Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre has long fostered new musical theatre work and is now embarking on a bold experiment. This spring, the 5th Avenue will present And So That Happened…, braiding together three 30-minute new musical stories by Pacific Northwest artists to form a 90-minute piece with creative direction by Desdemona Chiang and musical direction by Steven Tran.
The three writing teams are Jasmine Joshua; Dedra D. Woods, Porscha Shaw and Aaron M. Davis Norman; and Maggie Lee and Lauren Freman. With a grounding in an experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, all three teams will focus on how hopes and actions come to fruition in the wake of disruptive social and historical events.
For the project created by Lee and Freman, Lee will write the book and Freman will develop the songs and lyrics, and their story will focus on an unmarried couple who have been together for 15 years. “Their pandemic experience leads them to reevaluate the strength of their comfortable relationship in the face of uncomfortable reality,” Lee said. “What does modern marriage really mean, apart from the social expectations of being some kind of traditional checkpoint into adulthood?”
The 5th Avenue invited any writing team to apply in response to their proposed concept. “I was really interested in the prompt, which was to share something positive that came out of cataclysmic change,” Lee recalled. “Over the past two years, the pandemic has probably been the biggest change in everyone’s lives, so it was an interesting challenge to reframe this hugely disruptive world event into something hopeful through the lens of my own personal experience.”
Lee had previous experience working with The 5th Avenue Theatre in 2020 and 2021 as a playwright mentor for the Rising Star Project, helping high school theatre artists create new musicals by adapting original podcasts and radio journalism created by students of KUOW’s RadioActive Youth Media. “But I hadn’t ever actually written a musical myself!” she shared. “Working with those students really inspired me to take on this new challenge of theatrical storytelling through a musical.”
So Lee asked Freman to collaborate with her in her submission to The 5th Avenue Theatre. “I have admired Lauren for a long time,” Lee said. “I first experienced her music through her work with the HERON Ensemble, and then also with Annex Theatre’s production of The Devil and Sarah Blackwater.”
Lee sensed that she and Freman shared artistic sensibilities. “Her music just has so much feeling,” Lee enthused. “She doesn’t shy away from sincerity and heart, but she keeps it grounded and real without defaulting to fashionable cynicism, which is something that I try to do when writing plays.”
Creating the full 90-minute show has involved coordinating teams within the larger team. “As we began this project, it felt like we were working on three separate shows because we could only meet on Zoom,” Lee recounted. “At first, it was a little hard to connect as a whole team.”
But in March, the artists began to meet in person. “It’s just a world of difference,” Lee said. “Being in the room together has been so inspiring.”
The entire production group began to experience the magic of live theatre. “It’s made me realize how irreplaceable in-person connection is for the creative process,” Lee said. “Our three stories are now coming together into one show that feels so much more organic and satisfying.”
Live musical direction with Steven Tran has helped guide the raw material toward its final form. “I haven’t worked that closely with Steven because he’s mostly been working more directly with the songwriters,” Lee said. “But just in our group meetings, I’m always blown away by his enthusiasm, positivity and passion for music.”
Lee has also appreciated Chiang’s role as director. “This hasn’t been the traditional writer/director relationship where we are working off a single completed script,” Lee reminded. “It’s three different stories that are still evolving together, so it’s more important than ever to have someone outside the writing process to help them come together into a cohesive piece.”
Delving into the realm of musical theatre, Lee has found that her biggest challenge has been trying to adjust her writing style as a playwright to the musical format. “It’s been a challenge for me to learn how to pull back on dialogue,” she said, “to let the music carry the moment, rather than having the characters trying to explain everything all the time.”
This opportunity has filled Lee with appreciation. “Coming from a fringe theatre background, I’ve been feeling a little intimidated by this whole process on a larger scale than I’m used to,” she said, “but also I’ve gained confidence and my work has grown in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without this experience.”
And So That Happened… runs May 18 to June 19 at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue.