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Near the end of our first year at the Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, Nina Kauffman and I were paired together for the twenty-minute musical assignment. This was already the start of something beautiful because Nina and I had joked that, if we were paired together for the twenty-minute assignment, we would write a musical about hamsters trying to escape from their cage.

We did not write that musical.

Instead, when the time came, Nina visited me in my apartment where we promptly got drunk and devised two brilliant ideas that we thought would ultimately change the history of American Musical Theatre and make Hamilton look like Plan 9 from Outer Space. The first idea was My Fair Swamp Donkey, a contemporary spoof of Pygmalion in which two frat boys find a swamp donkey (which is a derogatory European term for an overweight, unattractive female who gets men drunk so that she can sexually molest them) and vow to turn her into a “booshy bitch.” The second idea was Missed Connections, an original idea based off of a mortifyingly awkward incident that occurred between me and an old roommate that really doesn’t need to be retold in this blog.

When we sobered up and pitched these two ideas to our faculty advisers, we found out that alcohol does in fact make everything funnier. The faculty, while delighted by our enthusiasm, found both ideas confusing and flawed. But they recommended we take the idea we liked best and start writing spec songs.

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So Nina and I started developing My Fair Swamp Donkey and wrote several trunk song hits such as “Just Two Frat Boys Thirsty for a Drink (and I’m Definitely Not a Twink)” and “Why Are All the Women Feminists?!” The best of which was the swamp donkey’s solo, “Maybe Life Would Suck a Little Less,” which went something like…

My life is like a ship upon the barren sea.
My life is like a broken pot of lukewarm tea.
If I had personality or even a nice dress,
Maybe life would suck a little less.

My life is like a waiter who is never given tips.
My life is like a sandwich that doesn’t come with chips.
If only I were confident with someone to impress,
Maybe life would suck a little less.

My life is like a slinky tangled in a knot.
My life is like a child left in a parking lot.
If someone loved me as I am, then…
Ah, but I digress.
It wouldn’t be perfect.
It wouldn’t be awful.
But maybe it would suck a little less.

I was convinced we would never write anything better than this. But the faculty, thankfully, thought otherwise.

They encouraged us not to spoof My Fair Lady, but instead to keep adapting Pygmalion or some other similarly themed public domain work that would allow us to develop new, realistic characters as opposed to just silly caricatures.

Nina and I brainstormed a bit and, somewhere along the line, thought it would be hilarious if the swamp donkey character were actually a monster of some kind. We found The Painted Skin story and decided to try that as our source material. The new story wasn’t too different: two dudes go to a bar and one of them picks up a beautiful, mysterious woman…but her skin falls off after they have sex and it turns out she’s a soul-sucking demon. The spec songs from this draft included the catchy “I’m Gonna Kill You (With My Love)”…

I’ve never met a guy like you.
You make me feel this thirst.
I want you so bad it makes me wanna shout.
I wanna take your hands and then look deep into your eyes…
They’re so damn beautiful, I wanna gouge them out.
Fuck, it gives me such a thrill
To know I’m gonna KILL you with my love.
Lala lala la la la la la…kill you with my love.
Lala lala la la la la la…kill you with my love.

Your face is so cute I just wanna rip it off your skull.
And nail your sexy body…to a tree.
Then I’ll rip your heart out and I’ll hold it in my hand
To show how much your love has meant to me.
It’s only been one day, but still
I know I’m gonna KILL you with my love.
Lala lala la la la la la…kill you with my love.
Lala lala la la la la la…kill you with my love.

We pitched all this to the faculty, and it seemed to be a step in the right direction, but they wanted us to go deeper with the female character. Why was this demon inside her? What does she want? What does she need? Do we all have a demon inside us?

This was when things got weird. Well, weirder I should say. Nina and I kept asking ourselves these questions and the next thing we knew, we had a draft about a married couple with a foster child named Bacia who was trying to suppress her inner demon…literally. The show ended with Bacia ripping off her skin, destroying the house, killing her foster father, and then convincing her mother that it was for the best. Because the story started to resemble an 80’s horror flick, I started listening to Jim Steinman songs and, for better or worse, wrote several spec songs that were all epic 80’s power ballads. Think “Total Eclipse of the Heart” meets The Thing.

This draft was even more complicated and flawed than the previous ones. And worse than that, we both kind of hated it. We had been overthinking the critique and ended up writing something neither one of us cared about anymore. I specifically remember one day where both of us walked out of lab, sat down at a table in the department lobby, held each other’s hands, and cried. Why were we crying? Because we had eight weeks to write one good twenty minute musical…and we had just spent six weeks writing three terrible ones.

So we confided in our main adviser, Sybille Pearson. She comforted us…and then promptly told us to write the show that we wanted to write. She would make herself available to us whenever we needed her, and she would help us in any way she could. “But if we’re starting all over, we only have two weeks!” Nina and I squealed. “Yes,” Sybille replied. “So there must be nothing else in your lives for the next two weeks…only this. You can do it.”

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And we did. To this very day, I still don’t know how. It was a blur of emails, pdf files, and voice memos of me singing with the hiccups…but we got it done. We decided to hang on to the demon idea and the dudes at the bar, and the result was The Boy Who Cried Succubus: the story of two bros, Guy and Brandon, who go cruisin’ for chicks at The Brewer’s Art. Brandon finds and falls for a sexy babe named Bacia; but out of jealousy, Guy tries to convince Brandon that she’s a succubus intent on freezing his dick off with her “ice snatch.” We loved what we had written…but there was just one thing missing.

The ending.

The show originally ended with Brandon storming out of the bar after the “I Don’t Want a Bro” number, Guy getting upset about it, and Bacia taking Guy home instead. We liked this because Brandon, the good guy, gets away safely while Guy, the douchebag, gets what he deserves. And Bacia, of course, gets what she wanted all along.

But we were unsatisfied with it to a certain degree. So with only one week left to finish the show, we asked ourselves, how can we end the show with all three characters still there singing with one another? Nina had the answer.

“A threesome,” she said. “They’ll have a threesome. Guy and Brandon both die. Bacia wins.”

A perfectly deranged ending to our perfectly deranged musical.

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We presented the show at school under the direction of Michelle Tattenbaum, who helped us find depth in a piece that we thought had none. Gillian Berkowitz music directed and helped improve the score in so many amazing ways. And of course, our performers Matthew Roscoe, Sam Prince, and Julia Johanos were all virtuosic and hysterical with their portrayals of such deeply flawed yet good-intentioned characters. I pray we’ll always be able to work with artists this talented, helpful, and fun.

The show was warmly received by our faculty and classmates, with feedback ranging from “That was immensely disturbing” to “That was profoundly hilarious.” Nina and I couldn’t have been happier. Everything worked out in the end, not just because of the great support system we had, but also because, through it all, Nina and I trusted one another.

In those last two crazy weeks, we were sending so much material back and forth to each other that there really wasn’t much time to second guess any of it. I specifically remember one evening when Nina sent me the lyrics to “Nice to Meet You,” and I blatantly told her that I didn’t think I could set them to music because there was no form or rhyme scheme. Nina said, “Give them another 24 hours, and if you can’t think of anything, we’ll try something else.” Low and behold, I locked myself in a room with a piano and, an hour later, had set all of “Nice to Meet You” to music. The result was a new type of song that I would never have had the chance to write without having swallowed my pride and trusted Nina’s artistic intuition. It was a lesson learned in a very short amount of time, and luckily our friendship never underwent any strain.

Hopefully The Boy Who Cried Succubus will have a life after its small success at NYU; but until then, check out the awesome demo recording with our original cast and crew, graciously recorded by John Allen Watts.

Enjoy your next Friday night, and may you find love, sex, or frozen dicks…whatever you need to survive. No judgement, bro.

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