Ryan Scott Oliver’s song writing can’t be pegged into one round or square hole. If you go to You Tube and search for his music, or if you go to the New Voices “channel” there, you’ll find at least a dozen of his songs that range from belting, upbeat driving rock songs to heart-wrenching emo songs, to funny/strange character songs.
He is a Jonathan Larson Grant Recipient, Richard Rodgers Award Winner, Lortel Award Nominee, ASCAP Harold Adamson Lyric Award Winner, a Dramatists Guild Fellow, and the recipient of residencies at a half-dozen theaters! He also teaches at Pace University.
Brandon Ivie found his songs and began including them in Brandon’s New Voices cabaret evenings quite a while back, here in Seattle. Now, Brandon is directing Ryan’s Jasper in Deadland (co-written with Hunter Foster) at the 5th Avenue Theatre. The whole team mounted the production last year off-Broadway, so this is a second opportunity to tinker and improve it. It opens officially on May 14th, but you can see previews now.
SGS had an opportunity to talk to Ryan about the show. In a far ranging conversation, Ryan talks about why he wrote Jasper, and why he’s drawn to the darker subjects.
Seattle Gay Scene: How do you write? Alone? On computer? By handwriting?
Ryan Scott Oliver: I’m someone who when I get an idea, I start to sketch the outline. It’s useful whether talking about story or lyrics, it feels very much like visual art. I start by hand. Sketch the basic ideas and continue to expand. Identify the beginning and middle and end. Then the beginning of the beginning, the middle of the beginning, the end of the beginning, etc. I am very structural and believe in creating a framework and filling in the middle. I start by pen and notebook paper, then will edit and then to the computer, then edit. By that point, I’m comfortable resting on that and moving to the next part.
SGS: How did “Jasper” come about?
RSO: I am a professor at Pace University of musical theater writing and I’ve run the Pasadena Musical Theatre summer program. When I first started writing Jasper in 2011, I wrote for young people and geared it toward teenagers. As the show developed, Hunter and I started collaborating and were able to open it up and some changes clarified the story.
I’ve witnessed a great deal of young people dealing with love and life and idealism versus pragmatism. That’s at the heart of Jasper and the story we’re telling. We wanted to make Jasper a contemporary retelling (of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice), like Rent turned La Boheme (the opera) into a contemporary story – the idea of the illness became AIDS from tuberculosis.
The high rate of divorce, the suicide rate in teens, disillusionment as teenagers, I certainly had as a teenager, how to deal with that. The personal part of this play, to me, is relatively clear cut. I was in my early 20s and I needed to travel into the underworld to pursue clarity in myself.
SGS: What kinds of changes are there from the off-Broadway version?
RSO: We want to make sure the audience understands the themes. It’s extra difficult in musicals because of songs and movement and lyricism. In 2014, we could only do so much so our hands are very full here, continuing to rewrite the show. It’s an epic show, big themes, a very, very, big world. It was artfully directed to be intimate, but it can truly be presented at any size. Going to 2200 seats (at the 5th Avenue), you’re really exploding the production.
SGS: What draws you to darker stories?
RSO: I’m someone who is attracted to darkness in the human condition. All of us have a great deal of darkness and don’t talk about it at all. Darkness seeks light. I don’t write about darkness for darkness’ sake: it is the relief of the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the journey that is so thrilling and emotional.
That’s the kind of journey and storytelling that I always respond to. Someone who has a desire that forces them into a plane of uncertainty and self-doubt and conflict and sometimes war (interpersonal, societal, or war within one’s self) and they’re forced to journey through that. For all the brutal stuff I write about, the hero must succeed. Heroes tend to make a discovery by the end, and overcome the demons that have to be overcome. And that’s what Jasper’s all about to a T.
SGS: Talk about your connection to Brandon Ivie.
RSO: As an artist, you dream of someone receiving your work as with the intensity you intend it. Brandon did that really early for me. When Jasper seemed to be up for a production off-Broadway, he was someone I thought of. I’ve worked with older directors, but had been longing for the kind of brotherhood you want to find in a team, not unlike a sports teams. Writer, director, choreographer. The glory and criticism is received equally, and I wanted a team. I found that in Brandon. I’m sure this will not be my last collaboration with him.
SGS: What do you want an audience to take away with them when they see “Jasper”?
RSO: What audiences I hope will be moved by: this is about a young man who is faced with tremendous obstacles. They may see someone they know, or themselves. I see myself and others I know.
He realizes that as hard as life gets you have to keep pushing through it. Water plays a big part in the show. You can’t just float, you have to swim through it. That’s a reminder I have to share with myself. LGBTQ youth, in the existing struggle we face, will relate to that journey.
Thankfully, it’s really exciting, the whole ride of the show, though. I think people will get a kick out of Jasper. It’s totally a thrill ride. There’s always something to look at. They may not like the show but they certainly won’t be bored!
Jasper in Deadland is currently in previews at The 5th Avenue Theatre with an official Opening/Press Night of May 14, 2015 and a Closing Date of May 24, 2015. Tickets available HERE!