Theatre Kibbitz: Catholic University’s Andrew Morrissey and Emily Weber on the musical ‘Life is But a Dream’

Andrew Morrissey is an enthusiastic composer with a big smile and lots of energy. He’s working on a new musical called Life is But a Dream, and played the overture and presented songs that he and lyricist Allison M.C. Clapp had written so far – at the Page-to-Stage Festival on Saturday, September 4th, at The Kennedy Center.

Joel: Andrew, Life is But A Dream is a work in progress and is part of your fulfillment of your Master’s Thesis at Catholic University. What are the requirements for your thesis? What are your plans after you graduate?

Andrew: I am a second year graduate student at the The Catholic University of America’s Master of Music in Composition, Stage Music Emphasis program. This program is still in its infancy, only being in existence for six years. As part of my degree, I must complete a thesis that consists of at least 30 minutes of music. The piece can be anything written for stage, including musicals, operas, dance pieces, or underscoring for dramatic works. I have chosen to do a one-act musical based on a poem that Lewis Carroll wrote after writing the well-known novels entitled Life Is But A Dream. I am hoping to put up a fully staged performance of the completed work the end of February. After graduating, I am planning to stay in DC and get my feet wet in the theatre world. I am passionate about music directing and also enjoy just being a rehearsal or performance pianist for musicals. After a few years here, I am hoping to relocate to NYC to work my way up in the theatre circuit there.

Andrew Morrissey.

How did you get to Page-to-Stage with your musical? Take us on your journey.

For the past few years, the Composition Department at Catholic University has had a block of time slated in this festival to showcase students’ works as well as the faculty. It is a great way for the department to expose our work to the DC theatre scene in hopes to boost audiences to journey to campus for events happening there. The performers are often current students of the musical theatre or vocal performance majors on campus, and it’s good exposure for them as well.

This year, Dr. Andrew Simpson had asked me if I would be willing to put up some of my thesis project. I, of course, accepted and worked with Allison M.C. Clapp (lyrics and book), Chad Zimlich (who sang the role of Lewis Carroll), and Emily Weber (who sang the role of Alice) over the summer to present the segment this past Saturday.

How was the experience?

I had an amazing time at the Festival. We arrived early to rehearse in the green room at the Eisenhower Theatre which was papered with past show posters (a great look into the past of the celebrities that have graced these stages). Then we had a very easy tech-in, getting mic levels and setting lights and spacing. The performance went without a hitch, even though I was very nervous to play the overture all by myself as I have already started to parse out instrumental parts and was reading from three different staves! The audience was very receptive and asked several detailed questions about the music, plot and characters. Overall, it was one of the major highlights of my graduate career.

What’s your musical about?

The musical takes us back into Wonderland, this time through the eyes of Lewis Carroll himself. We see him take a hit of opium, setting off these violent seizures and sending him into an unconscious dream world. Here we meet Alice, a familiar character yet portrayed very differently. They both journey through Wonderland in switched roles, Lewis pretending to be a first timer while Alice leads. But things start to go awry when Alice changes the familiar plot line, with each event more changed than the last. Lewis becomes more and more agitated until he finally confronts Alice. What we come to find out is that Alice is a personification of Lewis’ addiction to opium, herself addicted to Wonderland stories. This mirror image between the two characters must be resolved in the end as only one can be the true self.

You know that recently there was another off-the-wall musical version of Alice in  Wonderland called Wonderland that flopped. Did you see it or hear the cast CD? What did you think of the score and book?

I found out about the show around the same time I found the poem and had decided to write my thesis on the same subject. I never got a chance to see the show since it closed so fast, but I have seen clips on YouTube. Wildhorn’s score is beautiful and very lush. Each of the characters gets their own sonic world which makes them all the more memorable. The sound world is very mainstream and fits into the categories of many of the other major musicals popular at this time.

When did you first meet Allson M.C. Clapp – the lyricist and book writer – and why did you decide to work together on this show? Have you worked together before?

I first met Allison my first semester here at Catholic during a collaborative project between the music and drama departments. We then went on the second semester to work on a fellow friend’s thesis project, her as director and myself in the production (a rare opportunity these days!). It was during this production that I pitched my thesis idea to her and gave her the options of either writing the book or directing the thesis. Since she herself will be working on her directing thesis in the spring, she offered to write the book. I am very thrilled with the work we have already sone together for this festival and am looking forward to continuing the good work the rest of this semester.

From a composer and writer’s point of view – how did you approach the score and book?

Since I initially came up with the story line, I had several conversations with Allison prior to any writing – where I explained what I was looking for and had envisioned. Allison was great about asking lots and lots of questions that helped focus my ideas into a plausible arc that would be able to be put into a staged performance. Once the major events of the story had been mapped out, we started to write – her with the beginning of the script and myself with the Overture and opening number, which uses the text of the poem that inspired the project.

We now check-in frequently to show each other our progress. I send Allison audio files as soon as I am finished a new piece to get her opinion, and she sends me new dialogue and lyrics to check singability and flow. As a composer, I am very tied to text and will not write a song without knowing what I am writing about – and have the words to express those feelings. Without text, a song can only emote so much and it is through this medium that we tell the story. Therefore, I make sure that the text can be understood and the music supports what the text is trying to get across.

We were only introduced to the opening scene of your musical.

The portion we showed in the festival is the only script/music that has been written up to this point. We have mapped out deadlines for the rest, so that the entire show should be completed by the winter holidays.

Tell me about the the score and songs we heard, and the styles of music we heard in your songs.

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This opening chunk is meant to set up the relationship between Lewis and Alice, as well as establish the themes that will continue to recur throughout the piece. I wanted to set up a dark world that Lewis lives in to signify the constant struggle to trying to live in reality – and having the yearning to live in a hallucinogenic state. The same struggle can be seen in Alice, warring between the naive character we are all familiar with and the new emerging presence of a Wonderland junkie. Some important themes in the show up in these first three songs – Wonderland is denoted by a sharp four raising to five, while Alice’s theme is seen as a flat six resolving to five then three. These chromatic motifs will continue to be used throughout the piece – and will become integrated on some level to most of the major songs of the work.

Who were some of your musical influences that we heard in your songs?

I am definitely a fan of the composers of contemporary musical theatre – John Bucchino, Andrew Lippa, Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel. Adam’s music is probably most represented in the material from the festival. I am fascinated by his body of work and how his shows can all be so unique from each other. Just the way he deals with tonal harmonies and manipulates them with various instrumental colors – is very inspiring.

Pick up the story of Alice and Lewis after what we heard at Page-to-Stage. What will the music be like?

The three major events – the Caterpillar, the Tea Party, and the Queen of Hearts – will all be extremely stylistically different from the songs heard at the Festival. I want these songs to be larger than life, full of vitality and all of the strangeness we would expect from Wonderland.

The Caterpillar number will play off of the use of a hookah, using more eastern harmonies. Lots of open fourths and fifths will lend the piece a surreal, spacious feeling. This will be mirrored in the existential and philosophical questions the Caterpillar poses to Lewis. The Tea Party will truly be mad, grasping at several styles and presenting them in a very ‘ADD’ format.

There will be a big tap dance break in this number, utilizing every available surface (I hope) and then careen out of control. The Queen of Hearts, normally a very angry and quick-tempered character, will instead be the calm, cool seductress, singing a very sexy jazz number that shows the slow seduction of Lewis by herself and her ‘Cards’. The other pieces sung by Lewis and Alice will continue in the thread of the dark, turbulent world set up in the presentation during the festival, having surges of extremely lush melodic lines with disjunct conflict, boiling up to their final confrontation.

Have you written songs and lyrics for the rest of the show?

So far, we only have what we presented on the Festival, but I have sketches of themes and motives I would like to use for the other songs. I am trying to keep these flexible until we have a concrete script to work out of so I don’t tie Allison’s creative hands.

How many instruments are you writing the score for?

I am hoping to orchestrate for a small pit band – keyboard, drum set, electric bass, electric guitar, reed doubler (flute, clarinet and sax), and either cello or violin (or both).

 

Emily Weber.

Emily Weber (Alice):

Emily sang the role of Alice and I asked her about Andrew’s score and her Page-to-Stage experience.

Joel: How did you  get involved with the Page-to-Stage adventure?

Emily: I worked with Andrew on a number of projects last year, including two theses by other grad students at CUA, and Chad’s senior recital. We realized that we work very well together and Andrew told me about his concept for a thesis, asking me to sing “Alice.”

What do you admire about the piece you sang?

I love the originality of the music. It is not inaccessible to audiences with no musical background, but at the same time it offers something new and interesting for those who study music, or make their livelihoods as musicians. It also draws upon and in a way gives credit to composers who inspire Andrew. As an actress, I really love the musical vocabulary he uses to assist in understanding the inner life of the characters.

How do you describe the Lewis (Carroll) and Alice who appear in Andrew and Allison’s musical?

Alice is irrational and erratic. She’s also very manipulative. These traits do not show immediately, and because she is manipulative, she is able to disguise the first two traits well. In a way she is very selfish, but very intelligent. Her advantage over Lewis is almost unfair. I think the relationship between Alice and Lewis represents very well the relationship between an addict and his or her addiction.

Which song that you sang (beautifully I might add) is your favorite?

Firstly, thank you! I don’t know that I can pick a favorite! They are so different. “Curiouser and Curiouser” (the duet) was definitely more difficult to learn. It changes time signatures many times and has a great deal of atypical melodic figures. But it’s part of what really makes the piece fun to work out. And those challenges are not just thrown in the mix for Andrew’s fun. They really do serve a purpose; perhaps multiple purposes. One is definitely the representation of a clock spinning out of control, and another is the subtext of the characters. As far as “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” which Alice sings in an attempt to console Lewis, I think the simplicity of the melody contrasted with the complexity of the accompaniment gives a great insight into the real motive behind what Alice is doing. It was easier to learn, and very short, but certainly not insignificant.

What was your Page-to-Stage experience like?

I really loved it! I always love working with Andrew, of course, and Chad is wonderful as a performer and a person. In music rehearsals, we have a ton of fun. And Allison (who has directed me in the past) is a wonderful asset. I had no idea that she was a writer, too, until Andrew told me she was doing the book and lyrics. What a wonderful surprise! Her script is excellent so far and I can’t wait to see the rest. And as always, performing was just so much fun. It really is an honor to perform at The Kennedy Center.

What are you majoring in at CU and what year are you in? What are you hoping to do after you graduate?

My major is Musical Theater, and I’m a senior this year. As far as next year, I’m looking in to possibilities away from the performing arts. I’m applying for service opportunities and English teaching positions in foreign countries. Eventually, however, I hope to perform and record with my dad, who is a beautiful baritone and a wonderful pianist. I also love to choreograph, so I’m going to try to throw that in the mix along the line, too!

The Catholic University of America’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music.

The Catholic University of America’s School of Drama.