INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS – A Conversation with the Composer, Lyricist and Author – Jay Kuo

Leading lady Erin Diamantides says the musical is “A blast!”

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

I met with composer and librettist Jay Kuo at the Castro District’s very significant indoor/outdoor CAFÉ FLORE. Leading lady Erin Diamantides joined us as well. It was a totally other summer day in San Francisco – temperatures in the mid 70s and a crystal clear sky. In the slightly breezy air – the buzz of another book-signing by Armistead Maupin for his just released MICHAEL TOLLIVER LIVES. The title of Jay’s musical, INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS, refers back to Maupin and is an appropriate homage to him. I saw the show in October 2005 at the Jon Sims Center. At that point it was still being work-shopped, but enthusiastically presented to an audience which included potential investors. I had known Jon Sims – founder of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps. In fact, we had begun discussing a full production of THE MUSIC MAN. It was my Opera House debut as “Marian” – in harmony with SF Gay Men’s Chorus barbershop quartet, The Lollipop Guild – which convinced Mr. Sims that our collaboration would prove successful. No doubt, he was fascinated by my high notes and seeming transformation in a haute couture turquoise gown. Erin Diamantides as the very-contemporary “Jeannine” of INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS – is as lovely as any composer/producer could possibly hope for. She has the most longevity of any actor in the show, having performed in the first version at the Jon Sims Center, a re-staging at New Conservatory Theatre Center, and now at Yerba Buena Zeum Theater .

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ERIN DIAMANTIDES

I had to ask her the obvious question, “What’s it like to live with Insignificant Others all that time?”

“When we might get under par,” she responded, “new things come up and you discover more about your character. You’re building your character and finding new ways to flesh it out.

As a professional vocal coach, one of the questions I am constantly asked is, “What should I sing for my audition?” When a new composer/author posts an audition notice for a new show, singers and actors are always concerned about presenting the right monologue and song to reflect the nature of the show and the style of the music. When the composer does not have a previously recorded “concept album” or other recordings or published music available, the potential cast member gets very anxious. In this case, Jay had selected five songs for the audition. Erin was relieved at that and – compared to other audition experiences – very impressed by how organized Jay had been with the audition process. She chose “Think of Me” from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA .

“That was my ballad. And then for my up-tempo I did “All That Jazz” from CHICAGO. Jay had us work with the pianist. We matched pitches, changed the dynamics – starting silent and then growing on the note.”

Many un-trained singers go to a musical audition never thinking they will be tested on their musical skills. The general notion is that the production team is looking rather than listening for a particular something. As the new composer on the block, Jay wanted to know about their musical training. He was listening for something. “So I had them do some tricky interval matching. For example, playing C and then asking them to sing an interval of a third above, a third below.”

Jay had very specific ideas in mind about the kinds of voices he needed. “In some cases I wanted a lyrical sound, with others a more legitimate sound or a more pop sound. I wanted to find those perfect matches. We also needed some belters. There were some people who were double-threats on that level.”

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INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS – at the Zeum Theater

I asked Jay for a SENTINEL “exclusive”.

“This is new! We are in the process of taking the show outside of San Francisco to New York. It’s sort-of been a nebulous plan, but now we’ve actually just confirmed the last pledge for my half of the deal. Clearly, this is now the next step for the show – to try New York City and see how it does. A full union cast, a four-piece band, in a 199-seat theatre so as to abide by the rules for an “Off-Broadway” production. One of the producers we’ve been talking to suggested The Zipper; there’s a space in the Village where Gutenberg! The Musical! is playing. We’re obviously going to go where the demographics are good for us. It depends on what spaces are available and who we wind up talking with.”

Among those interested parties is the recently re-migrated Randy Adams who for the past 21 years served as the Managing Director for Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks . He and partner Sue Frost of Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut have created Junkyard Dog Productions – an organization designed to cultivate and nurture new works until they are production-ready.

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LILLIAN ASKEW and KEVIN MALDARELLI

“Those two powerhouse musical theatre developers” says the sparkling Mr. Kuo, “are taking shows they had in development to New York. So, to be in that league now is very exciting.”

Erin is likewise excited. “I’ll go as far as they will take me. I’m thrilled to still be a part of it and I’m really honored they wanted to take me this far. Jay asked me if I would be willing to go to New York. It was – hands down – NOT a question!”

The recent documentary, ShowBusiness – The Road To Broadway, follows the process of composing a musical to its actual mounting in a legitimate Broadway theatre. Prominently featured is the 2004 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, AVENUE Q, and its triple-winning composer/author team of Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty. Bearing in mind the first National Tour is booked into San Francisco’s ORPHEUM THEATRE August 7th through September 2nd, I asked Jay where INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS sits on the big comparative calendar.

“I saw the film with my director George Quick and my choreographer David Garcia. We were riveted the entire time. Avenue Q took four years to get to Broadway. A lot of people said that it was not a Broadway show it’s an Off-Broadway show because it has puppets, you need a smaller space, etc. We are in our second year now. I think we have a different path than trying to get this show to Broadway. If we have a successful Off-Broadway run, I would like to bring it back to San Francisco and put it down permanently – like a “Beach Blanket Babylon”. INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS is really about San Francisco and the people who live here. I think – in view of marketing and producing it long term – if this becomes the next show that everyone has to see when they’re here, then I will feel it has found its home. One of the reasons we want to do it Off-Broadway is to get that legitimacy – because I have plans for other New York shows and it would be nice to step in with a success. Another reason is to see if it plays well outside of San Francisco. The third reason is to get it into the license books so that one day community theatres can perform this show. It can be done on a shoe-string budget. We did it successfully last year with NO budget!”

Part of every investment dollar goes toward adapting a show to the requirements and variations of the available performance space. The stage of The Zeum varies from convention in that it is very wide and narrow. One of the main concerns of the ISO production team was to balance the sound of the band. The presentations at the Jon Sims Center and NCTC had utilized pre-recorded music. At the Zeum, a not-so-insignificant chunk of change is going toward a professional sound system. Even if it’s a small ensemble, a pop musical needs a pop drummer and very often the drummer’s kit needs to be contained. Everyone – including fellow musicians, the singers, investors and ticket holders – knows the enthusiasm of any percussion section and the overwhelming consequences when a bombardment of sound is re-amplified through a nearby mic on a nearby performer. Screaming “Turn that down” seldom works – but “walling” around the drummer will. As acoustic energies are absorbed and contained, the desired effects are re-inforced.

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SARAH FARRELL (as Margaret) – views her plumbing

“I would like to see INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS played in colleges across the country because there are enough young people in their early twenties moving to a new place and I think it resonates well. I don’t think high school students would get it as much. Places like New York or San Francisco – where they tap into musical theatre – high school kids will love this show. Eighty per cent of the people who see it are under 30. I’m writing for one generation younger than me – as someone who is a little bit older and wiser, but who remembers very clearly what it was like.”

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Having not forgotten any of IT myself, I posed the challenge, “So what do you notice repeating – something you went through – that you are writing about today?”

Jay has an infectious smile. “Well, certainly Love springs eternal in San Francisco! You live here. The people are so vibrant. On days like this, you fall in love. Because some are in a new place, they are looking for connections. I see that in a lot of my friends who have moved here recently. They’re a little lost, they want to connect with people. That initial connection might be easy, but it gets tricky because nothing is very straight forward. What happens in INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS is that five friends who live in Ohio come out with very preconceived notions of what San Francisco will be like.”

“When you take the show to New York, are you anticipating changes in the script? Or is it more about a chunk of San Francisco that finds itself in a pocket in New York?”

“It’s more the latter. I think there’s an affinity with the person on the left in New York and the liberal values found here in San Francisco. For people living in Chelsea or Manhattan – who have visited here, who have friends out here – it’s a place they like. Maybe it’s a little bit too regional for them in New York. The question we explore is – will people be snobby in New York and not want to see a show about San Francisco? Or will they say, like when Armistead Maupin came out with his book, “This is fantastic! This is charming / it’s wonderful / I’ve always wanted to know more about this place!”

“I still see it as a learning experience”, says Jay. “If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said – Oh, this is it, this is the Biggie! Our budget is 150-grand and that’s only a fourth of what we’re doing in New York. I’ve got the Zeum and it’s a perfect space for this show.”

“This show is a blast!” says Erin. “The songs have a lot of range. There are several numbers where I get to wail my brains out and others where I sing more lyrical and hit my High A. It’s fun to be able to have that and not be stuck with just one voice-type. Being miked helps make things easier for longevity sake and makes the songs more intimate. I can be more connected with the audience.”

“The great thing about having worked with Erin,” says Jay, “is that when I was writing HOMELAND [Jay's newest musical, also directed by George Quick] we already knew we were casting her as Eleanor, a leftist activist. I knew what she was capable of and wrote the part with her in mind. That is a luxury! We are working on a new piece called “All In”. I have some ideas about how George and I will be casting that show. Again, I have the luxury of being able to write that show with someone else’s voice in mind. I need to write a very commercial show because I need to pay some bills. So, “All In” is being written for Vegas. It’s a show about poker. It’s a show straight men will want to come see with their girlfriends.”

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STARBUCKS – Bobby Bruce, Andrew Sa, and Alex Rodriguez

Jay is a professional lawyer turned musical composer / producer. While workshopping ISO at the Jon Sims Center, he was trying a case in Los Angeles. He would fly a red-eye out in the evening to LA, do a case in the morning, come back to the office to organize his papers and statements, rush up for rehearsals between 6:00 and 9:30, and then leave a bit early so he could catch his flight back down to LA and argue the case.

“That went on for several weeks in a row. I can’t quit doing theatre – we open in six weeks. I’m thinking – what are we going to do? So, I went to some backers and said ‘I need $100,000.00 to survive this next year, to get it to the next level, to pay my mortgage, and have enough in reserve so that if it doesn’t work out I can figure something else. I went to people and asked for a $10,000 to $20,000 investment. It only took two weeks. In fact, we have a waiting list. People really like this show and they believe it’s going to go somewhere. That became a pivotal point for me. I was also up for Partner at my law firm. I had to decide whether I was going to give up the golden ring. There was a lot of drama happening at work at the same time. It was very dispiriting at the time. I decided – even with another job – I didn’t want to keep doing it. And why do it if I can raise money and pay myself to do what I love? I discovered I can do three things to help the career. One, is that I can write quickly. I can market aggressively. I’m not afraid of being told I suck or that I’m being over-bearing. And the third is that – somehow – people are ok giving me money. I always tell them I need their money to do this and in all likelihood you’re not going to see your money again – this is Theatre! You have to be OK with the $20,000 you put in and I won’t take money from anybody who’s going to cry about it later. We just closed another round of $130,000 to back ISO in this production. I’m glad I did the lawyer-thing first. I can negotiate with unions, I have contracts with all the people who work with me. We’re very serious about what we’re doing. I’m going to do everything I can to make this a success.”

Jay wants to be self-sustaining, to pay the bills. He wants the show to touch everybody that sees it. The place for that to happen seems to be the small theatre.

“I don’t see it as a big Broadway show. How about giving me a Club Fugazi? San Francisco doesn’t have enough small theaters. San Francisco is becoming known as the place where great theatre is originating, people across the country are seeing us as the place to start something. The people of San Francisco want to participate in the organic process of creating. We are a creative people, a thoughtful people, innovation is happening here. You don’t have to start in New York. You don’t have to be in New York. Because of the budget, we are a non-union show. Everyone in the cast is 25 and under. We are giving local actors opportunity.”

Jay Kuo is my kind of guy. INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS may prove to be your kind of show.

For more information, to listen to the score and to order tickets, click here: INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS

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San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on AllExperts.com . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: seanmartinfield@att.net.

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