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”…
AXS: How did you come up with the idea for “Speakeasy”?
D.A.: For many years I had been hording in my musical imagination song ideas and melody snippets that to me sounded like they belonged in the 1920’s or 1930’s. And I had a vague idea of a musical where the whole story could be told inside a nightclub that also doubled as the “world” of the musical. But I couldn’t come up with a story. Then I got interested in writing musicals that explored modern Gay History, post 1945. I also thought that exploring Gay history of the 1920’s or 1930’s would be like exploring a fantastical time, since so little seemed to be known about Gay life before the modern era. So I figured a Gay themed musical set then could take on a magical realist tone. First I thought a Roaring Twenties Dorothy in Oz story may be my entryway into the project, but it didn’t feel quite right. Once I hit on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books as the inspiration for the story ideas, allowing me to cast two Prohibition era Alices, one for “Wonderland” and one for “Through the Looking Glass”, and making them a newlywed couple, Jane and John Allison, I felt I had the idea with which I could tell an exciting story combined with 1920’s and 1930’s Queer history and my “1920’s and 1930’s” style melodic themes. From there on it was a year of research into the era, plus constant rereading of the Alice books and tinkering with the music to find the most effective ways to bring all these elements together.
AXS: So far, what has been the most rewarding thing about being involved in the theatre industry?
D.A.: Being creative–it’s the greatest joy. Whether as an actor, writer, composer, director, it’s the act of creativity that makes me most happy, feel most rewarded and it keeps me going.
AXS: Career wise, where do you hope to be in ten years?
D.A.: I hope to keep being creative, composing, writing, performing and doing work that continues to surprise me, push me into different areas, allowing me to evolve and grow as an artist, work I can continue to be proud of. And a wider audience for my work, well that would be really great too. “Speakeasy” will be showcased the February and March, and we look forward to putting on an exciting, successful show. And I certainly hope there will be opportunities for the musical to continue to evolve and that 10 years from now Speakeasy will still be enjoyed on stages all over.
AXS: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to mention?
D.A.: Future musical efforts include a concept album “American Anthem” in collaboration with the jazz singer Jacqui Sutton, and the Mississippi set musical “Feed Store Quartet” in collaboration with the writer Jack Hilton Cunningham. I will also continue to post articles and excerpts about my previous musical efforts on my blog “Notes from a Composer”, which also features many articles about the history that inspired Speakeasy, as well as fun behind the scenes glimpses at the upcoming production at Theatre for the New City.
AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become a playwright and/or composer?
D.A.: Keep writing. Keep composing. Keep finding ways of doing the work and getting the work performed whether in workshops, festivals, readings, showcases or whatnot. You learn and grow first and foremost by doing the work and experiencing it performed. Also push yourself into new creative places by working in more than one form or genre, and by collaborating with a diverse group of other artists. Whether that creative dialog is happening in a classroom, a small theatre, or Broadway may make a huge material and public difference, but the importance and value of the creative dialog itself remains equally important and valuable no matter the arena.
* * * * *