Date: Late July
Place: An echo-y rehearsal hall at the end of a long day
It was one of our first complete run-throughs of Becoming Britney. Putting the pieces together had been a stressful rush since May 4th when we received our acceptance letter from The New York International Fringe Festival, and we were just over a week from departing for New York, where we would stay the month of August. Our song “Here I’ll Be” is the 11 o’clock number, an anthem of self-acceptance. As I listened I was overcome. My sister had recently passed away … I was roughly navigating through the 1st year of my gender transition … and we were about to wing off to NYC to open this quirky show we had willed into existence with sheer let’s-put-on-a-show energy. The strong, harmonizing voices of our wonderful cast touched me deeply, and I wept while also vibrating with excitement.
My collaboration with Molly Bell grew out of our twin desires to find a way to remain active in theatre when our individual life courses pulled us away from performing. Despite the love I felt for my years as a song & dance man, my lifelong gender identity needed to be recognized and acted upon. I would retire from performing in order to start my gender transition, and focus my creativity elsewhere.
Concurrently, Molly was pregnant with her first child and would need to temporarily suspend her own acting career. We were already heading toward the logical conclusion of writing together, having learned at the feet of very talented people at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in many of their New Work Festivals and Writer’s Retreats, where we helped give voice to the new works of a wide variety of composer/playwrights. At one point, during a rehearsal of yet another staged reading, Molly leaned over and whispered to me “We could do this, right?”
When we first sat down to write, we planned a revue. One of Molly’s sketch ideas was a My Fair Lady spoof, replacing the Higgins and Pickering characters with creative consultants who would attempt to mold a young woman into the next Britney Spears. One afternoon Molly phoned to say she thought we could take this one sketch and expand it into a full-length musical. We sharpened our pencils and dove in.
As we considered the best starting place, I pointed out we needed an “I want” song (sometimes called an “I need” song). This type of song has always been the one from any musical which thrills me most, tuneful songs of yearning that are my favorite flavors of ear candy. Also, this would help us define our heroine’s quest. Molly offered a first verse, a meta examination of what kind of song this song was supposed to be. I came in with a chorus, and together we built an “I want” song about Britney’s desire to find an “I want” song called “My I Want Song”. From there, it was blazingly obvious we were writing a self-aware piece of theatre, a metatheatrical and sentimental joke about musical theatre itself using Britney Spears’ public story as a structure.
Two things people always want to know about our musical Becoming Britney:
1) This is a musical with completely original show tunes, along with multiple character acting challenges. It’s not a concert, but a full-fledged piece, filled with fun references to many other shows, a musical theatre geek’s dream.
2) No, we do not know if Britney herself knows about it. We think she’d approve because her character is our sympathetic heroine and she wins in the end.
Back in the rehearsal room, I wiped my tears away, proud of what we were about to unleash on the world. We found a way to honor and imitate what we admired while creating something that was purely us. Our experience at New York Fringe would be stellar with sold out houses and lines out the door, as would be the two additional productions we would mount in the Bay Area in the coming couple years with me directing and Molly starring, just as we had in the original Fringe production (Molly also won a Best Actress award for portraying Britney in NYC). But this moment, in that echo-y rehearsal room, we reveled in relief. And, thankfully, I had enough Kleenex.