Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Primed for a Premiere

My piece on Clay McLeod Chapman is in this week’s Style. I’ve known Clay for many years now and have been happy to read about his continued success since leaving Richmond. This latest project – the world premiere of a full-scale production of SCKBSTD at Virginia Stage – has been particularly exciting since it represents so many great things: a prime opportunity for Clay, of course, but also a high-profile world premiere in Virginia. And new Bruce Hornsby songs!

Clay is a great interview because he talks a lot, and also because he says so many interesting things. He started our conversation talking about getting ready for opening night saying, “We’re burning the wick at every possible end at this point.”

He has a very realistic and humble perspective on landing this opportunity. “I want to chalk it up to my talent but really, it was just dumb luck in an elevator,” he told me. Literally, a guy overheard producer Michael Rafael talking about working with Bruce Hornsby in an elevator. Out of the blue, he said, “I just read this book. I hear this guy does theater. You should check him out.” And that is how the whole ball got rolling.

It was very interesting getting a perspective on Hornsby. Clay said, “Bruce is a bit of salty bastard. Rather than holding back, he likes to find the edge and keep on going.” Talking about his role in the process, Clay said, “In terms of the darkness of the material, the roles have been reversed. I’m more interested in telling a story that has darker themes but finding a light in the darkness. Bruce is up for messing with his fans. It was a surprise to me but it makes sense. He forged a career doing what he wants to do. It’s impressive to know that these are the songs he wants to write and there hasn’t been any compromise.”

Though the public at large may not be very familiar with director John Rando, you theater peeps probably know him best as the director of the original production of Urinetown. Clay had some insightful things to say about working with him. “John definitely knows how to deal with something that has a challenging title,” he said. “But I still think this is a stretch for him. It’s not Urinetown or Wedding Singer. He’s really taking on something that is darker.” His ability to do so impressed Clay a lot. “I am going to follow that guy wherever he wants to take me,” he said.

One final tidbit I’ll add is that there is an interesting connection between Clay and another playwright who has gotten attention in Richmond lately, Kyle Jarrow (who wrote Love Kills that was recently at the Firehouse). Here’s the story from Clay: “When I got the call [to work on SCKBSTD], I had never written a musical before. It’s a situation where first you say, “Yeah!” and then figure out how you are going to do it. Kyle Jarrow is a friend of mine and just by chance we had similar opportunities come up at the same time. We were both used to doing smaller shows and now we have these jobs doing larger scale things. So we got together and asked ourselves, ‘How do we try to do that?’ We said, ‘OK, now class is in session.’ And we collaborated on this indie musical called Hostage Song. It was an amazing experience. We created this musical, which is one of the personal favorite things I ever did, and we realized that it’s not as impossible.”

Speaking of things that aren’t impossible, it’s clear that independent filmmakers have more chances than ever to succeed, as is evidenced by the movie Antihero that will play at the Byrd next week (see the article in this week’s Style). I mention it because at least one, probably several, local theater faves are featured in this movie.

And one final bit of randomness, I was really interested to read Spinner’s listing of the best guitar riffs of all time. I like the article because it provides online samples of 50 really awesome songs. But it’s also the kind of thing engineered to incite controversy…just like when you award the “Best” of anything (like for instance, the best theater productions and performances in Richmond). It’s something I like to keep in mind, particularly as I look toward the 2011 RTCC awards...

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