Eric Rosen and Matt Sax aren't quite sure how they got here. Both alums of the Northwestern University performance studies program and neither a trained musician, their arrival in the world of musical theater was an understandable surprise. Yet after coming together through a mutual college mentor, Rosen and Sax find themselves preparing for the New York premiere of their second musical project: an Othello-inspired futuristic hip-hop musical entitled Venice.

Rosen and Sax's first collaboration was a piece called Clay, a one-man hip-hop musical that Sax both composed and starred in off-Broadway for LCT3 in 2008. Venice utilizes the same hip-hop foundation but includes a fully orchestrated score, composed in collaboration with Curtis Moore for a complete ensemble cast.

During a break from rehearsal, the pair took some time to speak with TheaterMania about the show's six-year journey to New York through several workshops in Kansas City and Los Angeles, as well as the fan club of 60-year-old women it picked up along the way.

Creators of the Public Theater's new hip-hop musical <i>Venice</i>, Matt Sax and Eric Rosen.
Creators of the Public Theater's new hip-hop musical Venice, Matt Sax and Eric Rosen.
(© Tammy Shell)

You both have been working on this project for several years. When did it come about and what got you started?
ER: The commission came in November of 2007. It was [November], one year before Obama was elected…[when] it wasn't clear that he was going to be the nominee, it made us think of Othello in terms of a perceived "one of us, one of them" leader emerging. That seemed very Obama-like…We knew it would be something about hip-hop and we talked about it being something about the future and about politics and love and romance — and something big because Clay is a one-person show in which Matt played eight characters and was very lonely onstage so we thought we'd get him some friends. [both laugh]

How closely related to Othello is Venice?
ER: A lot of the play is inspired by the ideas in Othello but not the story of Othello, so [if] people come thinking they're seeing a hip-hop Othello they'd be very confused. [laughs] It just took on its own life and is much more inspired by world events in the last five years like the Arab Spring and Egypt and the Israel-Palestine conflict and Sarajevo — various places in the world where both terrorism and tyranny have combined to lead to oppression and then rebellion leads to…a fight for peace.

MS: The thing that Eric says often times is that we've created an adaptation of a novel that we've written that never existed [Laughs].

Neither of you guys started your careers in musical theater, so how did you end up here?
ER: In my career, I didn't think I'd be working on musicals. I just kept noticing that I was doing plays… I had this theater company in Chicago for many years called About Face Theatre and I noticed that the original work that I was doing…music kept creeping into it as a way to heighten emotion. I kept saying they were "music theater events" or "performance concerts" — anything but a "musical." Finally, I was in the middle of adapting a novel called Winesburg, Ohio for Steppenwolf and I realized, "Oh my God, it's a musical!" [Laughs]

MS: I grew up here in New York. I love musical theater. I think there's a transformational quality to musical theater that doesn't exist in straight plays. Your whole heart is different when you leave a musical, or at least that possibility is there. For me, when I saw Les Miz or when I saw Rent or Hedwig I walked out and I wasn't the same afterwards. It's some combination of music and story [that] combines to create something that I believe is very transformational. While Eric and I weren't necessarily musical theater guys, we both believe in that transformational quality of music and of music married to storytelling.

Are there any particular musicals you took inspiration from during the writing process?
MS: The thing that is hip-hop about this show is the sampling aesthetic — the ability to take an impulse from here and an impulse from here and another impulse from here and put it together to create something new. So I think perhaps we did take moments or things we liked about certain musicals that we both enjoy but also from this bit of Shakespeare, this bit of the Arab Spring, this bit of a Mos Def song, and put it together to make something new… those impulses of course are coming from all over the place and that in and of itself is hip-hop or sampling-esque.

ER: We never really sat down and said, "You know that great moment in that show? Why don't we have a song like that?" With Matt, from a composition perspective instead of with melody, he starts with rhythms and beats. We said, "okay, we've got this problem in the story, what does it sound like to you, Matt?" and he'll come in with five or six different samples of beats that he's made and I'll go "oh, that feels like the character!" Our characters start with rhythm and our stories start from rhythm and that would turn into a chorus…In the first couple of years we were working on this, we didn't know the plot [Laughs]…Really, there was no formal plan for how it got written until people were suddenly going to pay money to come see a workshop. [Laughs]

Did audiences react to the show differently in L.A. than they did in Kansas City?
ER: It's the coolest thing that's ever happened in Kansas City [Laughs] and people loved it! I think people would assume that a Midwestern audience wouldn't take to this but in fact it was a monstrous hit. And our key audience was women in their sixties and teenagers. When we took it to L.A., I thought it was going to have a different vibe [but] it just was…not exactly the same, but very close. Even week by week, how the audience changed and grew was so similar in L.A. as it was in Kansas City.

Are there any specific audience reactions that you remember?
ER: It's so great when the show's over and you hear forty people singing the songs from the show as they're walking out of the theater. That's a testament to the quality of Matt's composition…It's the style of writing that gets into your body.

MS: Eric would watch it every night from the audience and I'd watch it every night from the stage (Matt plays the narrative role of the Clown as well) and we'd compare notes. Like, "Did you see that woman? Man, she was really sucking on an oxygen tank," or "oh my god — that girl was so into it!" but the thing that has been really exciting about this show has been that it feels like a show for the people. It has been a show that people have really rallied around and have projected themselves upon so they felt like it was their show. That's an amazing feeling.

Matt, is it true you can't read music?
ER: He can sorta read music. MS: I know when the notes are going up and when the notes are going down. [Laughs] I was never trained formally in music. I actually started beat-boxing first, 'cause I was like, "oh, I can make sounds with my mouth." I was always so drawn to hip-hop and wanted to be involved in the culture in some capacity. So I started beat-boxing and then I got this program [for my computer] called Reason and started to make beats and then I started to rap. That was the process by which we made Clay together and then we kind of transferred that over: What would it look like if I took those same beats and we started writing melodic lines over it? What would it be like if we gave it to an orchestrator and had him vocally orchestrate those choruses so that they all of a sudden could live in the mouths of thirteen people?

Is it daunting writing a musical without any formal training?
MS: Both Eric and I have had the support to encourage us to say, you know what, you can do this even though you aren't trained musical theater people… Now, you know what, you say that I can't read music? No, but we can make music.

ER: And a lot of it [Laughs].

MS: I don't know that we would have been able to say that at the beginning of this process.

ER: I think if we had known that this was going to be our outcome, we might have been smart enough to be scared. [Laughs]