Lyricist Stacey Luftig has won the 2016 Kleban Award for most promising lyricist and in November, she and composer Phillip Palmer won the Fred Ebb Award for aspiring musical theater songwriters! Both of these awards (which come with hefty prize money, btw!) were for their new musical making its world premiere this weekend at Village Theatre in Issaquah!
My Heart is the Drum is set in Ghana, Africa, and focuses on a young girl who longs to go to university and escape her small life in her small town. It is a journey fraught with dangers that Efua (played by Gypsy Rose Lee award-winner Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) cannot imagine.
SGS interviewed Luftig as opening night nears. She loves the idea that she was named “most promising” at age 54, after having amassed a deep resume of play writing, children’s theater, and Sesame Workshop television programming. Stacey says, “I keep getting awarded for my potential. I’ve had a lot of encouragement and it’s been very nice.”
An article in the program quotes her, “I didn’t want to ‘write what I knew.’ I wanted to expand what I knew, to tell a story that was big and worth telling – and in doing so, trust that my feelings and experiences would help me convey emotions that were universal. What I learned was that when you have a story you connect with and believe in, and collaborators who are as fist-thumpingly passionate as you are, this is the work that will nourish your soul.”
A fun fact! She also happens to be a great-niece of Irving Cohn, who wrote the lyrics to the 1923 hit song Yes, We Have No Bananas.
With an uncle writing songs, it seemed like she’d be steeped in musical theatre. Stacey says, “My mother’s father was briefly in vaudeville. I think that attracted my mother to my father, who was a television writer and director and producer and wrote plays on the side.
“I started as a playwright. When I was 11, my father had a children’s show called The Everything Show and I was his script consultant for $1/week. He’d give me scripts and ask for the truth. I was made to feel important as a child that my opinion mattered and I’d see my input reflected on tv which was a heady experience.
“He also took me to NBC and I would sit in the control room. The hush and importance while he was working was thrilling to me. I thought I want my life to be like that.
“My mother made sure my sister and I had music lessons, she bought a piano and she played violin as a girl and we had violin and I took guitar, so there was music and theater around. I gravitated young to expressing myself through writing. I was shy and felt more comfortable with words on the page than speaking them.
“I went to college knowing I wanted to be a playwright and thought it would be good to get a background in literature and UVA (University of Virginia) was great for that. I majored in English and minored in Drama and a concentration in Music.
“I moved to New York City and took play writing and acting classes. I didn’t like living in New York, my life was a struggle. But I wanted to give it my best shot and applied for a play writing workshop and got in at Playwrights Horizon. That was exciting. Then I heard about the BMI workshop. (Note: The BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop is a free, very competitive, two year workshop in New York for musical theater composers, lyricists and librettists.) I had never thought about writing for musicals.
“I had grown up listening to Fiddler on the Roof over and over and A Chorus Line but I didn’t think about (writing them). The BMI workshop is a marvelous program. They train you there. Your first year, at the beginning, everyone has the same assignments, and they pair you up and you get to hear what everyone did with the same assignment. The learning is exponential because you’re doing it and seeing how other people do it and every time you work with somebody, it’s a whole new relationship. You form a new way of working each time.
“At the end of first year, we write 10 minute musicals. And Theatreworks came and saw the presentations and commissioned me and Robert Elhai to write a children’s musical and find a story. I found Ferdinand the Bull and they tried to get the rights, but that didn’t happen. But I continued to work at children’s theater and decided to do a children’s show on my own. Understood Betsy was published (as a book) 100 years ago but it’s very modern and about a 9-year-old girl who is overprotected by her doting aunts and is a journey to think and act for herself. That led to the Sesame Workshop.
“I also joined BMI’s librettist workshop where I met Jennie (Redling, librettist for MHITD). She was bringing in scenes from My Heart is the Drum and I loved the story. I just want to go where the stories are. If it’s a good story and I haven’t done it before and it grabs me. That’s what I want. I read the early drafts (of MHITD)and loved them.
“(Later,) when I heard that they were looking for a lyricist, I auditioned. African rhythms was a whole new area for me. It was a thrill to become part of that.”
MHITD was presented at Village Theatre Originals summer Festival of New Musicals in 2014. At that time, there was discussion in the talk back about the fact that all three of the writers are white and writing about Ghana. SGS asked how they have handled those comments.
Stacey says, “Yes, it is an issue – how is it three white people are writing the show? (But) it’s not like we picked a country we knew nothing about. Phillip studied drumming in Ghana and he was moved by the music and also the poverty, the economics and came back to the U.S. (he has a degree in international affairs) and got a job doing economic development in South Africa.
“In 2000, he saw the levels of ignorance there about HIV that the U.S. had in the ‘80s. He spent a lot of time in Africa. He has a real grounding.
“We don’t pretend to be experts. We have consistently sought input from Ghanaian people and want to be as respectful as possible and honor these people and their stories.
“(Director) Schele Williams, who is African American, states that she’s also not African. But we all have to work to make sure we’re doing justice to another culture. We’ve all done a lot of research.”
Stacey describes how the three of them worked together to develop the piece. She tells a story about being at a writing retreat together. “There is a very dramatic moment for our heroine in Act Two. Efua is about to be changed forever. We knew we needed a song. What is the character feeling and going through?
“We thought she would be thinking, ‘Hold on, be strong, keep it together.’ We wrote a ‘hold on’ kind of song and it was a big powerful ballad and we performed it at retreat.
“They tore it to shreds. It was too generic. It wasn’t doing anything special or specific.
“We licked our wounds and thought about this particular girl and how she would comfort herself. She can’t take any action, but has to calm herself. Maybe she’s thinking about a good memory that will center her.
“We asked Jennie to write a couple of monologues about memories and she wrote a couple of beautiful memories and it turned into a song called Six Buttons, which is much more specific. Phillip took that and created a six note figure in the melody. We saw where the structure would be, we had a monologue for me to write from and now it’s one of our favorite moments in the show!
“That’s an example of how the three of us worked together. It was thrilling.”
All three are very excited, as one can imagine, about opening night of their world premiere. Stacey says, “Village Theatre has been a wonderful partner in this experience. They have given us such wise guidance and perfect freedom. We’re incredibly fortunate. And there is so much talent here. There’s so much joy in the room, the spirit and energy has been so high. We’re also excited to bring a show that we’ve lived with for so long to the Seattle area community at large. It’s a gift!”
MY HEART IS THE DRUM
Book by Jennie Redling
Music and Concept by Phillip Palmer • Lyrics by Stacey Luftig
A Spirited and Inspiring New Musical
In the small village of Kafrona in Ghana, one spirited young woman is determined to attend university, against all odds. So when her education is denied, she defies her parents and risks everything to set off for the big city. But what awaits her there is more dangerous than she dared imagine, and she finds that more than just her dreams are at stake.
This production marks the exciting World Premiere of My Heart Is the Drum, which was originally selected for Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals in 2014 and was further developed through the Village Originals program. Featuring an award-winning book and score, the musical is rich with inspiring characters and driving African rhythms, woven together in a story that celebrates strength, courage, and the love that sustains us through even the most harrowing of circumstances.
Information: villagetheatre.org www.staceyluftig.com