by Geno Thackara
If there’s one consistent thing about love, it’s that it’s never too consistent – it appears anywhere and takes all kinds of forms. Ditto relationships: if you think they should tend to follow a script or even a recognizable pattern, you’ve probably just been watching too many movies. Stage shows aren’t immune to following the usual rom-com template either, but there’s often someone somewhere interested in looking at things from a less predictable angle.
Singer/songwriter Rory Michelle Sullivan considers that perfectly fitting. In addition to a long-awaited move to Philadelphia in September 2018 (let’s hear it for Fishtown, y’all!), she’s been taking the next step from singer/songwriter to playwright. All the work is resulting in an upcoming musical called Rising in Love, which just finished a key stage reading in New York City as it moves toward the eventual goal of hitting Broadway. The event and its accompanying week-long workshop are just the latest in a line of changes and refinements for a project that goes all the way back to her teens.
She explains that the show is a natural extension of several different lifelong interests. “My parents always played cassette tapes of Rory Zuckerman, and Broadway and Hollywood show tunes. My grandmother and mother were really into watching stuff on PBS about Jerome Kern and all the old composers, and I did musical theater in high school. There’s something that’s so spiritual – I always feel very emotionally overwhelmed in musical theater, in a good way. It just feels really powerful to me. I’ve always sung my whole life too.”
It’s also what eventually led to Rising in Love. “The song that dates back the earliest goes back to tenth grade in music theory class,” she shares. “There are another two that I wrote in college that just kind of came out at that time. So I just gradually collected enough songs.”
Even as several albums of her own music developed in the intervening years, the idea of a stage show kept quietly bubbling along under the surface. Hung on those catchy hooks is a story that’s both familiar and different. The central characters are an interracial Jewish couple facing unexpected friction in real life and between each other.
With a story that crosses a lot of themes, it took some searching to decide what’s most important. Noting the influence of The Fantasticks, Sullivan declares that Rising is mostly “about becoming an adult – an emotional adult – and what that means. What does it mean to go from valuing the external to the internal, to being more secure in yourself? What does it mean to have healthy communication with friends, family, coworkers, loved ones, in romantic relationships? What does it mean to take responsibility in your life?”
Fundamentally, she continues, “it’s not a love story, it’s a coming-of-age story – a modern-day one. It’s really about growth. The characters in their late twenties and early thirties. We meet them in the show and they’re already six months engaged. It’s not the romantic-comedy thing where they meet and fall in love. It’s about, OK, we got through that typical movie story in our head, but what happens now? When push comes to shove and we’re getting into reality – what does that look like? But it’s still a real feel-good show.”
Staged concert reading presented by the Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Works Series on March 10th. Photo credit: Arthur Miller
If it’s grown a lot from the first handful of songs, the blueprint also owes a lot to co-writer Anna Jastrzembski, fellow composers Moira Lo Bianco and Jonathan Shanes, and all the actors, directors and friends who’ve helped shape the script over its existence. It’s not the kind of thing where someone sits down at a desk and works out a script. “Oh my gosh, not at all! That’s so far from reality,” Sullivan says with a laugh. The process has meant a series of table readings, feedback requests, discussions and the ton of small fixes that go into honing all the little details.
It turns out that not knowing everything in advance is the beauty of it. She muses, “It works just like it does in life. It’s okay to start from where you are and just do the next right thing. When you’re driving, you can only see as far as your headlights go, but you can get the whole way that way even only seeing a little bit in front of you.” Details get fine-tuned at each step: the setting may change, the characters go through several different backgrounds and song ideas continually come and go.
And of course, as most artists would probably agree, trusting the process also means eventually letting go. “I’ve been carrying this musical baby. Once you have the kid, then it grows up and has its own life, and other people have influence over it. It’s been an amazing process, just letting it grow up and become what it wants to become,” she enthuses. “It’s a tighter and more lovable show because of everybody’s input. I’m really grateful for our team.
“It’s been really great to see how it’s gelled,” she says. “Now I feel like this is the show! For the next step I think it’d be good to do one more longer developmental workshop, maybe a week to get more audience feedback, then do a run in a regional theater. I would love to do both those things in Philadelphia, then send it back to New York for off-Broadway and eventually Broadway.”
The team kicked off March’s workshop with the release of the Rising in Love Concept Album through Bandcamp (https://risinginlovethemusical.bandcamp.com/releases), so the wider world now has the chance to sample some songs or even grab a CD (for those still interested in tactile souvenirs). She adds, “Some of the same actors who sang on it are doing this stage reading. It’s so exciting to have this regular cast who’ve seen the show grow, from back when all we had was six songs and some character names. Some things even changed between the recording [in 2017] to now – it’s really grown up. We recorded six songs with an 11-piece band. It sounds amazing.”
A promo trailer for the project is due in April. The schedule after that isn’t set yet, but the plan is to just keep helping things happen until the musical finally grows up and gets where it’s going. You can follow along and keep an eye on the journey at https://risinginlovethemusical.com.