Believing against all odds

Like many of you, my collaborator Zev Burrows and I have made a huge leap of faith: believing that, despite all the odds, our original new musical The Pledge has a chance of getting produced. We know that in order to make that lofty goal a reality we have to be proactive, submitting to as many festivals and competitions that our musical with a cast of eight is eligible for.

Mark Evan Chimsky and Zev Burrows

Mark Evan Chimsky and Zev Burrows

The Pledge is the story of a college freshman who is hazed while pledging a fraternity and almost dies of alcohol poisoning. He refuses to accept hush money to stay silent about what happened and instead tells his story – by speaking out, he finds his own voice and himself.

Soon after finishing the first draft of the musical: the opening number, “Check the Boxes,” was chosen for the New York Musical Festival’s “Breaking Ground” concert in the summer of 2018 and in September 2018 it received a staged reading at the Sitting Shotgun theater company in Brooklyn, New York.

When we were notified on February 15, 2019 that The Pledge had been chosen out of all the submissions for the James Madison University School of Theatre and Dance’s Madison New Works Lab (MNWL), we were elated. After the Brooklyn reading we did extensive revisions and we thought our musical was ready for prime time. We knew we were going to a lab but what really needed to be fixed?

We were about to find out.

The first days at the Madison New Works Lab (MNWL)

I arrived in Harrisonburg, Virginia for the first week of the lab on May 19.  Because of other work commitments, Zev joined us for the second week. As the book writer and lyricist, I had no idea what to expect. This was my first lab. I had read about other venues that helped develop new musicals, but there was little to read about MNWL; it had only recently debuted, presenting a staged reading of one play and one musical in 2018.

The Pledge rehearsal

The cast rehearses the opening number, “Check the Boxes,” for the first time in Recital Hall

The lab began as a collaborative effort that included Rubén Graciani, the director of James Madison University’s School of Theatre and Dance, and JMU faculty Kate Arecchi, Ingrid De Sanctis, and Joshua Streeter, with support from Jonathan Stewart. The mission of the Madison New Works Lab is to incubate new musicals and plays, giving students and the creative team the opportunity to work together to bring a new work to life on one of the stages of the impressive Forbes Center for the Performing Arts.

Madison New Works Lab put me up in a duplex apartment on the grounds of James Madison University, which is a picture-postcard campus. I settled in, with my script, my computer, and the notion that we’d make some tweaks but that I would spend the ten days leading up to the staged reading watching the actors rehearsing.

Note to self: Be prepared for extensive rewrites.

Day One taught me that nothing would be further from the truth. From the start, our awesome director Kate Arecchi took charge, having the actors do a table read of the script and then asking them for feedback. That’s when I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

It was truly one of the most exciting days of my life (to be followed by more such days) in which five student actors, one recent JMU graduate, and two Actors’ Equity performers brought in from New York dug deep inside the script to identify such granular issues as where a line went wrong (a fraternity brother would not say “your dad’s rich” but “your dad’s making bank,” for instance, or why would an outspoken character say “frigging” instead of using the f-bomb?).  As a professional editor and adjunct college instructor I discovered my passion for writing musicals in 2013, so I was more than happy to have college students educate me about how my characters would actually speak.”
~Mark Evan Chimsky, book writer and lyricist of The Pledge

Soon Kate, along with our astute assistant director Hunter Carrico and insightful stage manager Dustyn Wyatt Bain, had us jumping to more macro-concerns. For example, the relationship between Jamie, the college freshman who is hazed, and his girlfriend Em wasn’t clearly defined. Were they a couple or best friends who were in the process of becoming something more?  Why did they seem so generic at times? And why did Jamie’s mother seem to show only intermittent signs of strength, more subservient than a woman in her mid-thirties would probably be, a throwback to a “type” that was thankfully outdated?

I discovered, perhaps because of my years as an editor, that it was stimulating to have the tables turned, to have others offer helpful suggestions that would spark new ideas and inspire me to throw out entire scenes, add new ones, and develop my characters with a specificity they had not had before.

Madison New Works Lab - The Pledge Jamie (Josh Polk) and Mom (Meghan Greene)

Jamie (Josh Polk) and Mom (Meghan Greene) in The Pledge at Madison New Works Lab

Keeping up with daily script revisions

For the first week of the Madison New Works Lab, I would get up at my usual time (5:00 a.m.) and begin revising and creating scenes that I had never even dreamed would be part of the script. By 10:00 a.m. I had to finish so I could send the newly revised script (for that day!) to stage manager Dustyn, who made sure all the actors had it in time for rehearsals at 10:30 a.m. We followed this process every morning.

As the week progressed, the relationship between Jamie and Em began to crystallize and became the heart of the show; Jamie’s mom began to have greater agency, a woman in her own right. The most radical change of all occurred at the beginning of Act Two. Act One closes with the hazing of Jamie by his fraternity brothers, a scene that begins with casual jokes and ultimately turns menacing, erupting in anger and violence.

Kate and the cast noted that the three fraternity brothers, who were so central to the musical, were underutilized in Act Two. So, I wrote a whole new opening for the second act and Zev and I wrote a brand-new song, in which we see the fraternity brothers scrambling to do damage control, not sure if Jamie has survived, blaming each other for the “bad thing” that has occurred.

In a musical that examines toxic masculinity, this scene shows what happens when these young men are confronted with the consequences of their own actions.

Tackling musical changes

Right before Zev joined me for the second week of the lab, Kate and our amazing music director Valerie Maze felt that the mother’s song in Act One, in which she shows support for her son, was just not working. I had written it as a hybrid lyric – in which the mom encourages Jamie but also reveals her own deep-seated anger at the way she has been treated by her husband. The song was too strident and the actress playing mom (who has an awesome soprano voice) was struggling with its dissonant sections that would have been a daunting challenge for any singer.

In a few hours on Sunday, I wrote a new lyric, sent it to Zev, and when he arrived at MNWL on Monday morning he played the song for all of us – the gorgeous melody was perfect and audiences later called it one of the highlights of the musical.

The second week was full of intense rewrites as Zev worked with Valerie and Kate on changing tempos and notes, revising and refining almost every one of the musical’s eighteen songs. Zev, open to the constructive feedback of Kate, Valerie, and the actors, spent the next few days hard at work, barely getting enough sleep as he got the score into shape.

The Madison New Works Lab Workshop Performance

Our talented, hardworking cast put their hearts and souls into their roles: Josh Polk inhabiting the role of Jamie with sensitivity and vulnerability, Kathleen Laura Halverson giving Em an inner depth and compassion, Meghan Greene providing Jamie’s mom with steadfast strength, Rob Condas finding the humanity behind the gruff exterior of Jamie’s dad, Ross Neal giving the role of the fraternity benefactor, Bucky Danner, the right mix of panache and predatory smarminess, Michael Fobian fearlessly plumbing the depths of fraternity president Logan Trotter’s dark side, Noah Heie conveying the humor and insecurity of stoner Guy Weatherby, and  Levin Valayil raising the roof with his exuberant and heartfelt performance as fraternity brother Adam DuVernay. It was exhilarating to watch them bring the characters to life in exciting ways before a live audience for two nights – all the rigorous work had been worth it.

Madison New Works Lab - Second night talkback with audience (left to right): Zev Burrows (composer), Mark Evan Chimsky (book writer and lyrics), Kate Arecchi (director), and Kathleen Laura Halverson (Em)

Second night talkback with audience (left to right): Zev Burrows (composer), Mark Evan Chimsky (book writer and lyrics), Kate Arecchi (director), and Kathleen Laura Halverson (Em)
Photo credit: Henry Saas

The audience response was enthusiastic, and Zev and I joined the cast for an audience talkback after each performance. Their questions and comments gave us the sense that all the revisions we had made had strengthened and tightened the show and that its core message – to speak out against any kind of abuse – had resonated with them.

“The Madison New Works Lab was by far the most exciting and stimulating creative environment I’ve yet been a part of, at the age of twenty-five. In the two-week workshop of The Pledge, I learned more about how to work with a team and how that team responds to a work-in-progress than I had seen before, and it has strengthened the show in ways I never imagined. Seeing and hearing my music paired with Mark’s beautiful lyrics come to life for an audience was thrilling and scary at the same time, and I am enormously grateful to the JMU School of Theatre and Dance for providing us with this opportunity.”
~Zev Burrows, composer of The Pledge

Madison New Works Lab Official Pledge cast photo

Official cast photo (front row, left to right): Zev Burrows (composer), Mark Evan Chimsky (book writer and lyrics), Kate Arecchi (director), Levin Valayil (Adam), Kathleen Laura Halverson (Em), Meghan Greene (Mom), Valerie Maze (music director); (back row, left to right): Michael Fobian (Logan), Josh Polk (Jamie), Noah Heie (Guy), Dustyn Wyatt Bain (stage manager), Ross Neal (Bucky), Hunter Carrico (assistant stage manager), Rob Condas (Dad)

What’s next for us? More submissions to competitions, festivals, and theater companies – and yes, we’re sure, even more changes and creative fine-tuning along the way!

Please check out our website, and sign up for updates on The Pledge!

Photo at top of page: Hunter Carrico