What better way to honour Montreal’s 375th and Canada’s 150th anniversaries this summer than with a brand new musical of one of our most galvanizing historical figures?
From June 29 to August 5, the Zeiders American Dream Theater (ZADT) in Virginia Beach gifts us with precisely that in presenting the World Premiere of SECOND TO NUN, an immersive one-woman musical piece that explores – and explodes through soaring song and monologue – the extraordinary life of Canadian saint Marguerite Bourgeoys.
Under the leadership of ZADT Artistic Director Bart Kuebler and Executive Director Terry Flint, celebrated New York City cabaret artist Molly Pope portrays the trailblazing title character, reliving her death-defying journey to bring women to New France and forge a path in the New World.
In great anticipation of the show’s most fitting July 1st opening in Virginia Beach, Montreal Theatre Hub spoke with director and award-winning librettist Anton Dudley and Broadway songwriter Michael Cooper (credited as the contributing lyricist of It Shoulda Been You, which recently received its Canadian and World Yiddish Premiere in Montreal at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts) on bringing Bourgeoys’ inspiring story of inclusion, love, and “living life without walls” to the stage. Read the full in-depth interview below.
MONTREAL THEATRE HUB: What was the genesis of your composer-lyricist partnership and what spawned this particular collaboration?
ANTON: I was working on a large, commercial, pop musical in New York and, for my next project, knew I wanted to do something much more intimate, human, quirky, and romantic; a one-woman show seemed the perfect choice. The story of Marguerite Bourgeoys had been in my mind for some time and, when I asked myself, “who would I want to spend 90 minutes alone with, as she sings her story?” I knew the answer was Marguerite. I asked a well-known director if he knew of any composers with a fresh sound and he suggested Michael. Our first meeting lasted several hours and I felt like I had known Michael for years. I thought, “this is the guy I trust with this story; he loves Marguerite like I do.”
MICHAEL: When Anton first approached me about this project, I was intrigued (and honestly a little frightened!) by the challenge of creating a one-character historical musical – how could we musically engage an audience for 90 minutes, and what would that sound like? But, in the spirit of Marguerite, I declared “Faith before fear!” I knew from the moment I met Anton that I trusted him implicitly. I think, because of that, Second To Nun “sings” in a truly singular voice. I’ve tried to make the score feel as timeless as Marguerite herself. She spoke directly to my heart and her music just seemed to pour out of me – I don’t think I’ve ever surrendered so completely to writing a character before.
“Montreal is the strongest character in this piece, its identity and spirit; in some ways, Marguerite is the personification of Montreal and Montreal the manifestation of Marguerite”
MTH to ANTON: What specifically provided you with the inspiration to write the (musical) book & lyrics for Second to Nun? How has your Montreal upbringing shaped the piece, if at all?
ANTON: Originally, I wanted to write about the Filles du Roi. I have always been taken with that period of Canada’s history and how remarkably different it was from the English experience in the United States. Growing up in Montreal and returning whenever I could, I was aware of Marguerite Bourgeoys, but didn’t fully grasp her connection to the Filles du Roi. I had a lot of fantasies of what the stories were of how these young women, Marguerite, the fur trappers and merchants, and First Nations peoples came together on this island, then I began to read voraciously… books from the church, historical accounts of business transactions, historical fictions, academic books, whatever I could find. I was completely struck by the relationship of Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance, and Marguerite Bourgeoys, and I thought, “there’s the story I want to tell.” I’m a very atmospheric writer, meaning that environments are characters in my work. Montreal is the strongest character in this piece, its identity and spirit; in some ways, Marguerite is the personification of Montreal and Montreal the manifestation of Marguerite. Everything I love about Canada, everything that makes me proud to say “I am Canadian,” resonates in my perception of both Marguerite and Montreal. I was inspired to bring both of them to life on stage.
MTH to MICHAEL: After having worked on hit Broadway musical It Shoulda Been You as a contributing lyricist, this is the first time you carry the creative title as the sole composer of a full book musical. What have been the unforeseen challenges and rewards that have accompanied the ambitious endeavour?
MICHAEL: When I moved to New York, I had my sights set on becoming a composer-lyricist, but that journey took a bit of an exciting detour. Making my Broadway debut with It Shoulda Been You, I was part of a larger team of lyricists. With Second To Nun, I’m steering the musical ship. Although our scale is much more intimate, the stakes, for me, feel even higher. Because of the unique nature of this piece, honoring and demarcating the moments of silence has become equally as important as finding those musical moments that soar. I feel like I respond more organically and emotionally when working as a composer – and I was so taken and inspired by the beauty of Anton’s language. It’s also incredibly fun when your collaborator says: “We need an Iroquois scalping song here,” or “Can you write me an epic anthem for Marguerite to sing about being Canadian?” Even though I grew up in Arizona, I feel like an honorary Canadian citizen now after working on this show for the last three years! Very early in our process, we discussed what the musical vocabulary of the world of Marguerite should sound like, and we landed on a piano/cello accompaniment, where the cello actually becomes a second voice and character in the piece. This was the first time I’ve written for cello, so hearing my score come alive – with those dark, haunting textures – has been especially thrilling. I hope audiences are as transported experiencing the show as we’ve been writing and rehearsing it.
MTH: What about Marguerite Bourgeoys frames her as the consummate subject for a one-woman musical piece?
A&M: Marguerite was a unique sort of rebel and a remarkable diplomat: she played within the confines of the established governing bodies of crown and church, yet still founded a unique community, based on her profoundly democratic faith and heart. She invested her life in opening the mind and heart of her faith to women without means. She did so without breaking from tradition, but instead by evolving it. She is so dynamic and, forgive our language, ballsy – crossing the ocean by herself, standing up to an entire institution, her faith and compassion overriding any sense of fear and sometimes (again, forgive us) logic – to us, she’s a superhero; and, in this version, she sings! – who wouldn’t want to spend 90 minutes with her?! Whatever your beliefs, we hope her story allows you to see more deeply the beauty that lives in each and every one of us, just as Marguerite did.
MTH: Which elements of Bourgeoys’ enrapturing essence has Molly Pope captured and rendered in her role as the iconic Canadian Saint?
A&M: Molly has both a grace and strength that are wed by the mercurial twinkle in her eye. She both enchants and rallies you; you trust her to care for your infant child and also bulldoze a forest. Molly is a true showperson and yet, in every moment, is honest and loving. She has a timeless quality about her that allows her to inhabit Marguerite at each stage of her remarkable life. And that voice! When Molly Pope sings, you’re converted.
“Audiences will leave the theater feeling a great love for what it means to be Canadian”
MTH: The show is described as an “intimate and immersive musical theatre event”. Based on this vivid description, what can audiences expect to see, hear, and feel from their theatregoing experience?
A&M: Through the unique staging and sound of the show, audiences can expect to be taken on the ride of Marguerite’s journey and really feel like they are there, in 17th century Montreal, meeting each of these fascinating characters, on land and at sea. Though written in English, at the heart of this show is a soaring anthem that Marguerite sings, “Je Suis Canadienne,” which we’re – only somewhat jokingly – hoping Canada adopts as its new national anthem! Audiences will leave the theater feeling a great love for what it means to be Canadian, whether they are or not.
MTH: Why Virginia Beach and the Zeiders American for this premiere?
A&M: Zeider’s has a beautiful black box space that allows the audience to experience both the epic and intimate qualities of this show. It has really allowed us to create an immersive experience, while focusing on Marguerite and allowing the world of the show to emanate from her. Additionally, there’s a large number of Quebecois tourists in Virginia Beach, so we’re hoping to have an international audience, some who know Marguerite and others who are meeting her for the first time.
MTH: What is the ultimate relevance of the piece to modern-day audiences?
A&M: I think we can all agree that walls are a major topic in contemporary North American society! Though she had a singular faith, Marguerite Bourgeoys fought to tear down the walls that separate us, so that people could be free to follow their own path. She is as necessary today as she was in the 17th century.
MTH: Second to Nun almost seems to beg for a Montreal production – any plans to bring one to our neck of the woods?
A&M: Well, that’s the ideal! Hey, you, reading this… know any producers in the city??
MTH: Any fresh theatre projects in the making that we can look forward to savouring in the near future?
ANTON: I am currently working on a commission from Musical Stage Company, in Toronto, about a faith healer in Vancouver in the 1920s. Additionally, I am writing a new opera that crosses mythology and climate change, called Island of the Moon, which received funding from OPERA America and the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.
MICHAEL: I’ve been writing a new musical, Luna Park, about the two dreamers who put Coney Island on the map at the turn of the Century, which was recently workshopped in London. I’m also hoping to record an album of “the songs that got away,” culled from a variety of different theatre projects and stand-along songs that haven’t yet found a home.
ANTON: And Michael and I are already at work on our next musical that follows two women on a romp across Europe, as they fall in and out of trouble, in search of love and the perfect cheese.
Interview by Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon
ZEIDERS AMERICAN DREAM THEATRE PRESENTS “SECOND TO NUN”
When: June 29 to August 5, 2017 (Performances 7:00pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays)
Where: Zeiders American Dream Theater (4573 Bank Street, Virginia Beach, VA 23462)
Tickets: $23 at the door or online at AmericanDreamTheater.org
Facebook: Zeiders American Dream Theatre
ANTON DUDLEY is a NY-based playwright, director, and librettist. His plays have premiered Off-Broadway with Playwrights Realm, Second Stage Theater, Cherry Lane Theater, and at Theater Row. Regionally, his plays and musicals have been produced by Signature Theater, LaJolla Playhouse, Walnut Street Theater, Williamstown Theater Festival, Adirondack Theater Festival, and Ensemble Studio Theater, and are published by Sam French, Playscripts, Applause, and Vintage. His play Letter to the End of the World was a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Drama. As a director, Anton directed the D.C. regional premieres of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes, and Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, and the North American premiere of Jim Cartwright’s I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant, and was co-director of Studio Theater’s Hair, which won Helen Hayes Awards for both Outstanding Resident Musical and Direction. www.antondudley.net
MICHAEL COOPER (Music) BROADWAY: It Shoulda Been You, starring Tyne Daly and directed by David Hyde Pierce (Outer Critics Circle Nomination, Additional Lyrics, with book by Brian Hargrove, music by Barbara Anselmi). OFF-BROADWAY: City Of (Original song, with Anton Dudley), Playwrights Realm. REGIONAL: Music & Lyrics for Love, Always (book by Bill Connington), world premiere at Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach. INTERNATIONAL: Luna Park (Lyrics and Additional Material, with music and additional material by Hyeyoung Kim and book by Daniel F. Levin), Aria Entertainment’s From Page To Stage Festival Of New Musicals, London. MAC Award nominee, 2005 Jonathan Larson Award Winner. BA: Williams College; MFA: NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. Sunfish (Co-Book/Lyrics, music by Hyeyoung Kim) Top Jury Honor DIMF, South Korea (2013). News To Me, Rites of Passage, Museum Pieces, and The Dome (Prospect Theater Co); Lizardman! (Libretto for The Albany Symphony’s Dogs of Desire, music by David Mallamud). Selected for NAMT, The ASCAP/Disney Workshop, 4×15 at The Musical Theater Factory, NYTB (Timelines), and the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals. www.michaelcoopermusicandlyrics.com