Kelly Izzo is a recent graduate of the Music Conservatory at SUNY Purchase, where she composed over 2,000 songs. "I told myself when I got to college freshman year, if I'm going to be a writer I need to write, every single day," she recalled. While she hasn't been equally pleased by the results of all of her daily writing sessions — "Some days, I feel like, oh man...that was bad" — She has composed some strikingly memorable music, including the score for Alice Unraveled, her dark electronic musical that is receiving a series of developmental readings at this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Loosely based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Alice Unraveled sends its audience on a psychological journey through the mind of a girl struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after a brutal sexual assault.
NYMF will host three readings, completely free and open to the public. I spoke to Izzo about the piece and her career as a singer-songwriter.
What motivated you to write Alice Unraveled?
It's based on my best friend's story. She went through a really difficult time in high school. She was sexually assaulted during our sophomore year and I saw her life unraveling in front of her. Nobody really believed her about what happened. She lost a lot of friends and had to start over. I wrote this musical to give her a voice, along with so many young women and boys who have had something like this happen to them.
Why do you think nobody believed her?
It's very easy for people to ask the victim of an assault, ‘What situation did you put yourself in?' Or they say, ‘You were asking for it.' People didn't want to believe her. Her attacker was a family friend. They knew this guy and they didn't want to believe he was capable of that. Some people even told her, ‘Even if that did happen, you got yourself there." That was even more shocking to me. It really added to the guilt in her head.
Has your friend seen the show?
Yes. She's seen the previous workshops. I'm really excited for her to come to this one. It's a lot more complete.
Did she offer you any feedback?
She felt validated. She was really emotional and she came up and hugged me and said, ‘Thank you. It's so hard to show people what I'm feeling and you made it such a sad and beautiful experience.' She's come out of it and is starting to heal.
Why did you decide to tell this story with this style of music?
I graduated from SUNY Purchase as a major in studio composition, which is pop songwriting. It's my field. Instead of using a classic musical theater sound, I wanted to take my folk-rock-pop music and weave it into this media. The cool thing about theater is the opportunity for mixed media. It's like a moving painting with a soundtrack. It's really cool.
Many of the songs are based in electronic and dance music. Why were you interested in using that?
My colleague Michael Hart helped me with arrangements. He wrote orchestrations that amped up that electronic feel. It works really well for this. When you're in psychological distress, a lot of the world feels really manufactured and false, and there's this falseness about electronic music. It's man-made, synthesized; you're not really in reality.
You're writing about some very dark subject matter. How do you keep it entertaining?
I definitely don't want people to feel horrible the entire time. Nothing should feel like that. A lot of the characters are very funny. The caterpillar girls are the popular girls in school. There are three of them, but they function as a segment of a caterpillar. They talk in unison and are snobby. Everyone can relate to those girls, who are basically the same girl three times. Then there's the emo loser kid, who had this dark, overdramatic song. That's the mock turtle song. Because it is Alice in Wonderland, when she goes into that section, it's very goofy. It's almost overwhelmingly scary goofy, but it's still laughable.
Is Danielle Izzo, the actress who plays Alice, your sister?
Yes. She's been in all the performances so far. We started it back in college. She's really grown with the role. She's a theater and dance major at SUNY Fredonia. It's really cool to see her progressing as an actress.
Have you always done creative projects together?
Yeah. Our parents were both in theater in college. They direct. I started painting sets for shows when I was eight. We've always played dress-up and run around doing our own plays. Now she's a choreographer, so I'm writing her some dance pieces.
How has your experience been working with NYMF?
It's been so amazing. They set me up with a dramaturg who has been helping me develop the piece. She is really making me pay attention. She's asking me all these hard questions. It's grown so much from her help and with the help of my director David Miller, who is awesome. He's been delving into the piece with me. Everyone at NYMF is so helpful and encouraging for artists. It's a big collection of creative people.
What are you hoping to learn from these three readings?
The people in the cast and at NYMF all know the script. It's very nonlinear and like a puzzle. I'm hoping the audience can follow the emotional ride and not get lost. I want to see their gut reaction. I'm hoping to find ways to make the piece better, because ultimately art is always changing and growing.
Can we ever get to a place as a society where what happened to your friend doesn't happen?
My piece is about compassion. Terrible things happen to a lot of people. It's amazing how many people have come up to me after seeing the show who have related to the story. Bad things are always going to happen, unfortunately, but the more we can be aware of them, the less they will happen. And the more we can be compassionate of people who are struggling, the quicker they will be able to heal. Alice goes through this horrible event; everyone at school rejects her. I want a world in which somebody would reach out to her and take a moment to listen.
Click below to listen to music from Alice Unraveled: