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A Conversation with Amy Engelhardt

| May 24, 2017

A Conversation with Amy Engelhardt

May 26, 2017

By Victoria Ordin for Cabaret Scenes

Amy Engelhardt & Marc Acito

Corrupt,” “filthy,” and “evil” are just a few of the words used to describe Henry Fielding’s bawdy 18th century novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. In the vein of Candide and The Marriage of Figaro, Fielding’s comedy of bad manners slyly advanced democratic ideals that led to revolution. Many know the story from the Oscar-winning film of 1963, Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney.

Recognizing the socio-political relevance of the tale about an illegitimate boy, Amy Engelhardt teamed up with longtime friend Marc Acito (Allegiance) to create a comic rock-opera that celebrates diversity in America. Bastard Jones will make its debut at Nancy Manocherian’s The Cell in Chelsea on June 14 (Flag Day) and run through July 16. All proceeds from run will benefit Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, which aims to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Much of the production has been crowd-funded. Donations can be made here: www.gofundme.com/celljones

Victoria Ordin: Your new project with longtime friend Marc Acito, Bastard Jones, has been getting a lot of press. I’ve seen pieces in the Huffington Post, Theater Mania, Playbill. You must be thrilled. How long ago did you and Marc start to discuss the project?

Amy Engelhardt: YES, and hopefully we’ll get a lot more press!

I tracked Marc down having read his amazing book How I Paid for College. I thought it would make a great musical. We didn’t know each other, but later discovered we’d met for one day as high school drama geeks in central New Jersey!

In 2010, Marc was living in Portland, Oregon. When my band, The Bobs (he was already a fan) was in town, we met for lunch. Marc’s book was tied up in a film option agreement, so he pitched me the idea of a Tom Jones musical, which had been on his mind for a long time.

We spent the summer of 2010 in Portland writing the first act, then worked on the project on and off for several years. Eventually it was a finalist for the Richard Rodgers Award for New Musicals and the Eugene O’Neill Music Theatre Conference, and workshopped at Millikin University (thru NAMT) and in New York

VO: Had you read the Henry Fielding novel in school, or was the 1963 Albert Finney film your introduction to the story?

AE: I’d never read the novel. I’d heard of the film, but never seen it. I also watched the six-part BBC miniseries version from the ’90s before we began work. But, from the star, we knew that a modern approach to the music would reveal the timelessness of the story. Tom is an electric guitar in a harpsichord world.

VO: I recently saw Indecent on Broadway. It’s based on the 1906 play by Sholem Asch, God of Vengeance (which I reviewed). But appreciation of Vogel’s brilliant play did not depend upon knowledge of Asch’s text because Vogel explained its relevant components. (By contrast, Amelie, which is currently on Broadway, makes little sense to one who hasn’t seen the movie). Do you think many in the audience will have read the book or seen the movie? Does Bastard Jones cover the key aspects of the novel?

AE: It doesn’t matter if people are unfamiliar with novel or film (or even the Welsh singer, Tom Jones, who has nothing to do with this project!), because it resonates so deeply with what’s happening now in America: the “othering” of groups of people.

If you take out the word “bastard” and substitute gay, African-American, Mexican, female, diffrently-abled, Jewish, or senior, it’s the same story. All Americans are entitled to the pursuit of happiness. We’re being very true to the spirit of the novel, which was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s and was considered a scandalous satire in his time. We wrote a hilarious show about a serious subject.    

Older audiences have likely seen the Oscar-winning movie. It was very… shagtastic, truly a product of its time. Albert Finney, who played Tom Jones, was quite the hottie. The novel is public domain. Written in 1749, it’s episodic à la Dickens (which appeared in serial form), so Marc took some liberties to bring more focus to the story.

VO: You’ve been writing songs, and teaching the craft of songwriting, for years. Is the process different when the songs fit into a narrative structure? And not just a narrative, but one whose plots is predetermined?

AE: I was a musical theater geek early on, so this kind of writing is as familiar to me as more pop-focused songwriting. It’s different in that the narrative dictates content as well as specific structures and conventions. It’s more story-oriented. Musical theater songs can also serve different purposes depending on their function and placement in the show. So you’re not free to write whatever hits you, but ideally the material is rich enough in terms of character, plot and timbre, that you are not simply stating what is happening, but exploring it emotionally yourself in a new way.

VO: Did the project take a different turn after November 8th? Or did you predict the (disastrous) result of the 2016 election?

AE: When we began this project in 2010, it was more of a statement about gay marriage: why can’t you be with the person you love (the pursuit of happiness, again) because you were born a certain way?

When gay marriage was legalized, we thought we might have missed the boat. But Marc had to step away for 18 months anyway to work on Allegiance. We were figuring out our next steps when the 2016 presidential campaign kicked into high gear. Every marginalized group lost ground in the campaign, to say nothing of the election. It was a terrible thing for our country but—sadly—only made the project more timely and relevant.

VO: Box office receipts from Bastard Jones will go to True Colors, Cyndi Lauper’s organization to support at-risk LGBT youth. How did you hook up with True Colors?

AE: Well, first of all, this is non-profit off-Broadway. As for True Colors, it was Marc’s idea. He left home at 18 (when his father accidentally married a sociopath), and had it not been for his network of friends and their parents, it’s unclear what would have befallen him. The show is about young people who are outcasts simply for being their true selves, so it’s a natural fit for TCF’s mission.

We raised $90,000 privately before we even launched our campaign. We were not comfortable saying, “Here’s what we want to do: now you guys pay for it.” We have waived our royalties for this production and both have skin in the game as well. And if we meet our fundraising goal, 100% of the ticket sales will go to the True Colors Fund.  It’s a pay-it-forward model that has never been used before, as far as we know.

In the end, Marc and I retained complete artistic control of the project doing it this way, which is often not the case for authors. We have always had a specific, unified vision we will see come to life. That is the reward for facing the challenge.

VO: You joked on social media how nice it would be if Los Angeles and New York were bordering cities. Is it hard to be bi-coastal when you’re working on a major project in the city?

AE: The show is already written, and Marc and I are such porous collaborators that we can make adjustments and edits via email now. The trust level is off the charts. The show is also already orchestrated, so my main contributions take place when it’s actually happening. I’m not directing or producing. Marc and I are in constant contact and consult each other on all major decisions.

I was in town for casting, and attend pre-production meetings via Skype. I really just wish the commute didn’t take so long! The fact is my true work is in New York at the moment. I just wish I could take the 1 train home from 23rd Street to West Los Angeles and sleep in my condo with my velociraptor kitten and husband.

VO: Do you hope to take Bastard Jones on the road after its run at The Cell?

AE: If by “on the road” you mean 20 blocks north, YES INDEED!

Bastard Jones
June 14 – July 14
Nancy Manocherian’s The Cell
338 W. 23rd Sreet, NYC

To help with the fundraising, please visit www.gofundme.com/celljones 

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Category: Musical Theatre Features, New York City, New York City Musical Theatre Features, Off-Broadway Features, Regional

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