The on-line magazine AXS has published an interview with yours truly. The questions delve into the evolution of Speakeasy as well as musical influences in my childhood and advice to aspiring playwrights and composers.
The article is excerpted below:
Interview with composer and playwright Danny Ashkenasi
By: Meagan Meehan – AXS Contributor – Feb 2, 2016
Danny Ashkenasi is a composer, playwright, performer, producer and teaching artist. He has been acting professionally since the age of ten and composing musical works that have been publicly produced since the age of fourteen. In recent years he has focused on creating and performing musical works that highlight the American experience, by adapting American literary masters and focusing on pertinent American historical and social themes. His current musical writing projects include “Feedstore Quartet” (Book and co-lyricist: Jack Hilton Cunningham) set in 1950’s Mississippi, and the song cycle “American Anthem” with the jazz singer Jacqui Sutton.
“Speakeasy: John and Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland” shares the sexual freedoms explored in the 1920s and 30s, and how those freedoms were ruined with the end of Prohibition. It is a love song to queer life in NYC and to forgotten entertainers such as Gene (Jean) Malin, the openly homosexual headline act of New York’s short-lived Pansy Craze of 1929; Vaudeville’s famous Dolly Sisters; the larger than life black lesbian singer Gladys Bentley of Harlem’s “Negro Vogue” fame; and the popular female impersonator Julian Eltinge, to name a few. The music in Speakeasy is based on various styles of the era, but with a modern twist, including Tin Pan Alley, showtunes, jazz, swing, cabaret, operetta as well as classical and agitprop strains of the time. According to the official synopsis:
1929 – New York City. John and Jane Allison are newlyweds. Although they love each other, they have desires they haven’t even acknowledged to themselves, let alone explored. But after giving her neighbor Roberta White a kiss, Jane goes “down the rabbit hole,” entering the strange world of a Speakeasy, where time and space and identity don’t appear to follow conventional rules. On accepting a sexual proposition in a public men’s room, John mysteriously slides “through the looking glass,” and in one fantastical magical realist dream night, they explore their sexuality through the course of two simultaneous and intertwining magical adventures. Lewis Carroll’s literary characters and events from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” are transformed into real-life historically-significant entertainers and events from NYC’s Prohibition-era queer culture, with whom Jane and John enjoy friendships and love affairs. After a night of speakeasies, buffet flat parties, police raids, drag balls, and a bizarre trial, will they reveal their “dreams” to each other and “speak easy” about their truths?
Recently, Danny spoke to AXS about his experiences working in the theater industry and his hopes for the future:
AXS: What inspired you to become a composer and writer?
Danny Ashkenasi (D.A.): As a child I loved the arts, loved performing, loved being creative. I was writing stories and little plays in elementary school, and started writing a children’s novel that would later become the basis for my first musical when I was eleven. Music always was a big part of my life. My mother was an opera singer and I started taking piano lessons before I turned five–still, most of my childhood I was more drawn to performing or writing stories and only once or twice made up songs. I did love musicals though, and habitually watched them on TV. By watching so many classic Hollywood musicals I soaked up the fundamentals of the form.
AXS: How did you get into writing musicals yourself?
D.A.: When I was 14 I showed my music teacher a short song which had lyrics inspired by the children’s novel I had been writing. He encouraged me to turn that story into a musical, with that melody becoming the first song. I first thought the idea was crazy, but then I was inspired to write several more songs, and before I knew it I was on my way to writing and composing my first musical, which would end up being performed at my high school three years later. After that I realized I was a composer.
AXS: Growing up, what kinds of shows–plays, TV shows, movies, etc.–had the biggest impact on you? Why?
D.A.: I already mentioned the classic musicals I watched on TV. But (then) contemporary movie musicals like “Cabaret”, “Bugsy Malone”, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Hair” and “Fame” also made a big impression.My mother being an opera singer, who also performed in musicals and cabaret, I was exposed to all forms of music theatre, which was very influential, as was performing in high school musical productions of “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Oklahoma,” “Hello Dolly” and others. And then I discovered Sondheim via a community theatre production of “Company”…