How the musical came to (un)life and its creative journey.
I was searching for inspiration to create fun projects on YouTube. Thanks to True Blood, vampires were once again hugely popular as they cyclically are, and RuPaul's Drag Race had just begun, making drag queens more popular and visible than ever before. I thought a mash up of the two could be a blast. Thus I began writing a campy dance song and making a music video for it on a budget of only $600 plus a behind the scenes video.
Months later, the essence of the character lingered with me. I felt some kind of story world brewing in me. I wasn't certain what that would be, but I knew that despite all odds, I wanted to create a serious piece of theatre--not campy as would be expected and despite the song. Furthermore, I wanted it to be a musical. After Dance of the Vampires, Frank Wildhorn's Dracula, and Lestat, I'm sure most have thought I must be bonkers. I probably am.
The first version that I attempted was an adaptation of Othello that fell apart. The next attempt was an original story that was drenched in a great deal of anger I harbored around the time we were dealt a setback to our wedding plans due to a New York Senate vote denying New Yorkers marriage equality despite its being recognized by the state thanks to Governor Paterson. That version definitely needs to stay put in its coffin.
Sometime later, I experienced an exhibit at MOMA that sparked huge ideas—including the possibility of staging it more environmentally. I pictured the show in the nightclub with video screens surrounding the audience. You can probably imagine my frustration when Here Lies Love beat me to it. This concept brought out a possible way of crafting and/or staging the script as if it were a story being told by drag queens in the club. I was also very interested in the possibility that it felt like a huge pop concert ala Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour, which felt like a Broadway musical. We even thought it would be fun if the ending felt like the show had run off the rails and reality was merging into the story with a protest/riot and raid. But, that idea faded away.
I’d heard that Edward Albee did a great deal of writing in his head before applying it to paper. I would never presume that I possess even a fraction of Mr. Albee’s immense talent, but I do find myself working in a similar way. I’m writing all the time, and if anything pops out that I think I could forget, I write it down. I certainly do take time with pen and paper or computer to work out the material. But much of the time, I’m letting it marinate in my brain.
My husband, Jared, is an excellent dramaturg. When he works with a writer on a new work, his goal is to be a mirror to the author’s work with the simple question, “Is this what you intend to say?” He recognizes when you have intentionally or unintentionally begun a concept (a theme, an established theory, a structural device, etc.) and can help you realize the impulse more fully. I always say that he takes what I write and makes it much smarter. When necessary, he’s there to advocate on behalf of the writer with other members of a creative team.
In September of 2011, I was given the chance to start performing at the historic Stonewall Inn. And that October, I put together 30 minutes of music to form Vampire Drag Queen - the pop cabaret. I got dolled up and vamped up that stage performing Halloween friendly songs with a loose plot that allowed me to explore. But, most notably, it was the first time I ever performed “Vampire Drag Queen” live. I would go on to perform the song at Stonewall every Halloween and sometimes other parts of the year for the next few years.
In this cabaret that I put together having won Cabaret Showdown, the encore was “Vampire Drag Queen”. I don’t recall if this is the first time I performed it this way, but I started realizing that I didn’t have to get into full drag to perform this and a couple of other songs in my Stonewall act. Costume pieces, wigs, and lipstick could suffice. So, this performance was done with the street clothes I wore for the cabaret, the cape, blond wig, lipstick, and possibly the vampire teeth--though after one the fangs flew out of my mouth at a Stonewall performance, I tended to skip them unless in full regalia.
I was also taking time to study plot structure, story world, and genre. One of my books placed horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein in the superhero category. These creature features usually have an origin story and deal with similar themes. This made me very excited as I had already gravitated towards the idea that the story may very be comic book—like Batman. Would the vampire drag queen be the hero or the villain? The vigilante story was percolating inside me. No matter where Jared guided me, I’d find a way back. We started toying around with ideas for other projects, and one of them involved Revenge Tragedies, such as The Spanish Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, and, of course, the most famous one, Hamlet. Reviewing the elements of revenge tragedy (see below), suddenly everything began to click. Vigilante films were modern day revenge tragedies. Batman is often portrayed as a vigilante. The other thing I was suddenly gifted was a stronger structure for the story. The elements of revenge tragedy created a kind of outline of what might possibly occur. I didn’t have all the answers but I had a great start.
I began formally writing the musical and started working out ideas in a blank book that went everywhere with me. It contains nearly every thought I’ve had about the piece.
There are inevitably going to be those who declare that this musical is an adaptation of Hamlet. And that just isn’t so. There are deliberate allusions to Hamlet as well as Spanish Tragedy and other revenge tragedies as homage. But the only thing that has been used is the list of generalized elements of revenge tragedy. The plot and story world are of my creation with excellent guidance by Jared.
One thing I’ve learned to do is write what Jared and I lovingly call “the shit draft”. I sit down and write what I have to give. The dialogue is allowed to be shitty. There may be only a handful of lines to a song if even that. Most of the time, I just wrote a sentence or two about what the song should be and do. No matter how terrible this draft is, it lays down a starting structure for the piece. And it’s only uphill from there.
After I had gone through and created further drafts, only working on the parts I felt inspired to work on and leaving those couple of sentences as placeholders alone, I reached the point where I needed feedback. So, on Halloween 2014, we grabbed a table at the back of the 9th Ave Saloon and read through what I had.
For Halloween, I decided to debut a song from the show in our Stonewall show. I chose “Into the Darkness”which concludes the first act. I realized that none of the other songs would easily work out of context or were hot enough to impress that audience. This was not a good revelation at all. But this song gave me the chance to workshop a dramatic moment with wonderfully dark dance music.
Promo video for that night:
It was a full year of writing and rewriting, and I was ready for the feedback of someone other than Jared and myself. Still feeling a little vulnerable, we did a reading with just our very close friend, Jill in November 2015. I had completed the first demos so we were able to hear it with a fairly complete score. The feedback was valuable, and some major changes came out of this.
Having won Cabaret Showdown a second time, I created this show with one whole section dedicated to debuting/workshopping songs from the musical. I performed the title song and “Better Be Afraid of Me” and two of the songs that come from the love story in the show: “Take a Chance on Love” and “I Don’t Want to Love You (But I Do)”. Hard to say what the response is as we had a tiny house what with it being a late afternoon on a cold Sunday in January. But, to be honest, I could tell there were some flat moments. And, if I didn't get much feedback, it's likely it didn't go over great. I always say, "It's not the criticism. It's the silence that tells you the truth". More would be needed to make these songs soar on the stage.
At this time, I felt ready to hear the show read aloud with actors and then hear some feed back. I got a ton of feed back that I’m still working with as revisions happen. Development did slow down greatly at this point. I know I needed time to process the next phase of revisions and allow ideas to marinate. I wanted to work on other projects as well knowing that when you work on something, it can often unlock things for other projects.
In June 2018, I attempted something very bold and innovative. I performed the world's first? online cabaret live from my living room in Harlem, NYC and broadcast via Facebook Live. And, it was an absolute fiasco. Instead of starting small, I reached for the stars. And while all elements to create the audio and video for the show were things I've been doing for years, broadcasting itself was something I took for granted. I knew there was latency--that I would be ahead of the audience--thus communication via chat would be delayed. We fought to remove the echo that was traumatizing me in our studio and won that battle. But we had no idea that the sound and audio were completely off. Either the computer or software couldn't handle greenscreen, overlay, two cameras, music tracks, and a microphone all at once. (At least the effect of duplicating the camera to create my own back up dancers worked). I was and may always be mortified. But I performed the title song, "Better Be Afraid of Me", and the opening of the musical, "It's a Dangerous World". With the latter, I came up with my own way of doing a workshop performance, so the audience could visualize things. I included visuals of text from the script and made paper dolls for each character.
To mark the occasion of this anniversary, I had wanted to do something bigger, but being very busy with other projects, I opted to keep things simple and debuted a demo track on this web site. Eventually, I hope to present a concept album for the musical.