Adding a new dimension to LCT3 with a series of in-depth conversations.

In conversation with LCT3 Associate, Natasha Sinha

Natasha Sinha (LCT3 Associate): Welcome, Dave and Rachel! You both make theater that’s so bold and theatrical. Did you start out studying theater, or were you on a different path that ended up here? 

Dave Malloy (Playwright/Music/Lyrics): I did not come here through theater— I went to school as a music person. So I got a degree in music composition. And then I moved to San Francisco and was playing in a lot of bands. I was in an electrojazz trio and in rock bands, and I was not doing theater at all. I think in college I played in some pit orchestras, like summer stock pit orchestras. And I sound-designed one show in college. But I had actually no real interest in theater.

Rachel Chavkin (Director): Do you have any recordings of your bands? I want to hear your electrojazz orchestra!

DM: I sure do! I totally have recordings of those. We did a really great rendition of ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’—you know, the Radiohead song. That was kind of our crown jewel… Anyway, then I was working at a record store in San Francisco. And someone needed a keyboard player for a theater show they were doing and I’d just moved there and I was like ‘Sure that sounds fun!’ And basically, I can trace my entire career to that one show. The director asked me to do her next show, an actor asked me to do his next show… so little by little, I just started doing more and more theater. That was like 15 years ago.

RC: I totally studied theater. I didn’t do theater growing up particularly, because my school didn’t really have a theater program. I started going to a summer camp for theater. And then I did theater in college. I went to NYU and did drama there, and I was both acting and directing right off the bat—and then declared myself a director upon graduating (after my very first audition, when I was like ‘Never again’). [Laughs] And I’ve been doing it ever since.

NS: And you first worked with each other six years ago?

RC: Fall 2009 was our first collaboration. That was at Vassar College, actually. I had been working with a playwright named Talaya Delaney—I’d met her years before when I was a Drama League director in 2004. Talaya was a professor, writer-in-residence and teacher at Vassar and she wanted to work on this play that we’d been developing, but she wanted to make it into a musical. And I had gotten to know Dave’s work—and Dave himself—through our very dear mutual friends Jessica Jelliffe and Jason Craig, who have a company called Banana, Bag & Bodice, that Dave is a member of. I saw I think every incarnation of BEOWULF, from the “Prelude” festival in 2007 up until its premiere. And I just flipped for Dave’s music. We got to know each other and so I called him when Talaya said she wanted to make the show into a musical, and said ‘Do you want to do this?’ It was right after you’d moved here…

DM: I just moved here, so I was like ‘Sure!’

RC: And it was a really great, super low-stakes way for us to get to know each other. I think we actually started talking about [NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT] COMET [OF 1812] then. And then Dave was doing the show THREE PIANOS…

DM: Yeah, THREE PIANOS was the first show we did together in New York, which was a show that Alec Duffy, Rick Burkhardt and I were developing about Schubert’s “Winterreise.” At first we had the idea that just the three of us would make it without a director… and then quickly—well, not quickly—but eventually we realized that that was a terrible idea! [Laughs] So we were talking about directors we wanted to work with, and I said ‘Well, I just had this amazing experience working with Rachel up at this show at Vassar.’ We brought her in to do that, and she worked magic on a sprawling, three-hour opus of a mess.

NS: Yes, I remember! So much playful riffing around Schubert. Dave, you’re so well-versed in music history that I’m sure you’ve been interested in Rachmaninoff for a while, but when did you learn about the three-year period following the disastrous premiere of his first symphony? What was the trajectory from then, to wanting to write about that in PRELUDES?

DM: Hmm, I don’t remember. It was actually my high school choir director, I think, who first introduced me to Rachmaninoff. That’s John Drotleff.  He’s like my most what-do-you-call-it…

RC: Mentor?

DM: Just like the person who got me interested in music. So more than a mentor. Like an initiating…

RC: Dealer?

DM: … Creator? Anyway! Sometimes before rehearsal, he would play Rachmaninoff’s G minor prelude, and the C# minor prelude… And then when I went to college and studied piano there, my piano teacher Richard Syracuse used to play at a wings joint on Wednesday nights. He was mostly playing jazz standards and stuff like that. But when enough of the music department was there at this wings night (drinking lots of beer and eating chicken wings), we would coax him into playing masterpieces of the classical repertoire. So he would play those preludes at like 1am at this little wings bar.

RC: We should do a late-night show with buffalo wings!

DM: Totally. So good. I think sometime in there is when I was playing some Rachmaninoff music. And also when I learned about this three-year period. The fact that he solved his writer’s block through hypnotherapy in 1900 was just such a fascinating idea to me. And so it was one of those things—like COMET—where an idea kind of squirreled away, like ‘Oh, that would be a great show to make some day.’ But I never really thought I’d be able to make it, because I thought ‘Well, we need a virtuoso piano player in order to do that...” And then, fortuitously, we met Or Matias [Music Director, Pianist and plays Rachmaninoff in PRELUDES] who was the Music Director on COMET. On a break one day, I heard him playing some Rachmaninoff. We started talking about Rachmaninoff, and he revealed that Rachmaninoff was one of his favorite composers, and that he had played tons and tons of his music. So we started talking about this piece, and now here we are!

NS: And when we met, I remember you saying that you get inspired by writing for a specific venue, and so you saw the Claire Tow Theater. Did that factor into when we commissioned you and when you were writing PRELUDES?

DM: Absolutely. Both the theater itself and its location at Lincoln Center. It felt like it’d be so appropriate to do something that’s in dialogue with classical music and with the other kind of events that happen around here. Also, the size of the space is perfect for this since it’s kind of a chamber musical. It’s just six people onstage and the score is mostly on a grand piano, so it felt like the right size for that as well.

NS: And Rachel, what was your introduction to Rachmaninoff?

RC: This project, basically. Well, I had come to realize I had heard a lot of Rachmaninoff in movies, as Dave and Or moved through all the different Rachmaninoff pieces during the course of the workshops to figure out what would be in the show. And I was like ‘Oh, that’s familiar! I think I’ve seen an ice-skating routine to that!” [Laughs] But reading the biography for the initial research on this piece was my real introduction.

Read Part 2. 

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