Inaugurating Beginning Stages, a first-time venture for National Sawdust that emphasizes some of the earliest steps in the development of a musical-theater work, composer/producer TJ Armand and lead producer Carl Paiva took part in a week-long residency Sept. 26-30, which included open rehearsals, talk-backs, and a concert reading of Sama: An American Requiem, Armand’s timely new musical, set during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. With another concert reading coming up at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Armand and Paiva checked in with a progress report.
ZACH PEREZ: Talk to me about your preparation for your open workshop at National Sawdust, from the casting to the drafting of the piece, and how it might have differed from past workshops you have conducted.
TJ ARMAND: First of all, we had a ball – it was fantastic working up to the week at National Sawdust. We really loved the prep period that led to the residency. It requires a lot of general management work, the putting together of everything from assistant director to band to casting director. All told, it took about three months, even with this show having a history in its second year of development.
It had gone through a few of these stages all to the benefit of myself as the composer and writer. Daniel Goldstein [director, Godspell] had helped as a dramaturge in the past to put the story into a particular order, and even directed an earlier reading. A little industry secret is that the natural stage for any of this is a private lab or workshop before an off-Broadway or out of town tryout. The development time that Sama took would be necessary for any show entering the Beginning Stages residency at National Sawdust.
In terms of our production, the meeting with [NS creative and executive director] Paola Prestini and [NS board vice president] Jill Steinberg took place about a year ago, one year into the development. We knew this would be the first musical to develop in this way at National Sawdust and, with enormous thanks to Carl, we were able to present NS as a venue for this type of development. People in the Broadway circle hadn’t necessarily heard of this venue yet, but I knew this venue was one not defined by a specific style of music. In particular, what was wonderful about it was the fabulous acoustics of the hall, and just seeing what that space can do for a musical lets me know there is fantastic potential for this program to continue to work.
CARL PAIVA: I just wanted to add the company went above and beyond the call of duty in hosting us. Everyone from the tech team, to the artist liaisons, house management, and box office were wonderfully accommodating and helpful to us throughout the week.
Why “An American Requiem”? What elements play into that?
ARMAND: It was originally just “An American Requiem.” The narrative deals with a Christian Lebanese family and their loss – the loss of a twin for the brother, child for the parents, and brother for the sister. I had wanted to craft it as a requiem, but a modern-day requiem: to have it be not just American, but also very much contemporary America. As I researched these families that immigrate to America, I began to recognize that all of these lives, these American lives, needed a different kind of story than the ones we see told today. It starts off as a specialized story, but ultimately becomes more about the family. Around Broadway, we’ve had Disgraced and other shows that deal with ethnic identity, but not necessarily identity and the political climate we’re in.
Do you feel the culture of Islamophobia has changed dramatically since you started this piece?
ARMAND: Actually, none of the characters are Muslim other than the deceased father, but xenophobia is a very important theme. Many of the families I have interviewed and studied have three Abrahamic traditions in their culture and that is their own unique perspective. Meanwhile, what we’ve faced in America lately is a very dark side of both racism and xenophobia. This includes Islamophobia, as the presidential debates have shown very clearly, and an overall twisted sense of racism morphing into the dialogue we have now. These are stories, but these are our stories and they need to be told, and I see that as the job of the American theater. Modern day homophobia and past homophobia share similar themes, but is still family.
PAIVA: What drew me to the piece, and I think explains how indie rock has evolved, is the way TJ weaves a classical requiem into the show. To me, the music and theme just touches the soul. When I was at NS two weeks ago and saw this show in production it still moved me to tears. Even after my past two years with the show, the style and content is absolutely amazing.
Has the show’s “Occupy” backdrop, now nearly four years past, acquired new relevance in the current political climate?
ARMAND: Great question. I was hoping for the chance to speak on that. We were looking to weave parallel stories: the grandmother in the piece was a political activist who left her family for an Israeli activist. In a staged version we will visit that dream sequence a little bit, a dance scene which will more articulate their relationship and dynamic. In this present generation, Sama was a dancer, and I wanted this moment to parallel with his grandmother’s generation. The idea, then, is that Occupy was the movement of this generation, whereas if you go back to Cairo in the late 1970s there was the Peace Now movement around the Arab-Israeli peace treaties. Now, that ultimately would fail but it was very important at the time. So the idea isn’t that it’s just the Occupy movement or just the Peace Now movement, but the idea of the movement still continues and links the generations.
What do you imagine Sama attendees might take away from the experience?
ARMAND: Well, when I’m writing it is not motivated to “break new ground,” which is how [NS director of artistic planning] Courtenay Casey spoke about the piece. I hope that it is a musical like Fiddler that speaks about music and generations linked by these experiences and traditions.
PAIVA: What I was thinking about just now as you were speaking is that it tells the story of a multi-generational family and the problems that many migrating families experience. What touches me personally is that immigration aspect – in one of the songs it is mentioned that “we’re still foreigners in a foreign land.”
ARMAND: Right, Carl. Muslim and Christian families do have very different experiences immigrating, but one common theme is that a green card doesn’t fix the difficulty. Immigration takes time.
PAIVA: Thank you. My father was Portuguese and immigrated to Bermuda, and never was made to feel he wasn’t foreign or had been accepted as a citizen of the United Kingdom.
ARMAND: All of which just goes to show that these themes are universal outside of America, with Brexit and the refugee crisis across Europe and the subject of immigration. Ultimately, this is the story of the show itself.
Interview was condensed and edited. Zach Perez works in the ticketing and promotions department at National Sawdust. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sama: An American Requiem will be presented in concert on Oct. 13 at 6:30pm at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 W. 54th St., New York City; www.54below.com