Adam Gwon and Julia Jordan: So Many World Premieres — So Little Time
While Bernice Bobs Her Hair in Oklahoma, the writing partners are having a Cake Off in Virginia.
Just this month, musical theater collaborators Adam Gwon (Ordinary Days) and Julia Jordan (Murder Ballad) celebrated the world premiere of their new musical Bernice Bobs Her Hair (adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. A few days later, Gwon and Jordan celebrated the world premiere of their even newer musical Cake Off at Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theatre.
"That wasn't supposed to happen," Jordan joked through her haze of adrenaline and sleep deprivation. "They were supposed to be slightly staggered."
But in the world of musical theater, where getting a production is like finding water in a desert, the pair leaned into their hectic fall calendar of competing rehearsal schedules 1,300 miles apart. In Oklahoma, they've built a world for Fitzgerald's 1920s teenage socialites, while in D.C., they've transformed a ten-minute play about the 1996 Pillsbury Bake-Off into a full-length musical. Aside from their production dates, the pieces could not be more different — though, as the writing partners discussed their busy season of premieres with TheaterMania, Jordan noted one important similarity: "Neither one is Long Day's Journey Into Night. They're both pretty fun."
It's difficult enough to get one production. How does it feel to be juggling two world premieres at the same time?
Adam Gwon: Bernice had been on the books for a while in Oklahoma, so we knew that was happening. And then when the Signature production came along, originally what was planned was that rehearsals would start in August and we'd be up and running in September. And then we knew we were starting rehearsals for Bernice in September, so there's a little bit of overlap but it seemed really manageable.
Julia Jordan: Yeah, I've got kids, so I thought, "That'll be fine. I'll bring my kids with me to D.C., and I'll get some day camps and then I'll bring them back to school. And Bernice is farther along so I'll go for a few visits and it will all be very civilized."
Adam: And then there were some innocuous moments in an email conversation where Joe said, "So when we start rehearsals September first…" There was a panic moment I think across the board…[But] both of the theaters were really accommodating and actually excited to be part of this dual production extravaganza.
Tell me a little bit about how both Bernice Bobs Her Hair and Cake Off came to be.
Julia: Bernice came first. It was the first musical where I'd ever done lyrics. Originally, I was going to do them all by myself but Adam was teaching me as we went and pretty soon I started using some of his suggestions. [laughs] We're cowriting now. But we started that one… seven or eight years ago.
Adam: Julia and I met doing the composer librettist studio at New Dramatists and shortly after that we embarked on this project together. [We've] done probably six or eight readings and workshops at various theaters and universities over the years leading up to this.
Julia: At New Dramatists…Adam was the first person I worked with. I wrote my very first song with him. I knew from that moment — I kind of laid claim.
Where did the idea to adapt Bernice come from?
Julia: It's my favorite short story. It's something I wanted to adapt even before I met Adam. [But] I didn't write songs — I just wrote books — so I was always looking for somebody to be the composer and lyricist. I had a commission from Manhattan Theatre Club, and they said I could do whatever I want so at first I adapted it as a play. I think we've added two scenes since the original. But it was pretty much there, so we had one step forward before we started.
Adam, did you know this short story when Julia came to you with the idea?
Adam: I didn't. Julia sent it to me. The second I read it, I was shocked that no one had turned it into a musical already, because the story is basically Mean Girls. The movie Mean Girls must be based on Bernice Bobs Her Hair, because it's exactly the same. But then also, the whole thing takes place in the world of this country club where all these teenagers are going to these dances, so there's music built into the story. I was shocked that no one had musicalized it before, so I was very committed to discover it.
When did Cake Off come into the picture?
Adam: This was literally the polar opposite story. Joe Calarco, who is directing Cake Off and who also is the New Works Director here at Signature, has worked with both Julia and me pretty closely before. Joe called Julia back in February and said, "Hey, we have a slot for a play. Do you have anything that we should read?"
Julia: "…And if you have a small musical that would be even better."
Adam: And Julia said, "How small?" And Joe said, "Oh, you know, three people." And Julia said, "No, absolutely not, I don't." But we had had this idea to adapt this play called Bake Off, which is written by our third collaborator Sheri Wilner, which was a ten-minute play inspired by the true events of the Pillsbury Bake-Off. For a couple years we had been batting around this idea of adapting it into a big Broadway-style, huge-ensemble, big-dance-numbers kind of musical, and hadn't quite cracked the way into it yet, because it was such a small story. When this call from Signature came, I think a lightbulb went off in Julia's head and she said, "Wait a minute, what if instead of a big Broadway spectacular, we [keep] the spirit of it really small and stick with the three characters in the original story?" So we pitched that to Signature and Signature said, "If you can write it, we'll start rehearsals September first." We sort of took the plunge, wrote a draft really quickly, and did a twenty-nine-hour workshop at the end of the summer.
Julia: The conversation started in February, and we already had stuff that we had to do and finish and organize. So we actually didn't start writing until the end of May.
Adam: It's been really quick.
Now that you can compare them side by side, do you have a preference for quick projects like Cake Off or long-drawn-out projects like Bernice?
Julia: Long [and] drawn-out is far more pleasant. [laughs] There's not as much freaking out.
Adam: Both have been very similar, just much more condensed in the Signature process. With Bernice, we would do a reading and then take a few months to think about it and write a new song and put it in and hear it at the next reading. On this one, there will literally be a stretch of four days where we talk about a song, write a song, I send the song to Julia, we immediately identify it as not the right song, talk about what the other song has to be, and rewrite the new song.
Julia: There's been a lot of Ambien.
Adam: With [Bernice], Julia and I have a really strong sense of that show. With [Cake Off], because the piece was so brand-new to everyone — the designers, the director, the actors, even the theater — we've all been discovering the piece at the same time.
Julia: Everybody says, "The best idea wins." But it takes time to try all the ideas until you figure out which one is the best. If you don't have all the time in the world, there are a lot of guesses — and a jump.