Among the highlights of summer in the Hudson Valley are soirees hosted by the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat. This small non-profit provides weeklong residencies to musical theater writers to develop their shows. At the end of the week, the writers perform songs from their work in progress. This is how I met Ben Bonnema and his writing partner Christopher Staskel, who were hard at work on a new musical, One Way, an interplanetary love story between two humans. (Read the synopsis at the end of this interview; it is both innovative and timeless.)
Ben is a composer-lyricist and recipient of a 2017 Jonathan Larson Grant by the American Theatre Wing. One of Ben’s claim to fame is his having written the book, music, and lyrics to Adult Swim's Peter Panic, a musical video game that's been played by over a half million people. His musical theater credits are numerous and include sound design and composition for the award-winning Sleep No More, as well as orchestrations for Ana Gasteyer’s album “I’m Hip.”
Brent: Hi, Ben! Thanks for agreeing to answer my questions. When you write a show, how much do you think about how the actors will learn the text?
Ben: My focus when writing tends to be less on how the actor will memorize and more on if the text feels natural and authentic. I believe that if the actor is fully embodying the character and the text flows in a way that's character-based, it'll make it easier to memorize.
Brent: Very thoughtful. You also write songs, which do not sound like natural speech. What is your approach there?
Ben: When writing songs, I think that form and structure make all the difference in memorization. If I write with a clear form that still manages to throw in some surprises, I'd hope the process of learning the text is simpler.
Brent: What do you think makes musicals such a powerful medium to capture emotionally charged themes?
Ben: I can remember melodies much easier than lyrics, and I think there's an evolutionary reason for that. A while ago I read This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin, and it talked about how inherently connected music is with emotion. Our brain hears music like it does emotion in human voices.
Brent: Interesting. What example comes to mind?
Ben: For example, a high violin line that glisses down may unconsciously remind our brains of someone crying. We evolved to discern people's emotional states, and so our brain hears music that way—it's almost an accident of evolution. I love this idea, and it's fun to think about while writing.
Brent: I will look for Levitin’s book. Oliver Sacks’ work, Musicophilia, also explores the unique impact of music on our brains; there are places that music can take us that ordinary speech does not. Beyond the “memorability” of music, how else do you structure your work to facilitate the actors’ learning of the text?
Ben: I can't speak for the more directorial aspects, like blocking, but structure is huge. Take the AABA form. If you've set up a specific rhyme scheme in the first A, the actor can reasonably expect for the same rhyme scheme in the second and final A sections. The details will be different, but you know as an actor that you have the structure to fall back on.
Brent: Right, some actors and playwrights have told me that they are often on the lookout for linguistic triggers, like rhyme, meter, or homophones. Shakespearean scholar Daniel Spector told me in an interview about how the iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme helped the audience remember the dialogue almost as well as the actors.
Ben: Consistency of scansion [the rhythm of a line of verse] seems to be a huge help in facilitating the learning of the text.
Brent: Have you ever made changes to a script because an actor found something too difficult to memorize?
Ben: I think it's important to pay attention to the actor's instincts. If they're saying the wrong word repeatedly in rehearsal, I might evaluate if their choice is more natural or makes more sense. I know for sure I've done this with melodies. Like, “Oh yeah, what you're singing does make more sense with the chord, let's go with that.” I've never thought of it strictly in terms of memorization, but I would guess that it's easier to memorize what feels natural, both text and music.
Brent: When there is repetition of certain phrases or melodies, do you (or the actors) ever get confused about what particular line comes next?
Ben: I think that can definitely be the case, and what can help is making sure that the repeated section has a different emotional state. Confusion comes when the phrases are almost interchangeable. But if the second verse with the exact same rhyme scheme is more emotionally charged than the first, that seems to help.
Brent: Excellent point. Does a particular verse spring to mind?
Ben: Martin Dickinson—one of the actors in our show One Way at the Page to Stage Festival in London—said, “The reason that you repeat a phrase is because the intention has grown. The action comes from the line after the repeated lyric. If you can link the action to the feeling, then you won't forget. There are only two reasons that actors forget lines—one, you don't know the lines properly. Two, you're not concentrating. I think that was a Laurence Olivier quote.”
Brent: Tell me about other contexts in which you have used memorization techniques.
Ben: We're often in situations where we get a new cast and have to quickly memorize everyone's names. I'll try a few things—I might visualize the person's face and repeat their name in my head; I might see what in that person reminds me of someone else I know with the same name; I might stare at the casting sheet with names and photos for a solid ten minutes. Just depends.
Brent: You are a keen observer. Check out some articles on my In the Media page or excerpts from my book for more pointers on linking the name to the face. In your case, the actors who make the final cut must have made a deeper impression on you, so you’re more attentive to their face, body language, and emotional range.
Ben: It helps when you've been through the whole audition and casting process for the show—even though you've seen a million people, there was something about their performance during the audition that stuck out (probably because it made you feel things), and so it can be easy to think, “Ah yes, that's Karen who sang 'Losing My Mind' and made me cry.”
Brent: Thanks so much for your time and wisdom, Ben. It’s greatly appreciated. Best wishes for success with One Way.
Ben: Thank you!
Synopsis of One Way by Ben Bonnema and Christopher Staskel
Naomi, a young Canadian astrophysicist, is selected as a finalist to go on the first one-way trip to Mars. Thousands have applied through Fourth Planet, a private company, and only fifty remain in the running. Naomi's partner, Elaine, struggles to understand why the mission is worth a human life. Naomi must choose: venture to Mars in the name of scientific advancement and human exploration or remain here on Earth to be with the woman she loves. Listen to songs from this show in progress at this link.