Monumental Theatre Company is a theatre troupe on the rise. Recently eligible for the Helen Hayes’ John Aniello Award, their productions are steadily gaining high praise and acclaim–and they show no signs of slowing down. In this interview, we discuss their new cabaret Infinite Future: Bernstein’s Lasting Impact, written by Gretchen Midgley and directed by Bridget Grace Sheaff, which is featured as part of this year’s Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival.
Julia Exline: Your new cabaret Infinite Future: Bernstein’s Lasting Impact studies how Leonard Bernstein continues to influence our modern art culture. What made you choose Bernstein’s work specifically?
Bridget Grace Sheaff: Around the world, we are celebrating Bernstein at 100 for his 100th birthday year, so it seemed appropriate to explore the musical theatre canon in this light. I think one of the exciting things about Bernstein specifically is actually the scope of his work across many sections of the arts. What can an orchestral composer and conductor with a relatively limited selection of musical theatre works tell us about the threads that connect the art forms? If we pull those threads, what other artists to we encounter? How are those woven together in the tapestry of our current arts domain? In this cultural moment, the musical theatre community is on the cusp of a structural reorganization, a reimagining of what musical theatre can cover both topically and aesthetically. Looking back to Bernstein, we start to see a domino effect that may not have started with him and his collaborators but could not have continued without him.
Gretchen Midgley: When I found out that Atlas INTERSECTIONS was collaborating to be part of the Bernstein Centennial celebration, I was instantly interested. Bernstein is my favorite composer and West Side Story is my favorite musical. When I began thinking about Bernstein’s work with his collaborators, however, and how influential those artists went on to be in their own right, I started making all kinds of connections I hadn’t before. How did Bernstein influence those collaborators and how did they go on to influence artists in the following generation? What kind of ripple effect did Bernstein’s innovation in musical theatre create? Can we trace that all the way to today’s contemporary writers? Once some of those connections began materializing, I became extremely excited and started searching for more. Hence this show!
How do you think Millennials relate to Bernstein’s work? In what ways are they different?
BGS: Bernstein was daring, uncompromising, and dedicated. He couldn’t live enough life, really. His work consumed him; his passion is evident in his pieces and his conversations surrounding his work. Our generation, Millennials, recognize and gel with this. I see my peers working themselves into frenzies, demanding transformation, and putting our passions into the world in an effort to mechanize change. But, beyond that, beyond pursuing a dream to its triumphant and bitter end, we are a generation fighting for compassion, peace, and radical empathy. Bernstein wanted that. That’s where the title of out piece comes from, actually. Bernstein said, “A liberal is a man or a woman or a child who looks forward to a better day, a more tranquil night, and a bright, infinite future.” All partisanship aside (as much as we can at any rate), the hallmark of the Millennial generation is the pursuit Lenny outlines in that quotation.
GM: While many of the elements in Bernstein’s shows we may take for granted as “okay” to deal with onstage, at the time they were daring and innovative. On the Town features sexually empowered women who go after what they want. West Side Story is anti-racism, anti-violence, and extremely sympathetic to the immigrant’s struggle. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a criticism of America’s track record with racism and oppression of African-Americans. Today, Millennials are pushing the boundaries of what kind of can be put on stage and are writing about the same issues that matter to them in their daily lives. While Bernstein may not have gotten as far in his subject matter as we have today, much of what he wrote created a foundation on which to build in each subsequent generation.
Tell me about the devising and research process for this piece. What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
BGS: There is SO much information out there on Bernstein. With no irony, I think the hardest part of this process was choosing which stories to tell and which to lovingly set aside for another time. That’s not easy when something sits close to your heart, but when we looked, as a team, at what we wanted to say, we were able to constructively and creatively argue amongst ourselves. That’s what you want in a group of collaborators, a group of people who you can passionately disagree with as necessary. At the end of the day, when you all agree that the only ego that matters is the piece itself, then you can collectively find the best possible answer.
GM: One of my primary concerns was making sure the actors sounded like themselves and that I wasn’t putting words and opinions into their mouths– which was tough when I didn’t meet most of our actors until the first rehearsal and we only had a two-week rehearsal process! I was hesitant to put down anything definitive before I’d had a chance to hear from the actors, hear what they had to say, and see what their natural chemistry was, so that made the turnaround on the script pretty quick. As Bridget said, there was also far too much information to possibly put into an hour, so condensing while still keep most of the connections was difficult.
What do you hope your audience walks away with after this production?
BGS: I hope they walk away humming and thinking. I know that’s pithy, but what more can you hope for? We’re not out to provide a solid answer on the impact of any one of Lenny’s works. “Impact” lives on an individual, ephemeral level that we can comment on and identify with, but could not quantify if we wanted to. We are coming at this as ourselves, exploring our relationship with his work and the connections that sparked us. However, I truly believe there is an infinite number of ways we could have created this show. The alchemy of the rehearsal room, the tone of our environment, and the physics of the relationships brought us to this point. From there, the rest is up to the audience. If they laugh, cry, then walk away, humming and thinking, we have done our job as translators here.
GM: I hope they perhaps start thinking about the musical theatre tradition as just that– a tradition. A tradition that keeps growing and building in each generation, and whose influencers can still be heard in various, subtle ways generations later. Musical theatre doesn’t exist in a vacuum and there’s lots of ambiguity in who influenced whom, who stole what from whom, etc. I hope they also enjoy the songs!
Monumental Theatre Company aims to promote the work of emerging artists, specifically those of the millennial generation. As Millennials lean further into adulthood, more and more new creative voices are coming into the foreground. What are some common artistic themes we are seeing from this generation? What topics specific to them are being explored?
BGS: I expect that as Millennials enter into adulthood, we’re going to see a wider push for a global theatre, a universal, immediate art that pushes against a society that is slowly changing its method of connection and communication. The question that we should be asking as a generation is “why do we still need theatre?” We should ask that question without pessimism or defeat, but rather a willingness to come to the audience where they are. What does the audience want? As servants to the audience, what can we provide them beyond entertainment? What are we providing that Netflix, brunch, or work is not? Community? Transformation? Solace? If we are willing to get into the trenches with those questions, eyes open, then and only then can we achieve a relationship with our audience that extends beyond the transactional. Theatre can be counter-cultural. If we just affirm our own biases and the opinions of our communities in the process, what are we really doing? Millennials sit on the precipice, ready to dive into this new era. Something’s coming.
GM: I think Millennials tend to write much more intimate stories than generations before them, stories about parents and children, coming of age, mental health, life in the technological age. It’s not that these topics haven’t been explored by previous generations of artists, it’s that Millennials laser focus in on them more closely. Their shows tend to have smaller casts and dig deep into one or two significant relationships rather than being broad and sweeping with many subplots. A show like Dear Evan Hansen is uniquely Millennial.
Infinite Future: Bernstein’s Lasting Impact, plays February 24th at 8 pm and February 25 at 7:30 pm, 2018, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center— 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC as part of the Atlas Intersections Festival. To purchase tickets, please go online.