The official bio says that
Molly Reisman is a Canadian writer, producer and performer who is endlessly curious about how humans connect, empathize and interact with the world around them, that Molly is a graduate of NYU Tisch’s MFA Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, and she completed her undergraduate studies at Toronto’s Ryerson University where she majored in acting with a minor in business entrepreneurship.
I encountered Molly in a show at Ryerson, where teacher Cynthia Ashperger gave her the tough assignment of playing a quirky older lady. It’s funny because I think Cynthia & I both sensed that Molly is an old soul, mature & professional beyond her chronological age.
Her bio continues, telling us that her writing credits include: “3 Dresses” (LaMaMa 2019) “Electric Circus” (Pepperdine University 2019), “Heartbeat” (NYU Tisch 2019), “Keaton and The Whale” (NYU Tisch 2018), “Cow is Me” (LaMaMa Puppet Festival 2018), “TEDQUEST” (LaMaMa Puppet Festival 2017, NYC Summerfest), “WE WROTE THIS” (Ryerson New Voices Festival & Winner Best of Atlantic Fringe Festival, 2014), “The Other Side of The Curtain” (Canterbury Children’s Theater Festival, 2009).
I heard she won The Weinberger Award, which led me to ask her some questions.
1. Are you more like your father or your mother?
I am for sure more like my dad.
My mom is very cool-headed and logical, and in my spiraling moments of anxiety, I do try to channel her as best I can, but my default setting is dad.
My dad has always played guitar as a hobby and growing up around live music has always been important to me. Both my mom and dad decided to put my sister and me in piano lessons, and my dad would sometimes play guitar when we would practice piano. I always found it very interesting how much depth is added to even the most basic songs when just an additional instrument / sound is added.
My mom is musical too, she used to play piano (and I think has been picking it up again lately!) and used to try to help us with our piano lesson’s homework at home. She, however, is a terrifying teacher and I would usually end in tears under the piano. I’m also a notorious baby and drama queen, and I would always end up doing the damn homework, come hell or high water.
2. What is the best or worst thing about What You do?
To me, the best thing about writing musicals as part of a team is collaboration. It is so helpful to not be writing into a void, and to have a partner who is willing to go down as many wrong-idea- rabbit holes as you are. Working with a collaborator has also meant that I am constantly surprised by what we create. Usually, when I write a lyric, I have a sound or melody or even a basic motif in mind, and 9.5 times out of 10, my collaborator will come up with something a million times more interesting than anything I could ever come up with. It is so rewarding to create something with another person this way.
Collaborating also means you usually can’t get away with bullshit. I’ve been blessed to work with composers who are far more interested in creating a compelling story with dynamic characters than sparing my feelings, and I feel the same. When working alone, it is very easy to get precious with your work and to be hesitant to cut or edit because you like the way a song sounds, or you think you wrote a clever lyric. With a collaborator, you are able to keep each other in line and sort of pull the thread of: “is this necessary?” or “this is kinda boring and makes me not want to hear from this character.” It can be hard, but ultimately, it will create a stronger piece.
At NYU I have learned 2 mantras that have saved me from (or revived me from) numerous meltdowns:
1. There is no such thing as a musical theater emergency
2. There’s always more where that came from.
The WORST thing about what I do is probably the terrifying instability of living as an artist. It’s obvious, I know, but as I said, I’m an anxious person down to my core, and being in an industry (with a degree as marketable as an MFA in Graduate Musical Theater Writing) that is so elusive and based so much on luck and network, it makes me wish I had the passion and interest I have in writing musicals in something like accounting or tort law.
3. Who Do You Like to Listen to Or Watch?
Right now, I’m obsessed with the soundtrack to Be More Chill. Joe Iconis is an alum of my grad program (NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program) and I’ve always been a big fan of his work. The show is so funny and weird and refreshing and it’s just a lot of fun to listen to.
Since moving to New York, I’ve also been obsessed with anything and everything Dave Malloy. Ghost Quartet and Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 are some of my favourite shows (to watch and listen to) at the moment; I think it’s because Dave Malloy finds a great deal of vulnerability in characters or situations that at first blush can seem didactic or heady. He has a new show, Octet, that is opening off-Broadway soon, I can’t wait to see it. He’s also working on a Moby Dick musical, and since I am also working on a musical about a Whale, it is nice to keep tabs on him.
I’ve also been working as assistant to lyricist Mindi Dickstein and librettist Kirsten Guenther for the Paper Mill Playhouse Production of Benny and Joon (A new musical based on the early 90’s movie with Johnny Depp), which recently transferred from the Old Globe in San Diego.
Getting to listen to a large-scale piece throughout a rehearsal process has been unbelievable. Mindi Dickstein is faculty in my program (which is how I got the job), and Kirsten graduated from my program a few years ago, and it has been phenomenally inspiring to watch 2 female words-people from my program not only be exceptionally talented and endlessly focused on excellence, but also to see them run the space in the rehearsal room, and to a certain extent, their industry. It’s good to have role models.
4. What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Oh, so many.
I wish I could:
- Tap dance (well)
- Play guitar
- Have my shit together enough to actually do meal prep every week
- Fall asleep at a reasonable hour
- Have the ability to live and work in America for the foreseeable future (fingers crossed on a pending O-1 visa application)
- Do yoga for like, more than 2 weeks
- I wish I could read music at more than an incredibly basic level. It’s something I’m working on, but being at school with capital C Composers who have been studying ear training and composition for years and years is really great inspiration to crack those very boring music theory books once again.
5. When You’re Just Relaxing and Not Working, What is Your Favourite Thing To Do?
• I love dogs. I love looking at pictures of dogs, watching videos of dogs, dogsitting dogs, dreaming about fostering / adopting a dog… Last year I went to the Westminster dog show and watched Flynn, the Bishon Frise, get crowned Best in Show, it was a big moment in my life. I am currently working on a dog-centric musical which I am VERY excited about.
• It’s not as easy as it was when I lived in Toronto, but I love biking. I live in Brooklyn, close to some very nice waterfront bike paths, so my boyfriend and I sometimes rent bikes and make an afternoon of it. We can bike from our apartment to Coney Island- we haven’t done that yet, but that’s for sure something we want to do before this end of this summer.
• Seeing whatever Musicals I can. It used to be a lot easier when I was in school and did not have 3 jobs and 4 musicals on the go, but whenever I can get rush tickets, watching a show is still the most magical experience to me. I’m pretty sure I have become notorious in my circle of friends because, even though I have spent a good amount of time studying musicals, and even though certain aspects of being part of an audience of musical theater has been stripped of it’s magic because we’ve spent so long exhaustively studying all of the mechanics, I still weep openly during most musicals I attend.
Okay here’s my cheesy musical theater rant: I really do believe there is no more special experience than musical theater. A lot of people shit on musicals as pedestrian and basic, but, as NYU faculty member Michael John LaChiusa likes to say, when an audience buys a ticket to a musical, they are entering a contract to leave reality, suspend their disbelief and open themselves up to a very different kind of universe. That level of vulnerability from an audience and that kind of openness to go on a journey (whatever it may be), to a world that is so full of live music, and live actors, and to do so with a bunch of strangers, is something so special to me. I love musicals, and I love writing them. Okay rant over.
6. What is The Weinberger Award, and how did you, the graduate from Ryerson U, happen to win it?
This is the very first year of the Eric. H. Weinberger Award. It was given to me from Amas musical theater, which is all about supporting new musicals and diverse stories. At Ryerson University, there is a class for all students in acting and dance called Creative Performance, and as a final year project, students are invited to write and produce their own pieces. I think I owe a lot to Sheldon Rosen, the teacher of that class, as well as Mani Eustis, a very talented classmate and fellow Canadian writer, who suggested we write a musical together. Mani and I ended up writing a three-person show called “We Wrote This”. It was 1 hour long, we both wrote words, we both wrote music and we both acted and played instruments during the show. I think this opportunity from Ryerson with literally no rules and no structure let me jump into the deep end and let my voice be as weird and goofy and gross as it wanted to be (and it was very goofy and gross.).
I think coming into writing in such an open way let me approach all future musical theater writing in a very fearless way. I remember at one point in Creative Performance, Sheldon told us that he once wrote a stage direction where the roof was taken off of a building (or something to that effect) by the hand of Someone, and that it was something of a joy for a director to have to face the challenge of the fantastical. This is something I thought about a lot when working on my thesis project- a 90 minute musical called Keaton and The Whale (Book and Lyrics by Molly Reisman, Book and Music by Emily Chiu) , which would eventually win myself and my collaborator / co-bookwriter Emily Chiu the brand new Eric H. Weinberger award.
One of my very best friends (and roommate for my first year living in NYC) is Stephanie Sardelis. She was finishing up her Masters in Marine Biology at Columbia when I moved to New York to attend NYU. At some point in the middle of my first year, Steph decided to create a TedEd entitled “Why Do Whales Sing?”. I remember watching it and thinking about how interesting Whale song is, how diverse the sound system is, and how little humans know about it, and how advanced Whales are (and how old and ancient and mythical they are / appear) and I think I posted it on Facebook and my brother commented with a link to a Wikipedia article on the 52 Hz Whale– The only whale of his kind, he sings at a frequency of 52 hertz, which is about 3 times higher than any other whale can hear. Scientists call him the loneliest whale in the world.
I don’t know about you, but when I read that, my heart hurt. Immediately I knew this was something I wanted to write about.
I asked Steph about this whale and she showed me some more research on the 52 hz whale, how he has been tracked by scientists, and how, although he was very mysterious, rarely seen and even more rarely recorded, he seemed to be, by all accounts, a happy and healthy whale. We both sat on our couch and talked about how quickly humans project onto animals.
It was at this point that I knew I wanted to write about this for my thesis musical. But how the hell would I find someone willing to write a musical where one of the lead characters is a Whale?
In my first year at NYU, I was lucky enough to work with some of the second years, singing for various labs / phases of their thesis musicals. One project, by Emily Chiu and Ellen Johnston, was called Apollo, which was about a fortune telling octopus, among other things. I had been a huge fan of this piece and its writing team, and I took a shot in the dark and asked Emily Chiu if she would come back to NYU as an alumni collaborator to work on another ocean themed musical, this time about the loneliest whale in the world. Lucky me, she said yes and we began working on Keaton and The Whale.
Emily and I talked about The Whale, about loneliness, and about isolation. The character Keaton is based on one of my favourite musicians, Keaton Henson. I love him so much, he is so full of FEELINGS. Emily and I were often asked questions like “But How does the audience know there is a whale on the stage” or “Can you do this on stage? This feels more like a movie to me”. These were brutal to take, but we were in it together, and we could both see the piece so clearly as a trunk show, with an ocean ensemble that also functioned as the band for the piece.
When it came time for our thesis presentation, which is a 29 hour staged reading with equity actors, a Music Director and a Director, we were BLESSED with an unbelievably talented cast as well as the most imaginative and wonderful director we could hope for, a fellow Canadian, Leora Morris.
Leora is an amazingly imaginative director, while also keeping her dramaturgical ear to the ground. She asked us lots of helpful questions, but also saw the piece as we saw it, and had no problem creating a world where a blue sweater indicated that someone was embodying The Whale.
So the reading happened on May 1 2018, for an audience of our peers (and family and friends) and Emily and I were both happy with how it went. Leora mentioned to us that she thought it would be interesting to see how young audiences would receive the show. NYU graciously gave us the opportunity to do a second reading this past February, this time, aimed at young audiences. The edits we made helped us focus our story and figure out whom we were talking to and why.
Sometime in the midst of these edits, Emily sent me the link for the Eric H. Weinberger award for Emerging librettists and suggested I apply on behalf of the both of us. I looked up Amas musical theater and saw it was interested in engaging with young audiences as well as diverse stories, so I thought what the hell. I sent in our most recent libretto and some demo tracks, and it was judged by a double blind panel, and a few months later it was announced that Emily and I had won the award, as well as a production of Keaton and The Whale with Amas musical theater sometime in the 2019-2020 season.
I think that coming into musical theater with the idea that anything is possible on stage as long as it has emotional resonance with the audience is something I learned at Ryerson from Sheldon, and from working with Mani, and carried with me to NYU, and was strengthened by working with the genius that is Emily Chiu on this musical that was inspired by my best buddy Steph and my brother’s Facebook comment.
7. I hear you’re in Malibu, for a commission through Pepperdine. Tell me about it.
I am writing these responses on the plane coming back to New York from Malibu! It was my first time ever being in Malibu, and I can’t believe how gorgeous it was. It’s all beaches all the time. This commission from Pepperdine was a great honour and an unbelievable opportunity, but also, the very best mini-vacation ever.
The commission came about because my collaborator, Clayton Daniel Briggs, graduated from the composition program at Pepperdine University, and the head of the composition department, Dr. N. Lincoln Hanks, wanted him to present something he was working on. Clayton came to me with this news and we were both so excited. I had approached Clayton with the idea for Electric Circus about 2 years before this, while we were thinking about possible concepts for thesis musicals.
I stumbled upon an article about “The Real Life Dr. Frankenstein”, who inspired Mary Shelley to write her epic novel. His name was Dr. Giovanni Aldini, and he was the nephew of Luigi Galvani, a physicist and the father of Galvanism. Aldini worked for his uncle in his lab and seemingly idolized the man until Galvani’s theories of “Animal Electricity” were disproven by Alessandro Volta, and Galvani was shunned by the scientific community. Aldini took it upon himself to restore his uncle’s name by following up on his uncle’s research, specifically in sending electrical currents through frogs (which the late 1700’s onlookers thought of as re-animation), and eventually, working on a human subject, George Foster, a recently executed criminal, who was the subject of a live demonstration conducted by Aldini, which was an extremely well-attended event by the general public.
I thought there were a few interesting things about Dr. Aldini:
- After contacting scientific historians across the world, and thorough online research, very little is known about Giovanni Aldini following his experiment on George Foster.
- He was part of a scientific movement to take science to the public- to salons and to the streets, to more common folk, more than just the scientific community. This was at a time in history (the late 1700’s) where Science was still in a weird place of facts-based researched with a sprinkling of occult interference.
- This got me interested in the idea of science for consumption and for entertainment as opposed to science in the pursuit of answering questions and solving problems.
Electric Circus is essentially the story of Giovanni Aldini, his desire for power, to right his family’s name, and the lengths he would go to get it.
So we wrote a draft of the show to fit the needs of Pepperdine (45 minutes, accommodating to a cast of x people, can be performed in a small space). We Skyped in for auditions and got to put in our two-cents as far as casting, and months later we flew down to Malibu to watch the final week of a 4 month rehearsal process.
While attending rehearsals, Clayton and I got the opportunity to teach some classes on collaboration, working with lyricists and what it’s like to be in the musical theater industry.
It was wonderful working with composers from all different backgrounds and watching our show come to life. The performance was a lot of fun and we both learned a great deal from the reading, and even on this flight home I have pages of notes for our next rewrite. Hi-Ho the glamorous life.
8. You had a “Kids puppet musical produced at La MaMa experimental theater club a few weeks ago, What was your objective when you were beginning to write?(was it a plot outline or something else that led you into it?)
I have had two short musical theater puppet works that were featured as part of the 2017 and 2018 LaMaMa Puppet Slam (“TedQuest” with Composer Andrew Lynch and “Cow is Me” with composer Clayton Daniel Briggs, respectively). I have always loved working with puppets, and recently, I have been very interested in writing for young audiences. Jane Catherine Shaw, the curator of the La MaMa Puppet Slam as well as an artist in residence at La MaMa, approached Clayton Daniel Briggs and me with an idea to do an interactive puppet musical for kids.
Again, Clayton and I were curious about writing for young people, and getting a show produced at an institution like La MaMa is an honour and a great opportunity. Clayton and I wanted to make the show as accessible as possible, to audiences of all ages (but probably between the ages of 3-5).
9. You’re writing the book to a musical. Supposedly, music says what words cannot say. In your way of working, does the writer decide where the songs should go, or the composer? Or maybe is it more fluid than that and you both have a say?
Writing book for a musical is a thankless task. Usually, the only time anyone talks about the book to a show is to say that it sucks. That is to say, when a bookwriter is doing their job, they should be invisible. To me, the big thing when writing the book to a show is figuring out the structure and the natural arcs of the characters. In terms of where a moment is musicalized, yes, it is usually the most heightened moments of a character deciding to change, or to take action to pursue a goal. That being said, in my experience, it changes for every collaboration. Sometimes the book writer is in complete control of where songs should go, other times it is a group decision. I like working with the composer to figure out what moments are sung. It’s also interesting when the story tells you where the songs should go. You can look at a moment and say, Okay, this is this character’s big number where they finally take that step or do whatever, and you’ll find you’ll write it and edit it and edit it a million different ways and it still doesn’t feel right. Usually that means that you’re not writing the right moment, and to re-assess where the character is in the moment and what is really happening in the story.
10. What else have you written? (Novels, poems, songs, plays without music?)
I wrote a pretty bad angsty novel in middle school. I used to write poems and I have written a few short plays. I mostly write songs and musicals at the moment.
11. Would it be fair to say you’re living your dream? (are you doing what you hoped to do, the writing, going to NY and California, context with what you expected when you were young)
I am absolutely living my dream. I am so very lucky to be doing what I’m doing. It’s a hard way to live and I’m always exhausted, but when I’m reaching breaking point and looking at my 100 page to do list, I remind myself that I’m doing the thing I love to do most in the world, and I can write whatever I want. Musicals have always been my deepest yearning in life- to watch them, to act in them, to write them, so to be here in the sky, enroute from a performance in Malibu to an upcoming performance of another 29-hour equity reading in New York at the end of April, I am overwhelmed, terrified, and so grateful and happy.
I think the weird 9 year old me who used to sit in the car reading the lyrics of “If I Can’t Love Her” out of the Beauty and The Beast Original Broadway Cast Recording CD jacket over and over again in her spare time would be happy about where I’ve ended up.
12. Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
Truly, every faculty member at NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program is an inspiration. Sarah Schlesinger, the chair of the department, cares so much about all of her students and has created the best faculty ever to support them, and offers her students opportunities to grow and learn around every corner.
Donna DiNovelli was my thesis advisor for Keaton and The Whale. She’s a brilliant librettist, film writer and film director and she constantly challenged the way I look at theatrical structure and form, and when I grow up, I hope to be brilliant like her.
Rachel Sheinkin, bookwriter extraordinaire (Tony award winner for 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among other things) taught our book-writing class and, among the many gems of wisdom she has bestowed upon me, reminded me that book-writing should be engaging for the audience, but also fun to write.
WE’RE ALLOWED TO HAVE FUN!
Finally, Mindi Dickstein (lyricist for Benny & Joon and Little Women) is my mentor, even if she doesn’t know it yet. Her writing is beautiful and so smart and so funny, and she is an unbelievable force to be reckoned with.
Basically, I’m so grateful to all of the strong bad-ass women who surround me.
13. Plugs for upcoming:
Keaton and The Whale will be produced with Amas Musical Theater sometime in the 2019-2020 season
Electric Circus is planning on having a staged reading in NYC Halloween 2019, probably at the Pit Loft.
Heartbeat, my second thesis show (book and lyrics by Molly Reisman, book and music by Nathan Fosbinder) will be receiving a staged reading at NYU GMTWP blackbox April 30th 2019.