up giving me one of our “heart to hearts”. I had been struggling with letting go in the role. Normally emotional heights are my specialty, but there was something about the pressure or the speed or the intensity of this show that just had me reeling. I was silently fighting it myself and hadn’t come to her about my frustrations, but because she knows me and my work she clearly knew there was a problem. I don’t think that I could quote her directly, but she said she knew this was a big deal for me, and that I was feeling the pressure, but she trusted me and I needed to do the same. I needed to do what I do and believe in the work that we had done, and if I could do that, it would be there.
Michael: I think the most important thing that Megan helped both Alex and I with was continuing to focus on the chemistry between these two people. She knew that if the audience was not invested in these two people as a couple, the show would fall flat. I think that through her hard work and guidance, we were able to achieve that.
Joel: Paul and Miriam attended the April 26th performance and participated in a talk- back with you and Dan. What was that experience like?
Alex: Having Paul and Miriam there on “Industry Night” for the talk back felt like such a pay-off. The room was full of people who believe in the work that 11th Hour does and to give them a chance to really dive into the difficult questions that we’ve been thinking about for months was a thrill. After all the struggles, that evening felt like a complete high of artistic value. Paul and Miriam are so cool and have been there from the start of our process – that we were glad to show them a great show as well as share with them a bit of what our community is like.
Michael: It was great. I think our audience really enjoyed getting to ask the writers questions and hear more about the creation of this piece
Joel: What’s next for you?
Alex: Summer 2010 will be full of cabarets and readings and potential film projects! I’m not booked for any long running summer shows yet, but I look forward to September when I will be playing Logainne in Theater Horizon’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee!
Michael: I am currently doing Fiddler on the Roof, where I am in the ensemble, at Walnut Street Theatre, and I will be doing Three Penny Opera at the Arden in the fall.
Megan Nicole O’Brien (Director)
Joel: Why did 11th Hour want to produce ROOMS?
Megan: This production was sort of a way for 11th Hour to return to its roots by doing a small and intimate musical with a story that could relate to our audience.
Joel: What was your vision for ROOMS?
Megan: I wanted to highlight the chemistry between the two characters and really bring out their love story because I believe it is the heart of the show. I also wanted to emphasize that the music was such a huge part of their connection, and that they could still have that without ambition or unhappiness getting in their way.
Joel: What were some of the challenges you faced in directing the show?
Megan: I think the cinematic use of location and the rapid pace of the play were the biggest challenges. I wanted to make sure that each location was clear and developed, and that the audience could always follow.
Joel: What was your favorite scene to direct?
Megan: I think it is a toss up between “All I Want is Everything,” “Scottish-Jewish Princess,” and the scene where they meet for the first time “The Music.” The first two songs were just a joy because the play does have so much depth to it, so the comedic songs were so much fun to work on. The scene when they meet for the first time was intriguing because every time we rehearsed it, we were able to find more moments of connection between Mike and Alex and more chemistry between them.
Joel: Why were Michael and Alex the perfect choices to play Monica and Ian?
Megan: Mike had a fresh take and profound understanding of Ian from the beginning and he can make his voice sound beautiful and lyrical, as well as raspy and edgy, so it was a perfect fit. Alex has a diligence about her work, so she always wanted to learn more about Monica and find as many ways into her character as possible. Alex’s voice is incredibly unique, so she sounds like she could be a recording artist, and that is exactly how we wanted Monica to sound.
Joel: How would you describe their performances?
Megan: I think Alex’s performance is energetic, magnetic, compelling, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at the same time. She has this stunning ability to make the audience laugh and then cry within the same breath. Mike’s performance is full of subtlety, angst, sense of humor, and vulnerability. He seamlessly transitions from a struggling young man into one full of love, hope, and possibility.
Joel: Talk about Musical Director Dan Kazemi’s contribution to the production.
Megan: It’s hard to describe in just a few sentences what Dan Kazemi’s contribution to this, or any other production that we’ve collaborated on, because he transcends the boundaries of a typical musical director. Dan’s number one priority is always the production as a whole and how the music can make it stronger. With ROOMS, Dan found every possible way to use Mike and Alex’s voices to their fullest extent, and to extract as much emotion as possible through the music. He also made significant contributions to table work, scene work, and character development throughout rehearsals.
Joel: How is this production different from the one in NYC?
Megan: I actually did not see the NYC production, so I’m not exactly sure! Even though I had heard such phenomenal things about it, I felt that since this play is so reliant on the Monica and Ian’s relationship, I wanted to start from scratch with Mike and Alex, without any outside influences.
Joel: Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon met with you and the cast. What were some of the suggestions they gave you?
Megan: The most important advice they gave was to trust in the characters and in their story. They suggested that we really concentrate on the intimacy of these two characters. If there was ever any confusion in rehearsals, we were always able to come back to those two points.
Paul Scott Goodman (Composer/Lyricist/Co-Book Writer):
Paul: Seeing ROOMS on Monday night was an exhilarating experience, like a small tight fast moving race car! The performers gave it their all and the band was in tune all the way! Hopefully there will be many more productions of all stripes and shapes. There are very many ways to translate and traverse this material and I expect them all to be explored in the years to come, please G-d!
Son of a Stand Up Comedian is building a devoted following in DC. I urge all of you to come see the show in the final two weekends.
Miriam Gordon (Co-Book Writer)
Miriam: Last night, it was really great to see another production of ROOMS up and running in Philadelphia so soon after New York and immediately following the production at Spirit of Broadway in Connecticut. It is exciting for Paul and I to have productions up and down the eastern seacoast coupled with our production of Son of a Stand Up Comedian, playing at MetroStage in the D.C. area right now. You can read more about the show and Paul here.
The 11th Hour Theatre Company in Philadelphia has done a great production of ROOMS. The performers, Alex Keiper and Michael O’Brien, and the director, Megan O’Brien, brought tremendous energy and insight into the characters, unveiling layers of Monica and Ian that I haven’t seen before and adding depth to the scenes. The lyrics and lines weren’t just sung or spoken; everything made sense as is always the hope. The band, led by Dan Kazemi, did a wonderful job in capturing the score. The audience reaction was incredibly enthusiastic and responsive – we were all having a lot of fun; people cheering at times!
ROOMS has many new productions coming to New Hampshire (Seacoast Theatre), Tampa, Montreal, and more. The 11th Hour and The Spirit of Broadway, who were the first to kick-off the regional productions of Rooms, have allowed Paul and me to experiment. The work implemented by all of us involved will benefit future productions, and we are grateful for the opportunity given.
Son of a Stand Up Comedian, which is playing now at MetroStage in Alexandria, VA was actually written before ROOMS, in a sense is the progenitor to ROOMS; both semi-autobiographical pieces. The two pieces together paint a clear coming-of-age story told specifically through the quirky unique tales of Scotland meets Judaism meets America. Also, Son of a Stand Up Comic gives a rare opportunity for people to see Paul perform this one man “Scottish Jewish Rock ‘n Roll Raconteur” show. Pretty quirky? I’ll say so! In comparing the show to Fiddler on the Roof which is running in DC now with Harvey Fierstein, the Washington Jewish Week said about our show: “It’s a new Jewish musical for a new generation.” We liked that one. Ride with us up and down the coast to ROOMS (last chance at 11th Hour until May 2nd info at 11thhourtheatrecompany.org and Son of a Stand Up Comedian at MetroStage until May 9th. Thanks, Mr. Joel M.
Dan Kazemi (Musical Direction/keyboard/creative consultant)
Dan: To be completely honest, I came into ROOMS rehearsals thinking that it would be an easygoing, smooth process that wouldn’t involve too much difficulty. After all, it is a two person musical, and the tunes are generally within the contemporary pop rock idiom. When first looking at the piano vocal score, my biggest concern was that I knew that what I would be playing in the actual show – was very different from what I’d be playing in rehearsals. Its not that I found the score difficult to play, but I knew it would be a challenge conducting a score that isn’t necessarily keyboard driven. I have always found that I conduct best from the keys. It’s easy for me to instantly connect to the actors through my fingers and aurally to the band at the same time.
Normally I would be most concerned with keeping harmonies in tact with a larger cast and then, secondly, incorporating the band into the piece. In this case, I discovered that, due to the organic nature of much of the music, rising out of intense moments of real human emotion, the timing would wax and wane as the actors lived in these moments. On one hand, it is a testament to the composer, Paul Scott Goodman, for creating a sculpted score that flows in, out of, and in between “the groove” and more recitative, conversational singing. On the other hand, it creates a difficult job for the music director who is trying to make the split second decisions necessary to protect the flow of the piece, and simultaneously relay that information to the rest of the band. I have to extend my awareness and get inside the actors minds as much as possible. Alex says I have some kind of “ESP”. I just think I’m so used to conducting from behind a wall with no real sight line of the live action that I can handle staying with them.
I also think that I would normally take a little more liberty with my music direction on a piece that has been well established, or is a staple of musical theater. In this case, the piece is still close to the writers’ hands, and as Miriam said at our industry night talk back, they are now becoming ready to let it go into other creators’ hands. I felt that I had to respect the choices made by the writers of the piece, but I tried to put my own spin on a few instances in order to best tailor the piece to Alex and Michaels’ voices and tell the story the way we interpreted it.
Van Dean (Van Hill Entertainment, Producer of the Off-Broadway production of ROOMS)
Van: As a producer of the original Off-Broadway production of ROOMS, it is fascinating for me to see what other artists do with the material. I have been involved with the show for almost five years and it’s exciting to have reached the point where the work now belongs to the theater community at large. Now is the time that theaters around the country (and, ultimately, around the world) will take the show and make it their own.
11th Hour Theatre Company is a talented young emerging group of artists and we were very pleased when they expressed interest in doing our show as the Philadelphia premiere. The actors are fantastic and the band sounds amazing. Each production brings out various nuances of the show and teaches us something new about the piece. This production was no exception. Michael and Alex’s take on the characters was original, but still felt natural, and expanded the definition of who Monica and Ian are.
Hillary Cutter (Van Hill Entertainment, Producer of the Off-Broadway production of ROOMS)
Hillary: 11th Hour Theatre is the second company to license the show after our Off-Broadway production at New World Stages. We knew when we were developing and guiding this show it would have a long and healthy life after New York. However, we didn’t know it would happen so quickly! The one thing we have to keep in mind as the licensing company – is that every theater company will have their own take on the piece and we have no control over that. We are available to offer advice and guidance but at the end of the day, it’s their show.
It was great interacting with 11th Hour during the pre-production stages. I attended the first creative meeting with 11th Hour and Paul and Miriam. They showed us sketches of the set and Michael and Alex asked Paul and Miriam questions about the characters. Paul and Miriam helped them understand the characters better and we all talked about the history of the piece. Megan talked about relating to Monica and saw herself using that as a guide when directing the piece. The show feels as if it’s being directed through a female’s perspective which is interesting. It has a lighter and cleaner feel than our previous productions. Megan is the first female to direct the show.
The biggest change in the two recent productions is the set doesn’t have a door! I think 11th Hour’s staging with doorways instead of a door really worked. They also did a great job of converting a cabaret space into a black box theatre. I liked the placement of the band and their interaction with the performers. One nice touch is the Music Director/Conductor is the live announcer during the show. Most importantly the band sounded great. That is usually the biggest challenge when producing a five-piece rock musical out of New York City!
I thought the performances were fantastic! Alex and Michael really understood the intricacies of the characters and they had great chemistry on stage. My favorite part: Sitting back, enjoying the show and not worrying about audience development and ticket sales.
Carolyn Griffin (Artistic Director of MetroStage)
Carolyn: Since we were introduced to Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon’s work when we produced ROOMS a rock romance in the fall of 2008, we have been committed to their work. So we are very pleased to be presenting Paul’s very own one man rock and roll musical, Son of a Stand Up Comedian here at MetroStage for the next few weeks (must close May 9th ).
Paul Scott Goodman has a very unique, distinctive voice and style (and that’s not just the Scottish accent!). He writes in a very poetic, lyrical way. I like to call it Scottish rap. He has a great monologue style (think Spaulding Gray only Scottish and Jewish) and a great rock sound (think John Mellencamp) with a little folk thrown in. All in all, it is totally Goodman’s voice both literally and figuratively, and it is a great opportunity to experience his style first hand – not through the work of actors on stage but Goodman in person on a stage as the Scottish Jewish artist we know and love.
I would encourage everyone who fell in love with ROOMS (which is getting productions all over the country since premiering at MetroStage) or Bright Lights Big City (his earlier work) to come see Son of a Stand Up Comedian at MetroStage. Callme at the theatre (703-548-9044) and there will be a discount waiting for you. Paul is a great artist on stage and off – and this is your chance to experience it first hand.
Watch a video commercial for 11th Hour Theatre Company’s ROOMS here.
ROOMS plays through this Sunday, May 2nd at The Prince Theatre at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, PA. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.
Son of a Stand Up Comic plays through May 9th at MetroStage in Alexandria, VA. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.