Drummer Gene Lewin and the husband-and-wife team of Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Millburn — known collectively as GrooveLily — are “in a rock band!” At least that’s what they’re singing nightly during the world premiere of Wheelhouse, the trio’s largely autobiographical musical chronicling GrooveLily’s make-or-break early years touring the country in an RV, now being presented by TheaterWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in Palo Alto.
TheaterMania recently spoke to Vigoda about the project, how it differs from their earlier works like Sleeping Beauty Wakes, and Striking 12, and having other actors play themselves.
THEATERMANIA: Were you concerned about writing something this personal?
VALERIE VIGODA: We were a little skittish and nervous about the idea of doing something autobiographical and delving into our own stories. There’s a danger of being a little too precious with yourself. We just didn’t want to go there. We wanted to make sure that anything we would put out into the world would be something people would relate to and not be just about our own narrow experience.
TM: You’ve worked on this for over seven years. Why was there such a long gestation process?
VV: For a while, we had a hard time finding the humor. We were originally writing the show with Rachel Sheinkin, our collaborator fromStriking 12, and she had the instinct to fictionalize it. Then we presented the first act of that version at the New Works Festival at TheatreWorks. It was successful in some ways, in that we could have a whimsical quality to the story. But what we learned from what we did with Rachel is that this really is our story, and it wouldn’t feel like we’re doing it justice if we fictionalized it.
TM: So, how did the show continue to develop?
VV: We put it on the back burner for a while, but Brendan continued to have a little pile of 3×5 cards and he had them up on the wall in our little studio, so whenever we would go up there we would all see them and we’d talk about it. The more time we had away from the events that happened, the more we were able to stop being so self-conscious, stop being so defensive, and really delve into our own foibles and flaws and not protect ourselves. As Brendan said the other day, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy.”
TM: You posted a daily vlog about this production on the GrooveLily website. Was that a step to being less self-conscious?
VV: We keep challenging each other to do things that we’re frightened of and I’ve been very timid and anxious about the whole social media world. This was a challenge for me to just jump in, because of the deadline for Wheelhouse. Now, I just love it. So doing what you’re scared of is good.
TM: All of GrooveLily’s projects are uniquely tailored to your collective talents. As you are creating them, do you consider the future productions that might not involve you directly?
VV: It’s something that is a relatively new idea to us — but one which we are absolutely open to. If you had asked me a few years ago if I could see Striking 12 being done by somebody else, I would have said, “Wow! That’s kind of difficult to imagine.” But now, it has been done by 25-person casts, in high schools, it was done by a three-person cast in Helsinki in Finnish, and it was done by a six-person cast in Albany. I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing one of those productions, but I look forward to the strange disconnected feeling of seeing someone else play me.
TM: Could Wheelhouse be done by other people?
VV: There was actually some question about whether Gene was going to be able to join us for this production, so there was a possibility that we were going to have to audition actors to play Gene. These characters are based on us, but they are exaggerated versions of us in some ways and not entirely like us in some ways too.
TM: So, imagine it’s the second season of Smash and Anjelica Huston is producing Wheelhouse on Broadway. Who does she bring in to play Val, Brendan and Gene?
VV: Oh my, I might have to get back to you on that! Julia Murney? Neil Patrick Harris? Norbert Leo Butz?