Ever since Urinetown rose from its humble beginnings at The New York International Fringe Festival nearly ten years ago and achieved unlikely Broadway success, the Fringe has become a breeding ground for new musicals looking to grab the brass ring and producers looking for the next big cult hit. One of this year’s possible contenders for a commercial transfer is Nudists in Love, a new musical comedy by composer Nirmal Chandraratna and playwright Shannon Thomason about an idyllic suburban town thrown into turmoil when a well-liked pillar of the community is outed as a nudist. As with many Fringe shows, Nudists in Love – which opens Friday, August 8th, at the Bleecker Street Theater – has a gimmick to hook audiences in: the production features no nudity, even though the actors take their clothes off. Huh? Theatergoers have to check out the show in person to see how the company pulls that one off (no pun intended).
Shannon – who co-wrote the FringeNYC 2006 hit, Grace, with Nudists in Love director Sara Thigpen – took a break from rehearsals and last minute script revisions to drop by the ol’ blog and talk about the show, her collaboration with composer Nirmal, and her long-standing friendship and partnership with Sara.
First of all, why a musical about nudists?
There are so many cool naked plays out there; we thought we’d try one with a twist, no nudity. Also, it’s a fun way to look at the larger themes at the heart of the show: we should be free to engage in activities we enjoy which don’t intrude on others, i.e. eating all the trans-fatty goodness we want, marrying who we want, not being spied on by our government- ooops, did I just get too political? It really is a fun show! Besides, when does everyone sing? In the shower, where we’re naked. Music and nudity go together like bacon and everything.
Where’d you come up with this idea?
I have to give credit for this little nugget to the wild wonderful mind of Nudists in Love‘s composer/lyricist Nirmal Chandraratna. Legend has it, one fateful day of yore, he and our producer, Melanie Ashley were bouncing ideas around. This one stuck to the wall and stayed. From there, they drafted an outline and he started writing songs. I joined a few months later when they asked me to write the book.
What have been some of the challenges of working on this show? I’m guessing the nudity was a big one.
Since the show isn’t so much about being naked as it is about your right to be naked, that hasn’t been such an obstacle. Then again, a big challenge is staging nudity in a way that the audience doesn’t feel like they’ve been cheated or that we copped out. Our director, Sara Thigpen, and costume designer, Todd Senson, have some great ideas that I am super-excited to see on stage.
This is the first musical you’ve written. What made you want to write one?
I was asked. I’m easy like that. Plus, I must admit, I simply LOVE musical theatre. My college roommate and I had the lyrics to “Do You Hear the People Sing” written on multi-colored construction paper and pasted around the crown molding of our dorm room. Wow, I had crown molding in my dorm room. Anyway, wouldn’t you rather sing your emotions if you could? Music can hit you so much deeper than words alone. That’s why Lloyd Dobler raised his boom box in the rain. That’s why we made mix tapes when we liked someone and didn’t know if they liked us back. I might walk out of a play or movie remembering a line or two, but I leave a musical with songs in my head and all the emotion they carry with them. If I can be a part of that in any way, sign me up.
What are the differences between writing a musical and a straight play?
The main difference for me has been the collaboration with Nirmal. My words have to get the characters to the right emotional state to start the songs and match what is happening musically. How it’s said (or sung) is as important as what is said. A scene is completely different if the song is sweet and melodic vs. atonal and agitated and the moments that drive into those musical options are different as well.
Another difference is simply pulling it off. The production, I mean. Putting up a musical is almost like doing two shows at once. You have the actors and crew as a straight play would, then you add another “cast and crew” with the music director, musicians, choreographer, etc. It can be a logistical nightmare if you don’t have people who are dedicated to the show. Luckily we have a whole team who gets more and more excited at every turn. It’s thrilling to see it all come together.
How do you and Nirmal work together? For instance, how did you two decide that the book and lyric writing duties would be separate?
That was totally easy. He writes songs, I don’t. He’s been studying and writing music forever, I just listen and sing off key. However, I must admit, when we first started this project I secretly tried to write some lyrics. But they all turned into limericks so I quietly folder that piece of paper and put it away in a safe, dark place.
You’re collaborating once again with your Grace co-writer Sara Thigpen, only this time she’s directing. You two have been friends and colleagues for a long time. What do you like about working together?
Sara and I share a brain, which is pretty handy when creating something that is as precious and dynamic as a play. When two people have a common language, when they know how the other person thinks and feels, they never have to worry that their opinions or goals will be dismissed or disregarded without all due examination. Plus, she’s a smart cookie. Everything I’ve done with her has been the better for it. With all our similarities, we still have different experiences and ways of doing things that help fill the gaps we couldn’t complete on our own.
How did you get your first start as a writer? What sparked your interest in the theater?
I have a very dear friend who kept saying, “Write that shit” when I’d tell her stories. Finally, I did. I wrote a 10min play that was accepted into a festival and since then, I’ve just kept at it. As for my interest in theatre, please allow me to theatre-geek out a bit (but you asked!). I’ve always loved theatre. The story telling. The emotional investment by the actors and the audience. The here and now of live performances. At the very heart of it, the ability to have an emotional impact on another person. I love sitting in the dark and not watching, but being on the ride. When I saw August: Osage County, at the end of the second act, I needed to laugh and cry and throw up all at the same time, the emotional trifecta. Now that’s entertainment.
What have you learned about nudists while working on this show that the audience should know beforehand?
Oh, what I have learned. The inter-web is a wonderful thing, you know. But there really isn’t any kind of primer that the audience will need to enjoy the show. I’ve peppered some terminology and myth-busting in, here and there, but there is little “code” involved. We have been asked if our audience could be “clothing optional” but we do live in a city where you can’t dance in bars, so you can appreciate the limitations we have there. Bottom line: nudists are gentle folk, with little to hide. Come, let’s watch them play…