Is It What You Expected? // by Adam Mathais
Librettist Adam Mathias finds the process of SEE ROCK CITY & OTHER DESTINATIONS full of unceasing surprises.
The Drama Desk Awards made a mistake. When my collaborator, composer Brad Alexander, and I arrive at the 2011 ceremony, it is discovered that we have somehow been left off the seating list. We hadn’t expected we would even be invited. Our anthology musical See Rock City & Other Destinations had been Off-Broadway toward the end of the previous summer; we didn’t think the Drama Desk voters would remember us, let alone honor us with six nominations. So, the fact that our names aren’t on the chart feels somewhat fitting.
We have absolutely no expectation of winning. After all, in every category for which we are nominated, from Outstanding Lighting Design to Outstanding Direction, Music, Lyrics, Book and, yes, even Outstanding Musical, we are up against that season’s blockbuster Broadway juggernaut, The Book of Mormon. I mean, come on, I’d give the awards to them. We are strictly there to eat and celebrate the honor of being nominated with our friends and colleagues. But there are no seats available among our friends and colleagues.
Before we know it, Brad and his wife, the inexhaustibly talented Jill Abramowitz, are placed in two empty seats at a table in the front where, apparently, two members of John Leguizamo’s entourage have not shown up, while I … I am shown to a hastily erected folding table in the back of the hall, next to the sound booth and offered a generous serving of undressed salad on a plastic plate from the crew table. Mostly, I am laughing.
An almost vacant parking lot, just across the Georgia border from Chattanooga. Early morning. Dodi, a young waitress from North Carolina, wakes in the passenger seat of Jess’s car. He has left the car, having driven all night to get here, and stares blankly at the uninspiring entrance to Rock City Gardens. “It’s not what I expected,” Dodi mutters emerging from the car, “Is it what you expected?” “I don’t know what I expected,” Jess replies.
When it comes to the world of musical theatre, I never know what to expect…and I find it better that way. Growing up in a small town in rural Central Florida (think orange groves and cow pastures), I never could have imagined the future before me. My big dream was to get out of small-town Florida and find a place where I didn’t feel so alone. I knew from an early age—thanks to my mother enrolling me in the local community theatre group: The Bay Street Players—that theatre would always be a part of my life…I just didn’t know how. At 18, I did indeed get out of Florida and went to Chicago and The Theatre School at DePaul University. (I had considered NYU but was pretty sure that orange grove to Big Apple might be more of a culture shock than I was yet prepared for.) At The Theatre School, I soon discovered a love for playwriting, and not long after that, realized that all the plays I wrote ended up wanting to sing. So, before I knew it, I was at NYU after all, getting a master’s in, of all ridiculous things, writing musicals.
My students at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where I currently teach a course in Musical Theatre Bookwriting, often ask me: “How do I get my musical done? How do I get it produced?” As if there is a map one can follow from inspiration to opening night. My best advice is to write the best show you can, get it out there, and be ready for anything! See Rock City… certainly didn’t follow a usual path. It began as a short musical written over three short days for the 2004 Raw Impressions Music Theatre Festival (in fact, this was how Brad and I met, having been paired up on assignment to write the ten-minute musical we called “Greetings From Niagara Falls.”) From there, it grew to become a collection of stories set at tourist destinations across America. We tried out the individual stories wherever we could: the BMI Workshop, Musical Mondays, a room in midtown full of grandfather clocks… We applied for whatever awards and grants were available. At this point, we were still trying out titles and figured if we were to win one of these grants, whichever title we applied with, that would be the title we went with. We won the Jerry Bock Award and the Richard Rodgers Award for a show called See Rock City & Other Destinations, and that was that. The BMI Foundation Jerry Bock Award came with enough money to put together our first full public reading in early 2008, and that led to our first production that summer, at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA. Everything was happening so quickly, but then, after our premiere at Barrington Stage, everything stopped. The Richard Rodgers Award had granted us money specifically for a theatre company to present a workshop of the show, but we were having trouble finding a company that would fit us into their schedule. The grant came with many requirements—it had been over a year and if we couldn’t find a theatre to take it on, we were going to lose it. Brad and I were on the verge of giving up when Jill happened to remember a reading she had enjoyed seeing at a company called Transport Group, directed by Jack Cummings. We googled! We read in the company’s mission statement how they produce “emotionally classic stories exploring the challenges of relationship and identity in modern America” and thought: maybe this is it. We used Jill’s connections to get the script to Jack and suddenly we had a workshop on the calendar for that June, mere months away.
When Brad and I arrived at the first day of workshop rehearsals at 42nd Street Studios…it wasn’t what we expected. Jack had arranged the chairs in a large square around the room. What’s going on? “We’re going to do it in the round!” Jack announced. This was not how workshops are done. This was not how we imagined our workshop being done. Jack asked us to trust him. It turns out, unexpected was just what the show needed. Jack used the room itself and everything he found inside it to bring the musical to life. The coat rack became a subway car to Coney Island, the ballet barre was a cruise ship railing in Glacier Bay, the rehearsal mirrors doubled as a Coney Island fun house, and the giant window with a view of Times Square transformed into the view of seven states from the top of Lookout Mountain in Rock City.
The theme of “expectations” runs through all the stories in See Rock City… The characters are held back by their fears and expectations: they think they know who they are and what they’re capable of, and because of that almost miss their chances to be something more. Some have been lonely for so long, that they have built their expectation of loneliness into their very concept of who they are. In the end, they must learn to step beyond their expectations and their comfort zones to take a chance on a life where they don’t know what the outcome will be.
“What are you waiting for?” asks the Niagara Falls tour guide. Kate gasps, “What if it all ends badly? What if I wasn’t meant to go?” The tour guide gives a little shrug: “You could be right … or you could be mistaken. If you don’t try, you’ll never know!”
For me, the workshop was a dream. A lot of work, but a dream. The audience of invited guests, limited by a strict fire code allowing only 50 people in the room, responded better than our audiences had ever responded before. The show had become a real musical. Surely this isn’t the end, we thought. But then… The next step never came.
Jack Cummings and the wonderful team at Transport Group loved the show, but because of a complicated schedule, there would be no room on their calendar to produce it for many years. All the theatres we had approached previously regarding the Rodgers Award weren’t interested in looking at a new draft. Nothing was happening. Brad and I figured we would chalk it up to an excellent opportunity to learn and grow and, frankly, lower our expectations.
In mid-March 2010, I was in the middle of rehearsal for another show I was writing when out-of-the-blue I got a call from Jack Cummings: could Brad and I meet with him, as soon as possible. The next day, at the Westway Diner, Jack told Brad and I that due to unforeseen circumstances the show they had been planning to produce that summer had to be pushed back and they suddenly found themselves with an opening in their schedule! Three months later we were in rehearsal for the Off-Broadway premiere of See Rock City & Other Destinations.
Danny Aiello sees me sitting alone at my folding table by the sound booth and offers me a chair at his table nearby just as the award ceremony begins. I explain to Mr. Aiello and his guests the awards I have been nominated for and that I will not be winning any of them.
Before I know it, it is time to announce the writing awards. Tom Wopat takes the stage, envelopes in hand. Jack comes over to where I’m sitting, so I have someone by my side when the award presenter doesn’t say my name. “The Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone, The Book of Mormon.” “The Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone, The Book of Mormon.” “The Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical:” … and then the most shocking, most unexpected thing of all happens. Tom Wopat, star of TV’s The Dukes of Hazard and Broadway’s Annie Get Your Gun, says my name.
How I ended up with a Drama Desk Award with my name on it is beyond me. I had set my expectations on just getting out of my small town and finding my people. So, everything that happens beyond that, for me, is just the icing on the cake. Thanks to See Rock City… (and Brad Alexander), I’ve gotten to work with the most amazing people, including some of the best actors and singers on the planet, I’ve gotten to have lunch with both Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Bock, I’ve gotten to move people I’ve never met to tears and to laughter, I’ve gotten to be insulted in The Boston Globe and The New York Times, my idol Lynn Ahrens knows who I am, I have a cast-recording with my name on it available on iTunes and Spotify, you can buy a signed-by-me libretto in The Drama Book Shop, and something I’ve written has been performed all over the country and beyond. But one of my favorite things — and another thing which I hadn’t expected — is the reward of talking with young people as they work on the productions of the show at their high schools and colleges, hearing what the show means to them, how they connect to the characters and their journeys, and how being a part of See Rock City & Other Destinations has helped them to not feel so alone.
About the author:
Adam Mathias is the Drama Desk Award-winning bookwriter and lyricist of See Rock City & Other Destinations, A History of Summer, and more. Awards include: Richard Rodgers Award, Jerry Bock Award, and BMI Jerry Harrington Award. Adam is on the steering committee of the Tony Award honored BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop where he also teaches a course in musical theatre bookwriting. Transport Group cast recording of See Rock City… available on Spotify & iTunes. www.adamup.com.