Philadelphia-based artists Dan Martin (composer) and Michael Biello (lyricist) are about to make their Off-Broadway debut this month with Marry Harry at The York Theatre Company. The longtime creative collaborators and life partners are well-known in Philadelphia for their art gallery and salon sanctuary in Old City, the Biello Martin Studio, which hosts exhibitions and performances. Since the early 1990s, the couple –Biello with a background in sculpture and dance, and Martin a musician and composer – has also worked together on a growing body of work in musical theater, including Breathe, Q, The Cousins Grimm, and In My Body.
Their latest show, with book by Jennifer Robbins, is a romantic comedy set in the present in New York’s East Village. Featuring direction and choreography by Bill Castellino, music direction by Eric Svejcar, and a cast of seven, Marry Harry begins previews on April 25, and opens on May 4, with a limited run through May 21. On the day before heading back up to New York for tech, Dan and Michael took the time in Philadelphia to chat with me about the work, their backgrounds, and plans for their next project.
Deb: Your artistic endeavors span across several genres. Which came first? What’s your earliest creative memory?
Michael: As a very young boy I made drawings and wrote poetry. I don’t know an exact moment, but as early as three or four I had a cigar box filled with art supplies and I would make collages and other things. I could express myself with art, since I wasn’t always comfortable doing it in other ways. Mom designed and sewed clothes and Dad was a singer, so the arts were always part of my world. Sometimes I feel like I came out of the womb an artist!
Dan: The first thing I remember musically, probably at age four or five, was wandering across our front yard in suburban Philadelphia making up a song and singing it. I would do that often, in different places, and people thought I was strange. They were right.
At what point did you decide to collaborate on musical theater, and why?
Dan: I met and fell in love with Michael 42 years ago, in the mid-1970s. I had been doing music my whole life, and he wrote poems in his journal, which he showed to me. I set them to music, and that’s how it began. Michael was also a dancer with Group Motion in Philadelphia, and I played music for them –that’s how we first met – so we were working together on performances from the beginning.
Michael: My journals were very personal; I felt more secure with my visual art. So when I shared my poems with Dan and he set them to music, I began to feel the rhythm and music in my poems. We didn’t know it at the time, but Dan and I have come to realize one of the reasons we were meant to be together was to write music and lyrics. We work together very well in that world.
What shows, composers, and lyricists have inspired you?
Dan: So many! I grew up listening to classic American theater – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe – my parents had all those cast albums. And once a year, for Christmas, they took my brother and me to Broadway to see a show. Then I also loved the Beatles, the Doors, and rock musicals like Hair, and Sondheim. Maury Yeston, who did Nine, Titanic, and Grand Hotel, was a huge inspiration, especially since we were selected to participate in the BMI Music Theatre Workshop with him in New York, where he served as Director for over twenty years. Plus I’m a classical music person, so there’s that, as well.
Michael: My inspirations are similar to Dan’s: Hair, the ‘70s, Yeston – I love Titanic, that one really moves me – and Chess is another favorite. My family was from South Philly, so Broadway experience was limited, but we went to see musicals at Valley Forge Music Fair. My mom and dad were both creative – before Dad worked his regular job, he sang with a Big Band, so those old songs had a great influence on me. As a child, most of my exposure to musicals was through albums, till I met Dan. I learned a lot at BMI. I try to find something good in everything; even if you don’t particularly like the story or the characters, there’s always something inspiring to be found.
What are the benefits and issues of working with your husband?
Michael: [Laughing] Do you really want to know all of them? One of the rewards is that you don’t have to wait till the next meeting to discuss your ideas; we’re together all the time. But the issue is that you don’t want to disturb each other, you need to give each other space, so you have to learn to manage that.
Dan: I think the reward of having this creative partnership is that it’s an exquisitely beautiful extra kind of intimacy that most couples don’t have. We don’t have kids, but it might be something like the way parents have an extra connection through their children.
Michael: Our writing is our kid!
Dan: One of the problems is how do you bring something new to your partnership, when you’ve been working on it together, all day? How do you turn it off? For example, there’s a scene in the show about what the character Little Harry is going through, and it makes us realize that we have to turn a big switch, to remember who we are and what we’re going through, not just to be consumed with Harry and his experiences.
Michael: That goes back to what parents do. They devote themselves to their kids and lose themselves. Sometimes when we’re working, I even forget to eat! Luckily Dan reminds me.
How have you worked out the logistics of living in Philadelphia and presenting the show in NYC?
Dan: Over the years, we’ve lived in New York for a long time, and then after that we always found a place to stay when needed. This time, for Marry Harry, the producers provided us with an apartment for six weeks.
Michael: It’s a great apartment, and New York feels like home, after living on Bond Street for many years. BMI and musical theater opened up New York to me.
Dan: For me, too.
Michael: It’s also great to go back when we’re not living there and not stressing about our work. This time our show is already in production, so we don’t have those concerns, we can just do it.
Dan: It’s kind of a funny time. We came back to Philadelphia about twelve to fifteen years ago, to look after our aging families. Michael’s mother passed away a year and a half ago, and she was the last one, so we’re in an odd space. We love Philadelphia and it’s an affordable place, but our families are gone, so we don’t have to be here for the reason we returned.
Where did you get the idea for Marry Harry?
Dan: We had written The Cousins Grimm, a gay and lesbian retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales, and had a reading of it in the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) in 2007. A day later we got an email from someone who was in the audience – writer and producer Jennifer Robbins. She said she didn’t like the play, but loved the music, and asked if we would be interested in taking a look at a screenplay she’d written, and also if we would consider writing something that isn’t gay (we remind her about that question from time to time!). It was amazing to wake up and hear from her – a writer who’s also a producer! We read her screenplay and really liked it, and that was the start of our work together on Marry Harry.
Michael: Another interesting note about NYMF is that we found our agent there, too –Sarah Douglas from Abrams Artists Agency. It was a new experience for us, to have someone to protect us, to promote us, and to give us support. Up to then we had always done it all ourselves.
Dan: Yes, it was important, to help move us into this new phase of our career.
Have there been any major changes to the show since it played in the New York Musical Festival?
Dan: Oh, my God, yes! It’s gigantically different. We joke that there’s a hillside somewhere, with a graveyard, for all the characters we’ve killed! Originally we had eleven, now we’re down to the four main characters in the family, and we added three “Village Voices” that aren’t seen by the protagonists, who offer views and commentary, like a chorus. That’s a new creation, replacing a performance artist we eliminated, who did some of that. But even with the cuts, the heart of the show is still the same.
Michael: A lot of that comes from working with Director Bill Castellino, to get to the core of the story we want to tell, to focus, and to remove any distractions. I can’t wait to see it! And James Morgan of the York is doing the set, building it this week, when tech starts, so we’ll soon get to see things and how they look.
Dan: Yeah, we don’t actually know exactly what it will be yet, but we look forward to it!
Michael: We saw 300 actors audition for seven characters, and the talent in New York is amazing! Many of the actors fit the roles perfectly, and as a team, we had to select just seven – Ben Chavez, Lenny Wolpe, Morgan Cowling, David Spadora, Robin Skye, Claire Saunders, and Jesse Manocherian. We’re with them every day from 10 am to 6 pm, and it’s such a gift, I’m so in awe of them.
As visual artists and gallery owners, did you have any input into the artistic design for this production, especially for the lighting?
Michael: We’re invited to all of the production meetings, and we can give our opinions, but there’s such an established department for each aspect of the show that the designers really have the freedom to present their ideas, and we give more and more over to them, to let them be their artistic selves.
Dan: I agree. Making theater is such a collaboration. For someone like me, who likes to be alone to create things in my head, it’s been a challenge, but also a beautiful creative fantasy, like kids playing together and inventing a world. Of course everybody has to give something up in terms of individual ideas or vision, but I think we’re good at collaborating and in trusting the talent. You have to choose your battles, and that’s part of the agreement to work with a group to take the show from page to stage.
Michael: It will make a piece fall apart if you can’t collaborate. So many shows end because the team can’t get along. You have to go in knowing that you’ll get through it and work it out.
Dan: Working again with Bill, who did Breathe with us 22 years ago, in 1995-96, when Michael did the set, has helped with that. We’re playing on a bigger stage now, but we have that background of trust.
Michael: When we signed with our agent, she said, “All you have to do is write great songs.” Do what you do, the best you can, and don’t worry about the rest.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the show? Is there a particular message you’d like to impart?
Dan: [After a long pause] That’s a good question; we’re thinking! Magic happens in life, and love can come out of nowhere and surprise you. It’s both the tenderness and vulnerability of people’s journey in life, and how we interact, that impact and deepen us.
Michael: We wake up every day with a plan in mind, but other things can happen if you let them – good things, if you’re open to entering that space.
Dan: But with that said, I don’t want the show to be misconstrued as being so serious. It’s funny, light-hearted, and beautiful. You come out feeling happy and seeing the goodness in things.
Michael: Marry Harry is a little bit wacky, quick, and ridiculous! There are points in it when you’ll think that this could never happen, but it can and it does. It’s also about families and falling in love, so it’s a story that is accessible to everyone.
Do you have any ideas for a next show, after Marry Harry?
Dan: We have something in mind and are working on getting the rights. It’s a true story about marriage activist Edie Windsor – a fantastic woman and a life well lived. We met her through Barbara Proud’s beautiful project First Comes Love, documenting long-term same-sex couples through photos and stories. Michael and I, as well as Edie, were part of this and began a conversation that’s inspiring new music and lyrics!
Many thanks, Dan and Michael, for finding the time during this busy rehearsal week to talk with me. I look forward to seeing the show!
Marry Harry plays Tuesday, April 25, through Sunday, May 21, 2017, at The York Theatre Company in the lower level of the St Peter’s Church – 619 Lexington, New York City. For tickets, call (212) 935-5820, or purchase them online.