Ellen BurkhardtThe Growler
January 13, 2016
Artistic inspiration doesn’t always strike in the way we think it will. It can come from anywhere at anytime—even from your insomniac two-year-old who refuses to adhere to any sort of sleep schedule.
Such was the situation playwright Michael Elyanow found himself in 10 years ago. Elyanow and his husband were living in North Hampton, Massachusetts, and their two-year-old son was going through a phase. Namely, an I’m-not-going-to-sleep phase. To get him to sleep, Elyanow would sing him lullabies. He’d done it since they adopted him at six-days-old, and it was the only thing he could think of that might help.
At the time, Elyanow was also teaching at Northwestern University in Chicago, which made for a hefty commute. “I was traveling back and forth, and at some point I thought, God forbid, what if something happened to me: who’s going to sing my kid lullabies and get him to sleep?” Elyanow says. “So that’s kind of where the idea [for “Lullaby”] came from. And also, P.S., it was written from my own state of ‘I can’t sleep because this child won’t go to sleep,’ so all of it was this huge mess.”
Whether it was derived from the residual buzz from many a sleepless night or just his writer’s brain making the most of a less-than ideal situation, Elyanow ended up with the germ of the idea for “Lullaby”: a play-with-music about a widowed mom with a two-year-old who won’t sleep. To fill the void left by her musically inclined husband, she seeks out a lesbian singer-songwriter to teach her how to play lullabies.
This isn’t your typical musical, though. People don’t break into song, there are no impromptu dance breaks; in “Lullaby,” people are singing for a reason. “There’s a guy who’s singing to his kid because that is what he’s doing,” Elyanow explains. “There’s music in his life. And there’s music in the lesbian singer-songwriter’s life. And that’s the reason they’re singing.”
“Lullaby” got its first reading 10 years ago at the Hartford Stage, but was an entirely different play then. (The play today “is probably about 7% of what it was 10 years ago,” Elyanow says. “And I’m a 10-years-better writer now—I hope!”) Then, last spring, Theater Latte Da artistic director Peter Rothstein chose the work as part of the company’s NEXT 20/20 initiative: a new-works program that seeks out musicals and plays-with-music to develop.
Jeremy Cohen, Elyanow’s husband and the producing artistic director at the Playwrights’ Center, had heard that Rothstein was looking for something that “wasn’t quite a musical”—something that pushed the limits of a traditional musical—and encouraged Elyanow to show him “Lullaby.” Rothstein liked it, and gave Elyanow a month to polish it before it went into a month of workshops: live readings for an audience who, following each reading, would give feedback. That was last March and April. This weekend, less than a year and lots of rewrites later, the show is finally getting its world premiere at the Ritz Theater.
The story of “Lullaby” takes place half in a Boston dyke bar at open mic night, and half inside a suburban family home. The set blends the two scenes, so that the characters can move organically from one place to another, and the music—while very different in genre and context (lyrics for Thea, the lesbian singer-songwriter, are from out LA rocker Garrison Starr; those for Craig, the deceased father, are from the folksy, alternative guitarist Christopher Dallman)—flows together, carrying with it the stories of the people involved with each scenario.
“This play is a bit of a beast in that it’s part concert and part play—you’re kind of getting a two-in-one deal,” Elyanow says. “I didn’t know if it would work. I didn’t think that it was going to be a play about how music affects every facet of life and why it’s important, but that’s kind of what it taught me. That’s what I discovered in the workshop.”
Another reason “Lullaby” resonates with Elyanow is the opportunity it gave him to put characters together that aren’t typically seen on a stage: namely, a straight woman and a gay woman. “I feel like I haven’t seen that—ever,” Elyanow says. “And, spoiler: They don’t fall in love.” He laughs. “It’s about two people haunted by their pasts and finding a way to move forward together.”
This idea of pushing the limits of what theater can and should be is nothing new for Elyanow. In fact, it is the driving force behind all of what he writes. “The tricky part is knowing what theater can do, and exploring and exploiting that, and expanding on the boundaries of what theater can do,” he says. “I’m always thinking of what can you do in the theater that celebrates what theater is. There’s a communal aspect that’s alive and vibrant and not literal. When you see TV shows and movies, what you see is what you see. That’s not always the case in theater. People can talk through walls and talk across spaces and it doesn’t feel fake or forced, it takes on a completely different meaning. I love that.”
“Lullaby” is in previews January 13 through January 15, and opens January 16. It runs through February 7. Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave NE, Minneapolis $23–$37