Friday, July 12, 2019

"Everything is Okay (And Other Helpful Lies)" at the New York Musical Festival

For my daughter’s sixteenth birthday I promised her a weekend getaway to New York. We travel, our family travels a little, but she’s halfway through her high school years and I am not getting any younger. Taking a special trip, just the two of us, it seemed like something I would later regret not having done.

We have a freewheeling itinerary, which includes visiting schools, art museums and galleries up and down Manhattan, conditioning runs in Central Park (she for the soccer season, me for the Chicago Marathon) and who knows, maybe a show or two.

Saturday evening we’re going to Playwrights Horizons in Times Square to attend reading of Everything Is Okay (And Other Helpful Lies) by Melissa T. Crum and Caitlin Lewins, presented as part of the New York Musical Festival (NYMF).

This is particularly exciting to me, to get the opportunity to see this work. Missy and Caitlin are good friends and colleagues, Cleveland artists, and talented, rising playwrights. I have had the chance to watch this piece grow and grow at Cleveland Public Theatre, where they teamed up as Nord Family Playwright Fellows to first create this works as song cycle at Pandemonium and Entry Point, further develop it at Test Flight (I missed that one) and then receive a full production on the mainstage last fall.

Everything is Okay is a Millennial musical, chronicling two days (or nights?) in the lives of a cohort of twenty-somethings, slouching towards thirty, trying their damnedest to smile bravely through disillusionment, disappointment, and death, armed with wit, attitude, and a lot of alcohol.

What is truly impressive is how they’ve continued to shape and develop this musical. Everything is Okay has the potential for great things; it’s an urgent, contemporary work which speaks directly to the young adult generation with candor, understanding, and a great deal of humor. And the music is really good!

Having raised the necessary cash through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign and other individual donors and investors, they created a professional demo for the application to NYMF, and for their efforts received a space with nine other musicals to receive readings, directed, musical directed and performed by Equity members. For ten days, Caitlin and Missy have been present for rehearsals but also spending a great deal of time revising the work and providing daily updates to the company.

“It is crazy and beautiful and eye-opening just being writers,” Missy said. For each previous step of this journey, she and Caitlin had doubled as performers. Now they get to take it in.

I talked to them by phone Thursday morning, after they had each slept in for the first time since before Independence Day. Their first performance was Wednesday afternoon, and they unwound that night at Marie’s Crisis, a piano bar where musical theater fans gather and spend the night singing showtunes together.

“It’s like hanging out with your old high school friends,” said Missy, and I can dig it.

Just getting them on the line I had to make an appointment, as they have been rushing about, from rehearsal space to their Airbnb to various writing warrens and back again.

Caitlin, who has been to New York before and has acted as navigator and tour guide for Melissa, who hasn’t. Making their way to the rehearsal space in Times Square in ninety degree heat can dizzying and exhausting, but Caitlin has kept reminding Missy to look up. “Look! It’s Waitress!” she says.

They are intensely grateful for all of the support they have received, at home, from CPT, from all of the artists they are working with this week, especially Chloe Treat (director), Dan Garmon (musical director), Olivia Mancini (stage manager) and all the performers, with their “talented, amazing, incredible voices.” (That’s both of them saying all of that.)

One of the most significant things they have heard this week was from NYMF (pronounced “nymph”) Artistic Director, West Hyler. He remarked that Caitlin and Missy have made a musical that feels like a documentary. It’s a comment which struck them significantly, and which they carry with them. They’re in a unique position, having already had a full production, and getting to break it down and build it up again.

They have already received feedback from Wednesday’s performance, much of it supportive and helpful, though there remains this unfortunate generational divide over the content. They received such criticism in Cleveland. Christine Howey went on a tear in Scene Magazine, accusing the production of “taking navel-gazing to new heights,” wildly mixing metaphors as she bemoaned the kids these days and their focus on personal issues rather than more important things like school shootings and plastic waste in the sea.

This, from the generation who gave us The Big Chill. And plastic waste in the sea. They said the same things about we Gen Xers twenty years ago, and we’re still trying to figure it out.

“Superficial,” came one piece of written feedback from the other night. “That’s me!” said another.

Musicals with heart and empathy like Everything is Okay help us all feel less alone. And that, my friends, is the opposite of selfish.

The New York Musical Festival presents "Everything is Okay (and Other Helpful Lies)" at Playwrights Horizons in NYC through Saturday, July 13, 2019.

(Photos courtesy of Caitlin & Missy.)

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