Sure, Sheffer--the founder and director of New York's Eos Orchestra--spent most of his career as a distinguished classical music composer and conductor. And, yes, Sheffer has created scores for several of Hollywood's biggest films (Interview with the Vampire, Heat, Batman Forever). But Renick had also heard "Hundreds of Hats," Sheffer's excellent collaboration with the late Howard Ashman (an Academy Award-winning lyricist, and Renick's best friend) for the baseball-themed musical review Diamonds.
With that song in mind, Renick approached Sheffer to see if the two could work together on a WPA project. The answer from Sheffer was an unequivocal "yes"--that is, if Sheffer could come up with a suitable project. "Jonathan called me very shortly after our conversation," Renick remembers. "He said he had an idea for a musical theater adaptation of Gertrude Stein's novella Blood on the Dining Room Floor. Of course, I just loved the title. So, he set out to create the libretto and to write the music."
Blood on the Dining Room Floor is based on Stein's account of the mysterious events that take place in the summer of 1933 at a country house in Western France. Supplementing her text are excerpts of "Murder in the Kitchen" from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Stein encounters servants who behave strangely, sabotaged cars, and three crimes while on holiday with her companion, Toklas. To top it all off, Stein is suffering from a bad case of writer's block.
"In some ways, the texture of the piece reminds me of those little books of Edward Gorey from the 1980s," Renick says, "in the sense that there is always something odd going on just outside your periphery. If you turned really fast, you'd see somebody turning. You don't know exactly what's going on."
Sheffer's libretto and music for Blood on the Dining Room Floor went through a couple of workshops, including the Guggenheim Works In Process program. His efforts eventually earned Sheffer the 1999 Richard Rogers Award of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. "I did hear some of the work orchestrated at the Guggenheim," Renick says. "There, Jonathan hosted a nearly 30 minute talk on how he had selected various phrases from Gertrude Stein's book for his libretto. Then they did a fully orchestrated version of the last couple of scenes. It sounded absolutely wonderful."
Because the story is told only through music and song, Blood on the Dining Room Floor could be considered an opera. Renick, however, regards it just as much as a musical theater piece, since his goal in presenting the work was to make it theatrical. To this end, Renick decided that Sheffer's work needed a director based in the theatrical community. Enter Jeremy Dobrish, the artistic director of the adobe theatre company [sic].
Renick's choice of Dobrish was not a surprise. Over the past few years, adobe has received a lot of attention for its productions. And, every once in a while, Renick would get a call from someone who would recommend that Dobrish and he should meet. (Ironically, it had also been suggested to Dobrish that he should meet Renick.) Finally, the artistic director approached the director about joining forces for Blood on the Dining Room Floor.
"Jeremy was very interested, but was not sure why I wanted him to do it,' Renick relates. "He said that he had never seen an opera, let alone directed one. I had to assure him that was exactly what I was looking for."
Experimentation on a production like this one is nothing new to Renick and the WPA Theatre. The not-for-profit, Off-Broadway company is dedicated to the development and production of new American plays and musicals. Renick re-founded the WPA in 1976 with Craig Evans, Edward Gianfrancesco, Stephen G. Wells, Stuart White, and Ashman after the original company went out of business that same year. Since then, the WPA has produced more than 90 plays and musicals, including such hits as Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken's Little Shop of Horrors, Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias, and Tom Topor's Nuts. The company received a special 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Achievement, and has launched the careers of such eventual celebrities as Sandra Bullock and Paul Rudnick.
How does the WPA go about choosing a new play? Renick, who claimed at one time to have a bunch of formulas, generally bases his decision on the answer to a single question: "Would I want to sit in the theater and watch it, even if I thought that it's not my idea to do the production?" He says that he thinks of theater as "a continuing exploration of humanity's need to band together for various purposes. By that, I mean a continuing exploration of the idea of family. And by family, I don't just mean 'nuclear family'; I mean 'extended family' as a group, and society as a whole." Renick says that many of the plays the WPA has done over the years focus on that subject. Often, the lead characters' conflicts arise when they find an extraordinary set of circumstances getting in the way of their search for some aspect of family life. How the characters handle that adversity is often a central theme in WPA productions.
While the company has mostly focused on new American work, it has occasionally revived lesser-known works by major writers. Most recently, the WPA presented the first New York revival of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carre, which actually prompted a critical reappraisal of the play. Renick regards this as one of the company's finest achievements.
Renick is currently in the final stages of securing the next two productions of the season, but has yet to release any information ("I don't want to jinx them," he jokes). Right now, he's concentrating on Blood on the Dining Room Floor. What can audiences expect from this theatrical experience? According to Renick, they should look forward to an evening that is both fun and mysterious, as Gertrude and Alice try to comprehend--and to keep up--with the events unfolding in front of them.
"The first reading of the libretto was very funny," Renick says. "So I'm hoping that the audience will want to take this odd voyage with the strange people who gather at Alice and Gertrude's house on this particular day."