By Francesca Paris
“I think my weird might be weirder than yours,” sings Hannah Miller in Don’t Stop Me, Youth Musical Theater Company’s (YMTC) first original musical. The song, like the show itself, explores the high-school experience: the insecurity, powerlessness and pressure that can come with being a teenager in the generation that is coming of age today.
We’re at the rehearsals in YMTC’s new Aquatic Park space in Berkeley, and it’s just over a week before the curtains part on opening night. Actors are running through the second act of the show, which finally has a complete script, while members of the creative team – the directors, the playwright and the composer – jot down notes on the Google Doc that contains the script. They stop the performance at least once or twice a minute to make adjustments.
The two-year-long project is culminating into what promises to be a coherent and compelling production. The show’s script is technically “locked,” but that doesn’t stop Dave Malloy, former YMTC Director and award-winning Broadway composer, and playwright Krista Knight, from changing a phrase or adding a couple bars of music before the show hits the stage.
As Director Jennifer Boesing puts it: “Krista and Dave would keep changing it till the opening night if they had their way.”
Don’t Stop Me is a dark musical at the center of which is a fantastical Dance-a-Thon where students are pitted against each other for a shot at “The Prize.” The competition takes the high schoolers through time and space, from a 1920s Speakeasy to a dystopian future. Winning means everything they’ve ever wanted; losing means death.
The show’s roots trace back to Malloy’s time at YMTC, where he was a musical director from 2006 to 2008 and again in 2009, when the company was playing with the idea of creating an original work, he said. A few years ago the proposal became more concrete, as Boesing asked Malloy if he had any interest in crafting a new piece for YMTC. He agreed enthusiastically but felt strongly about picking the writer, according to Boesing.
That’s where Knight came into the picture. In the summer of 2011, Knight, a Bay Area native playwright, saw YMTC’s Jesus Christ Superstar and was both impressed and interested in how dark the piece was for young adult theater. She approached YMTC to ask if the theater would consider new work and was directed to Malloy.
By then Malloy had moved to New York City after a decade in the Bay Area. Though his career had taken off with the award-winning musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, he was still interested in the project. Serendipitously, Knight was working half the time in New York as well. The two met for coffee and talked over a handful of ideas, among which was a Dance-a-Thon to the death that would ultimately become Don’t Stop Me.
As they began to flesh out the idea two years ago, Malloy and Knight knew they wanted the show to be written not just for young adults, but also with them.
“We thought we should really talk to teenagers and find out what they want to see,” Malloy said. “What they’re hungry for.”
Malloy, Knight and Boesing launched into a series of workshops with teenagers to discover what high schoolers had to say about high school. The first workshop took place over a weekend where students answered writing prompts and talked about the issues
Knight remembers asking about bullying during a brainstorming session. “Bullying?” one teenager answered. “It’s school that bullies us.”
Much of the plot and the characters came from that initial workshop but would be refined over the next year and a half through more workshops, with this summer targeted as the production time. The script came together slowly and piece by piece, as the plot and the characters evolved with each iteration.
“Having the teens’ voices kept the show fresh and nuanced,” Knight said, “and made it so the characters didn’t feel pedantic.”
The changes continued even after actors had been cast and rehearsals started at the beginning of the summer.
“Doing a new show is hard,” said Hannah Miler, who plays Tye, a punk lesbian with intimacy issues who is one of the show’s two protagonists, “because as an actor, you have to memorize your lines, and with all the script changes it’s a little bit like sitting in a car and getting whiplash.” She added with a grin: “But I love it.”
For Miller and the rest of the cast, the chance to be a fundamental part of the show’s evolution from idea to performance-ready script was more than worth the endless hours of memorizing and re-memorizing. Like many in the cast, Miller took part in some of the workshops, during her junior and senior year – she just graduated from College Prepatory School – volunteering her own high-school experiences and discussing the challenges faced by teenagers.
“You can relate to each of the characters because they’re people you’ve seen and people you’ve been in high school,” Miller said.
Sophia Sinsheimer, who plays Tye’s girlfriend, Grace, was also a part of the show from its inception. She says she can relate to the constant pressure to be the best that is at the heart of the show because she herself felt it through high school. Now that she has just finished her first year at Northwestern University, she is trying to “unpack” much of her own high-school experience, and finds parts of the show very true to her own experience.
Caitlin Cobb-Vialet plays Harper, a “super motivated mean girl,” who hopes the Dance-a-Thon will be her big break.
“For the characters in the show, the Dance-a-Thon is important because they feel absolutely powerless,” Cobb-Vialet said. “Harper feels like she has no power in the world, which is how I felt in high school too, so I can connect to that.”
For Cobb-Vialet, who is a rising sophomore at New York University, YMTC was the safe space that got her through much of high school, and she was excited to return for Don’t Stop Me – especially because she was familiar with Malloy’s work before she knew she would have a chance to work with him.
“I get nervous working with him,” she admitted. “We’re very lucky to have him, and Krista [Knight]. They’re so flexible, which is a huge thing about being an artist.” She said that she thinks art is fundamentally about “having a vision and sharing it and watching it grow into something you never imagined” and that Malloy and Knight share her vision.
The “coolest” moment Sinsheimer had in the whole process, she said, was when she heard Grace’s solo for the first time and found that much of it came from the character bio Knight had asked them to write for their characters.
“It rang true to me and to Grace,” she said, “and now there are bits and pieces of me in that character!”
Sinsheimer can also see herself in the solo that Malloy composed for Miller’s character. “My Weird” is about the feeling of being an outsider, and the “complicated concept of being afraid of yourself,” which echoes for many of the characters and their actors – even Malloy himself.
“The song channels how I felt in high school: like an oddball and outsider,” Malloy said. Though the technology being used by the production to convey the high-schoolers’ emotions, including a backdrop of projected and live video, is very modern, the feelings are the same as those he once experienced, Malloy said. “As a teen I remember feeling like my parents couldn’t possibly understand. Now that I’m an adult, I think the general emotional content is timeless.”
Don’t Stop Me opens tonight, Friday July 17, at the Malonga Casquelourd Theater in Oakland (at 1428 Alice St.) and runs through July 26. For information, tickets and performance dates, visit YMTC Berkeley online.
Francesca Paris, a summer 2015 reporting intern at Berkeleyside, is a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, MA.
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