March 20, 2009.By Dominic P. Papatola, MinnPost.
Remember back in school, when you got thrown together with some study partner you probably wouldn't have chosen and had to do a big project together?
That's how Jeff Tang and Katie Baldwin Eng started making musicals.
While graduate students in New York University's musical-theater writing program, they were assigned to collaborate on a 20-minute musical with a maximum of three characters. The result of that assignment, "Passage of Dreams," is one of three short musicals that will premiere this weekend at the Southern Theater under the auspices of Theater Latte Da.
It wasn't exactly a professional match made in heaven. "We didn't always get along working on that first project," conceded Eng, the playwright-lyricist, from her Manhattan home during a conference-call conversation with her composer collaborator, who lives in Brooklyn. "We communicated a lot. We fought a lot. It seemed like the more aggravated he got, the more beautiful was the music that he wrote."
"It wasn't the easiest collaboration," Tang agreed, beginning with the age-old chicken-and-egg question of whether the music or the words come first in writing a musical. "We share different aesthetics. We're both interested in creating the same stylistic worlds, but we come at it from different directions."
In the end, though, the collaboration worked. "Passage of Dreams," a story about three people whose main means of connection come through their dream lives, won good critiques from the NYU students and faculty. It also drew the attention of Latte Da artistic director Peter Rothstein, who brought the pair to the Twin Cities in 2002 as part of "New York Musical Shorts," a collection of brief musicals by NYU students. The pair's efforts were further workshopped in the summer of 2006 during the PlayLabs festival at the Playwrights' Center.
"It started with Jeff's music," said Rothstein, who commissioned the pair to write a third short work that forms the loosely connected triptych. "He's a really sophisticated composer but is completely unafraid of beautiful melodies that fit well on the voice. That's not something you find with contemporary composers. As a writer, Katie doesn't work in the traditional dramatic structure, but if she did, she wouldn't be able to create these worlds she imagines. Her lyrics are always surprising and without an ounce of pretension."
The kind of work Tang and Eng create doesn't qualify as standard musical fare. "Bessie's Birthday," the second work on the program, concerns the 30th birthday of the title character, whose cognitive development stopped after she suffered a seizure at the age of 6. "Thirst" takes place in the not-too-distant future, when the world's water supply has been tapped out.
Oh, yeah: In addition to the singing characters, two of the three mini-musicals feature aerialist Heather Haughan.
It's the ability to do that kind of unconventional work that brought Tang (who started out wanting to compose for films) and Eng (a one-time journalist who began her theater career in performance) to the theater.
"The thing that was most attractive to me about theater is that you can tell your own stories," said Tang. "I wanted to create my own stories and not just create window dressing for someone else's stories, which is a lot of what you do when you compose for film."
"I didn't even like musicals," Eng added. "I was introduced to the (NYU) program by another playwright friend of mine, and at first I thought, 'This is not for me.' But once I actually tried the writing, I was totally hooked. And once you're bitten by that bug, practicality goes out the window."
Well, that's something they agree on, anyway.
Theater critic Dominic P. Papatola can be reached at 651-228-2165.
What: "Passage of Dreams," produced by Theater Latte Da
When: Opens tonight; performances continue through April 5
Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $34-$12; pay-what-you-can night at Sunday's performance
Information: 612-340-1725 or southerntheater.org