Interview

Intermission Edition: Seattle Rep’s History with Musicals

Over the past five years, Seattle Rep has jumped into producing more musicals than ever before. From Shout Sister Shout! (2019), to In the Heights (2018), to Here Lies Love (2017), Come From Away (2015), Lizard Boy (2015), and more, we are taking a look back at our musical history with our Producing Director Elisabeth Farwell-Moreland and Artistic Associate Hattie Andres.

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Carrie Compere and the cast of Shout Sister Shout! (2019). Photo by Bronwen Houck.

Seattle Rep: Seattle Rep has become a theater known for exciting new musical theater productions, especially within the last five or so years. Where did the impetus to produce more musical theater come from?

Elisabeth Farwell-MorelandBack in the day, Seattle Rep produced musicals such as Sunday in the Park with George. We were actually in the running for the pre-Broadway production of Wicked

When I arrived in 2006, we had the occasional musical offering, like Fire on the Mountain. In our 50th season, we produced Cheryl L. West’s play with music, Pullman Porter Blues, and our audiences loved it. It didn’t feel like a big shiny Broadway musical, but told an intimate story that was enhanced by the emotional power of the music of Chicago blues. Our commission with Justin Huertas that grew into Lizard Boy really changed our course by redefining the nature of what we expected a musical could look like on our stage. Imaginative, minimal, magical, honest, and charming. We realized it wasn’t just the music that mattered – it was the story, the style, the way the music reached into your heart and heightened genuine emotion. We were getting excited. At this time we had already started talking with a producer about a little musical about Gander, Newfoundland. It seemed improbable, but by the next season we were proud to introduce Seattle audiences to Come From Away. Again, not your standard musical – a new form, a creative story, a moment in time. And we were hooked!

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Lamar Lofton and E. Faye Butler in Pullman Porter Blues (2012). Photo by Chris Bennion

SR: What's one of your favorite memories of a recent musical production at Seattle Rep?

EFM: During preview performances of Here Lies Love, when we were exhausted from load-in and technical rehearsals all day and all night, the production staff would run from wherever we were in the building and rush out onto the dance floor to cut loose with Conrad Ricamora singing "The Fabulous One." Also having Jaygee Macapugay sing "Star and Slave" right to me in the same show was powerful. And watching Carrie Compere bring the house down with "I’m on My Way," the Act I finale of Shout Sister Shout!.

HA: During Come From Away, we were running the $38 for 38 Planes campaign in the lobby, and every time I worked a shift I would sneak into the back of the theater to watch as much of the show as possible. When I got to see it on Broadway, I’m pretty sure I still knew every single lyric and most of the lines too! I also vividly remember watching a run-through of Come From Away in the PONCHO and sitting next to the producers, with director Chris Ashley walking around the perimeter of the room to indicate when the turntable would move. I’ve never uncontrollably wept watching a rehearsal like that! Even before the incredible design and band elements were added in, it was already clear how powerful Come From Away was.

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Conrad Ricamora in Here Lies Love (2017). Photo by Navid Baraty.

SR: What makes doing musical theater at Seattle Rep unique?

EFM: We can bring both scale and intimacy to musicals in our theaters. Although the Bagley seems large for a musical, it really has the feel of a small Broadway house, and the Leo K. is like a gem for being up close and personal with the story and performers. We look for new ways of telling stories all the time and sometimes those stories include music. But they must be honest, human stories.

HA: I love how adventurous our audiences are when it comes to musicals - it really allows us to dream big in our season planning meetings because we know that as long as we are telling an important story with extraordinary artists, our audiences will go along for the ride. This allows us to be creative in content and form, such as Lizard Boy which was a three-person actor-musician comic-book-myth-inspired original musical, and vast in scale, such as rebuilding our theater and providing an entirely new audience experience for Here Lies Love.

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Kirsten deLohr Helland, Justin Huertas, and William A. Williams in Lizard Boy (2015). Photo by Alan Alabastro.

SR: What’s your favorite song from one of our recent musical productions?

EFM: I have two. The first is "Something’s Missing" from Come From Away because it spoke so beautifully about the loss we all felt after 9/11. The second is "Welcome to the Rock" – at the top of the show and also in the finale of Come From Away. That rhythm just started your heart at the beginning and then pulled you into absolute joy and hope for the human spirit at the end of the show. It was so exciting to be in the back of the theater and watch audiences experience those moments for the first time.

HA: So hard to pick a favorite! I love "96,000" from In The Heights. Fun fact: the first time I heard the In the Heights Broadway cast album was in a car with Justin Huertas and some of our castmates during the rehearsal process for a show we did at ArtsWest in 2008. I always regretted never seeing the show on Broadway, so seeing the incredible production at Seattle Rep and hearing that song live, filling the theater with such vivacious energy, was such a treat. I also have to highlight Carrie Compere in every song she sang as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Shout Sister Shout!. Experiencing Carrie’s voice fill the Bagley is a memory I will never forget. 

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Jenn Colella and the cast of Come From Away at Seattle Rep (2015). Photo by Chris Bennion.

SR: What’s your favorite song from any musical?

EFM: "Move On" from Sunday in the Park with George. It is all about making a choice and believing in it no matter what – don’t second guess, make a choice and move on. It is a heartbreaking moment in the play, a moment of loss for both characters singing, but you have to move on. The music is gorgeous. The perfect example of the music itself taking you to a completely different place than just the words alone could take you.

HA: Tough question! I have a hard time picking a favorite because the musical theater canon offers such a vast array of genres and emotional experiences. When I have to choose a favorite show, I choose West Side Story and within that show, I love the song "Tonight" – the melody is gorgeous, the anticipation of love is so palpable, and it sets the audience up for such devastation when the show turns tragic.

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Jeff McCarthy, Craig Ryder, and Rebecca Eichenberger in Sunday in the Park with George (1990). Photo by Chris Bennion.

SR: Anything else you want to add?

EFM: Coming from a background in Broadway musicals, it is exciting to seek out musicals that feel right for our audiences and feel at home on our stages. We are not turning into a musical theater – we do plays that tell amazing stories, and sometimes they use music to tell them.

HA: I want to give a special shout out to our musical productions written by local playwrights: Lizard Boy by Justin Huertas and Shout Sister Shout! by Cheryl L. West. We are so lucky at Seattle Rep to work with artists from all over the country and the world, but supporting the work of local Seattle artists is something that will always be on the top of my list as a Seattle Rep staff member. I’m also so excited about all of the work we’re doing to support the development of new musicals, which often happens behind-the-scenes. Elisabeth and I attend the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) New Musical Festival each year to search for shows for Seattle Rep and meet producers. And The Other Season has been doing more and more developmental workshops of new musicals – many of which I hope our audiences will get to see on our stage in a future season!