The cast of Transport Group’s ‘Renascence.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Matthew Wexler
The nation continues to reverberate from partisan politics and an upcoming midterm election that has both parties quaking in their boots. Amid these tumultuous times, the #MeToo movement has not only gained momentum but proven to be a powerful force as a voice for women across a broad spectrum of issues ranging from sexual violence to reproductive rights. It’s particularly compelling that during such a period of upheaval, New York audiences will become intimately acquainted with Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Poetry lovers are likely already familiar with Ms. Millay’s work. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and playwright was known not only for her eloquence on the page but also for her progressive political leanings and free-spirited approach to sexual identity. Composer Carmel Dean turns to Ms. Millay’s breakthrough poem “Renascence” as a springboard to exploring the writer’s life, while Tony Award-nominated book writer Dick Scanlan provides the structural framework to tell the multi-faceted story in Transport Group’s world premiere, Renascence. (The pair previously worked together on Everyday Rapture.)
Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler recently chatted by phone with Mr. Scanlan, who is also co-directing the musical with Transport’s Artistic Director Jack Cummings III.
Were you familiar with Edna St. Vincent Millay before working on Renasence?
I was familiar with Millay’s work because she came up in my research for Thoroughly Modern Millie. And if you know the show, there’s the moment that the curtain comes up and Millie is alone center stage, having just arrived in New York City. It was a moment we crafted based on a letter Millay wrote to her mother and sisters the day she moved. So in a weird kind of way, she inspired the opening image and the song “Not for the Life of Me.”
How did your involvement with the project come about?
About five years ago Carmel was chosen to be part of York Theatre Company’s NEO Festival, and she wanted to a reading of the Millay song cycle. She called and asked if I wanted to direct it, and I said, “Direct what? It’s six or seven songs unless you want to do a cabaret.” And she said, “No, I actually want to do a theater piece, that’s what I hope it will be.”
I was about to go to Africa because I do work there every year and I took a few books about Millay with me to Botswana and read them. I was intrigued by the earlier part of her life, her relationship with her mother and sisters and absent father, and the contest she lost that ultimately made her a cause célèbre. And I said let’s dramatize this. And let’s do it with a cast of young, idiosyncratic performers. And here we are!
Musicals often go through various iterations before they find their home. What makes this a fit for Transport Group?
I knew Jack in a collegial way. We did a reading at Second Stage as part of their 35th anniversary, and it never felt to me like a Second Stage show, but I really appreciated the resources they gave us. At the end of that process, Christopher Burney (Second Stage’s Artistic Producer) said, “You know who I think would really respond to this? Jack Cummings at Transport.”
I was such a fan of Jack’s and seen so many productions that I thought were exquisitely well-directed and seemed to come from a process that neared the way I like to work. He was, indeed, interested. Initially, he wanted to direct it, and I said, “Let’s co-direct.”
I was struck by Millay’s upbringing in coastal Maine and the parallels/contrasts that we might see with the recent Broadway revival of Carousel.
I often am frustrated that our (and by that I mean those of us who are currently living… all of us) perception of people who lived in earlier times knew less about sexuality, knew less about all sorts of things that we think we’ve got the beat on more than previous generations. And that’s just not true.
Reading about Millay, I was struck at how progressive she was — claiming her right to be sexual and use her body the way she wanted to without apology and without getting anyone’s permission. She had a very strong mother who basically tossed Millay’s father out of the house when she was eight and raised her three daughters to be independent and that there should never be a limitation. Even if those in the world don’t accept those terms. I found it intoxicating.
I also noticed that her mother was a bit of a Mama Rose. Do you think this was more about giving her the freedom to discover who she was as a young woman or specifically pushing her towards poetry?
You’re absolutely correct. Her mother was a poet and was always writing and submitting poetry and never successfully published, to my knowledge. She definitely pushed Millay toward poetry and lived vicariously through her.
One of Millay’s most famous poems, “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” is a staggeringly brilliant and beautifully dramatized telling of a maternal sacrifice so that the child can find a life of glory, comfort and acclaim. I found it devastatingly moving, knowing that this dynamic existed between Millay and her mother.
As a playwright, how do you embody what you believe to be Millay’s creative process?
Often when you’re working on a show, you come to understand why you’re working on it. You don’t really know at first. What I’ve come to understand about Edna St. Vincent Millay is that she was a progressive thinker — in some cases a political thinker — but she wrote in a classic form. She was not a modernist: she liked rhyme and structure.
This is for others to say (and I’m not comparing myself to Millay), but I thought, that’s a little bit how I see myself. I’m attracted to classic forms of storytelling, and I love the juxtaposition between the form and the content. She was a real technician, a real wordsmith and considered vowels and consonants, the meter and structure of a piece as important as the theme and imagery.
It’s not easy to dramatize a writer writing. Basically, writers sit their at desks and pull their hair out and write. So we have to come up with all kinds of ways to give the audience glimpses into her creative process.
Though you might consider yourself a classicist, this work is thematic and lyrical — not traditionally plot-driven.
One of the challenges is that there is so much language in the songs because it’s Millay’s poems and I felt that my book needed to be lean and mean. I couldn’t have swaths of dialogue. Within each scene, I’m still asking myself, “Is there someone who wants something? Are they in conflict with someone else? What tactics are they using to get it?” It’s a classic, muscular approach to how to write a scene. Even within this elusive, fragmented puzzle, I’m still conscious of these tenants of drama.
What can we expect from the company of actors that you’ve assembled?
When we cast the very first reading there wasn’t a line written, just the songs, so we had to have some kind of casting concept. I said to Carmel at the time that I wanted artists that have to create his or her own category because who they are is so unique, that their essence is so fresh that they don’t fit into categories that already exist because I thought that was so true of Millay. She made herself up, then made a place for herself in the world of literature that had never existed before.
The Playhouse at Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street, NYC
Through November 17
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.