Arts & Culture
A Unique Musical Style Meets 1959 Greenwich Village
By Steven J. Smith | Photos by John Revisky
Asolo Repertory Theatre’s much-anticipated world premiere of the musical “Beatsville” features a distinctive jazz form called “vocalise,” according to book writer Glenn Slater, who developed the project with his wife, composer and lyricist Wendy Leigh Wilf.
“Wendy and I met at a musical theater writing workshop,” Slater said. “Soon after that, though, she decided to leave the world of theater and go back to her first love, which is jazz. But she quickly realized she missed the theater and told me she wanted to find a way that combines the two in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
Slater, 49, is a three-time Tony nominee for the international hit musicals “The Little Mermaid,” “Sister Act” and “School of Rock” and is a co-creator of Disney’s worldwide smash “Tangled.” Wilf holds a Masters in Jazz Piano from the Manhattan School of Music, and Slater said she had discovered a certain style in jazz language called “vocalise,” which was popular in the late 1950s and served as their way into “Beatsville.”
“Musicians would take an existing jazz track, such as a saxophone solo,” Slater said. “Then they’d set lyrics to it, so it would have the freshness, inventiveness and the extemporaneous feel of actual jazz, but have words and carry meaning.”
That style, he added, runs through the couple’s new musical, which is set in Greenwich Village, circa 1959 — a world of subterranean coffee shops, goateed artists, turtle-necked poets and bongo-playing jazzbos. Tragically square busboy Walter Paisley wants nothing more than to be one of the beatniks, but he has no artistic talent whatsoever. When he accidentally kills a cat and hides it in a lump of clay, “Dead Cat” is declared a masterpiece and Walter a genius. More “sculptures” bring more acclaim — but will the world discover Walter’s secret?
Slater said “Beatsville” is based on the 1959 Roger Corman film “A Bucket of Blood.” It satirizes the hipster lifestyle and resonates with our own time.
“It was a lot of fun to draw those parallels,” he said. “We realized we had the perfect ingredients for a musical — a musical style that’s fun and fresh, a historical era that’s so ripe for dance, movement and drama and a story that says so much about our own times.”
Slater added it is “an unbelievably joyful” experience collaborating on this musical with his wife.
“We share a very similar sensibility, so there is almost no friction whatsoever between us,” he said. “We finish each other’s thoughts.”
“Beatsville” has been a work in progress for several years now and is directed by Bill Berry, producing artistic director of Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, which is co-producing the show with Asolo Rep. Berry said the goal is to eventually polish the show to the point that it can make the move to Broadway.
“I think the hardest part of a film to stage musical adaptation is having room for the story to sing,” Berry said. “Glenn and Wendy found a vehicle that allows for that. Working on it here at Asolo Rep has given us an opportunity to find out what’s working and not working and I anticipate we’ll be making changes on it right up through opening night, depending on what we get in audience reaction.”
Berry added there is a maxim in the musical theater world that musicals are not written so much as they’re rewritten. Slater agreed.
“It was a lot of fun to draw those parallels.”
“You never finish writing a musical,” Slater said. “You just abandon it. But you’re never really done. There’s always more work to be done.”
Slater added at this moment in time “Beatsville” has the right cast and creative team around it, including Asolo Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards, who continues to help shape the show in a positive way.
“Michael has such a worldly and smart theatrical mind,” he said. “He found the show’s weaknesses very quickly and asked all the right questions. He invited us to Asolo Rep as a place to work the piece, do rewrites, find the flaws and make the fixes. It was an invitation we felt we couldn’t turn down. And it’s turned out to be exactly what we hoped it would be.”
“Beatsville” plays from April 28-May 28 in Asolo’s Mertz Theatre, located in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts at 5555 North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. Ticket prices range from $16-$91 depending on date, time and seat location.