The Making of a Musical Fable

NOV 9, 2021

A.R.T. Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director Diane Paulus and A.R.T. Director of Artistic Programs & Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick in conversation with V (formerly Eve Ensler), Justin Tranter, and Idina Menzel

YDE with guitar looking at and Idina Menzel singing in WILD: A Musical Becoming.

Ryan McKittrick: Theater, especially musical theater, is born out of collaboration. What drew the three of you to each other as artistic collaborators?

Idina Menzel: I’ve made it a mission as I get older in my life to surround myself with incredibly creative people, and to make sure that I’m in the room with them and making myself better, challenging myself. Justin and I started dreaming about what we could do together that would be more unconventional, without feeling like we had to adhere to all the rules of the pop music world or the theater world. And V and I go way back as friends and have been wanting to work together for a long time.

Justin Tranter: First of all, let me just say this project is an absolute ultimate dream come true for me. Meeting Idina, my mind was blown. And then when she texted me: what do you think about V? I said, I saw The Vagina Monologues like 18 times! Collaboration is my favorite thing to do. In pop music we get made fun of on the internet all the time for having seven writers on a song. But we think it’s awesome that there are seven writers on a song because collaboration is amazing. What’s interesting is that my two favorite types of music that I haven’t had a chance to work in yet are folk music and musical theater, which is where I started making music as a kid. I was convinced when I was young that I was Ariel, and I was convinced that I was Annie. Luckily, my parents agreed and told me that I could be those things. Then the world told me I couldn’t, but my parents were right. I can be those things.

V (formerly Eve Ensler): When Idina called me about this project, I said that I have a desire to address what’s going on with climate catastrophe, because it’s right in front of us and also because I’m obsessed with this amazing burgeoning youth movement of teenagers and young people, particularly young women who are driving us and pushing us to wake up and care about their future.

Diane Paulus: V, you’ve been an activist your whole life. You’ve been part of social movements and political movements. What is it about climate and the youth movement that is particularly resonant now? 

V: Years ago I wrote a play called I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World. And what I discovered is that girls are prophets. They intuit things in their bodies. They can feel what’s coming. They know the world that’s coming towards them. It’s what Greta Thunberg says: we want you to panic; we want you to wake up. What I’ve seen in the last few years is that major movements in the world right now are pretty much run by young women and young people who are driving us forward and saying, “Our time is short. We want a future. Please let’s do something.” So I really wanted to do something to honor that energy and passion—to amplify it, to spread it, to unleash it.

Diane: Justin, what did that mean to you as a composer? How did you think about capturing that sound?

Justin: When V sent us a description of this mother on a farm in a small town and a daughter who is very concerned with the climate crisis, I thought we should definitely be writing these songs with a young woman, because that is a big perspective in this story. I had just written a couple songs with this brilliant young woman named Caroline Pennell, so I asked her if she’d like to get on a plane and come to V’s house in upstate New York and write a musical with Idina Menzel. And, luckily, she said yes.

Idina: It’s hard to make really memorable musicals and still tell story and develop character—there’s this really interesting navigation and balancing act that I’ve witnessed several times in rehearsal rooms as a part of original musicals over the years. I think having Justin, Caroline, and V together is creating this beautiful alchemy. It’s just been this really amazing dance that you’d think would be challenging, and yet it’s happened organically.

V: I’m so excited because there’s so much joy in our process. We’re having such a good time.

Diane: You all spent time at V’s house in upstate New York developing this piece. V, could you talk about that magical writing environment and what it’s meant to you to spend time in nature?

V: It’s informing this piece so deeply. Ten years ago, I had stage III/IV cancer. It was a huge shamanic experience that shifted my life 100 percent. And I knew I couldn’t live in the city anymore. I knew I had to be embraced by where I live now—the woods, the trees, the air, the sky, the birds, the coyotes, the dogs. I had to be with her. I had to live with the Mother. We talk about our survival as if it’s independent or separate from the survival of the earth. A lot of what this musical is about is that they’re completely interdependent. And so much of what capitalism has done is to separate us from that reality.

Diane: What inspired the three of you to imagine this piece as a musical fable?

Idina: It was really more literal in the beginning. And then we had a light bulb moment when it became a fairytale and more of a metaphor.

Justin: I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I’m assuming it was V, because she’s our fearless leader in terms of the story. The magic that we were feeling writing the songs all of a sudden was inserted into the story as actual magic in some form.

Idina: I think we were talking about what we’re losing with the earth, what’s going extinct, all that loss. And then we had this moment of asking: why are we limiting ourselves? This is a musical—we can do anything we want. We sing our feelings in musicals so we can transform. We can use the theater as a playground to explore and to create and to have an emotional connection, which is why I love musicals. Music has this intangible, spiritual way of connecting to your audience and uplifting everyone.

V: It’s so hard to think about the world as it is. We’re all so overwhelmed. Everybody hears all the terrible news, and you just push it away. But when you take things to the level of myth or fairytale or fable, suddenly you can look at things that you can’t look at. Suddenly you can feel things that you don’t let yourself really feel. Suddenly you can play, you can have joy, you can have wild imagination, which then allows you to start to address things that are making you afraid and penetrates your numbness without your even knowing it.

This interview was drawn from the transcript of an A.R.T. Behind the Scenes event on March 2, 2021. 


Image Credit
YDE (Sophia) and Idina Menzel (Bea) in WILD: A Musical Becoming. Photo: Maggie Hall/Nile Scott Studios.

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