From the Ground Up: Composer Elaine Chelton & Lyricist/Playwright Erik Johnke Discuss “God’s Country”

From: www.theaterpizazz.com

By Marcina Zaccaria

Composer/ Librettist teams are invited to the New York Musical Festival from many sides.  In being chosen for the 2013 New York Musical Theater Festival, Playwright and Lyricist Erik Johnke explained, “They chose us.  You apply to a lot of places, and you try to get in.  They’ve got a great track record of getting shows and taking them to the next level, and we’re very glad to be part of that group.”

A BMI workshop originally brought this Composer/ Lyricist Team together.  Composer Elaine Chelton explains, “When I first met my collaborator, Erik, he said, I have a script that has been in my drawer for 10 years.  Why don’t you take a look at it.  It’s called “God’s Country.” 

The play focuses on a lead character named James who finds out, when he is 21, that he is Irish and not English.  Book smart but not street smart, he travels to New York City’s gritty Five Points to find his voice and his place in the world.  James begins working as a journalist, and falls in love with a young temperance worker named Kathleen.  Tension develops between James and Tom Killian.  Throughout the play, a quest for identity is juxtaposed with the scenes of humor in the pubs of Five Points.  Large production numbers feature Irish dancing and stirring music. 

Erik Johnke (Book and Lyrics) began creating this piece 10 years ago.  He wrote the limericks which serve as the bare bones of the story.  He wrote the rest of the story from the ground up.  “God’s Country” can be a term for a rural area that God finds beautiful.

Johnke explains, ”When you left that place and came here, and you have to live in that slum, what a loss.  It’s fitting to talk about the place you left behind.  That’s God Country.”

Chelton recalls the stages of composition and the challenges of writing something dark and gritty, “When we first started working together, it was a little tough, because he kept saying to me, this is a man’s show.  It took a while to find the musical language for the show.”

Chelton, a versatile pianist who has worked with some of today’s leading choreographers including Susan Stroman and Lynne Taylor-Corbett, further explains, “My style of writing is very melodic.  I wouldn’t describe it as sweeping, because I have been writing songs for many, many years, but I had to really hone in on the harmony and what type of harmony would fit the Irish style and sound somewhat period.  I’m not saying I wrote the whole score completely in the 1870 Irish folk language, but it’s more sophisticated than that.  I want to consider it closer to ‘Les Miserables’ but more Irish.  Less English and more Irish.”

Chelton is a solo pianist for the New York City Ballet, and has performed the company’s repertoire at Lincoln Center.  Collaborator Erik Johnke says, “It’s a credit to Elaine that she is able to master this wide variety of styles.  With Broadway numbers, Irish ballads like “Miss Should,” and work songs, there is a wide range of music.”

Chelton said she wrote some pretty dark pieces, including a dirge.  She explains, “I wrote a song called ‘Dig My Grave’ that takes place during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  There is a scene where all the men are dying because they are down very far below and there is an oxygen issue.  I actually had to write a dirge called ‘Dig My Grave’ which the men sing in a chant underneath the scene.”

In 2012, the collaborative team had their first reading of “God’s Country” with Director Craig J. George at Seventh Avenue studios.  George has staged many productions including “Taming of the Shrew” and “Lighter” for the New York Musical Theatre Festival.  Over this rehearsal process, moments of the show have been trimmed and choreographed.  A lot of scenes move quickly.

Lyricist Erik Johnke said, “Craig is a wonderful director and is pushing me…you have a deep appreciation of language and a deep appreciation of story, and of character, which he does.  He has to figure out how to take this thing like words and music and put it physically on stage with real people.  It’s actually like going from drawings of the building to the building.  This has really pushed us forward in terms of moving the story forward.  You go through a day of rehearsal, you make a bunch of changes, I go home, I change my script, he prints them out, he gets a new set of changes.  We have been doing that every day for two weeks.”

Composer Elaine Chelton added, “You have to have a very good director with a good eye and a good ear.  I trust his judgment.  I would look forward in the next workshop to further refining the songs.  The three of us really work well or listen well together.” 

For Chelton, it’s a great honor to be the Composer on this new work.  “It’s a wonderful experience for “God’s Country” to be the composer, and not the pianist.  Because it gives me a listener’s perspective I have never had.  It allows me to pull back and really use my ear so that I can make the changes that I can make.  And it really frees me up to do the writing.”

Modern technology keeps the quick pace with this creative team.  Chelton is able to send drafts of musical changes through her cell phone.  She said, “What’s also amazing.  If I have an idea, if I want my director or collaborator to hear.  Through the computer, I write in Finale which is a music writing program.  The minute I finish it, I send it to Brian.  I send it to Craig.  This is wonderful.  This is perfect.  It’s unbelievable.  It’s a whole other world.” 

Other than the quick rehearsal process, the creative team faces all of the challenges associated with The New York Musical Theatre Festival.  Johnke said, “We don’t have falling chandeliers and boats across the stage.  We’re looking at load in and load out in 30 minutes.  The costumes are all in period.  It’s a huge hats off to Jeremy and Isaac for pulling it off. ”

Chelton said, “We actually go into the Linney on Thursday for the tech.  It opens at 9 o’clock on Thursday.  It is the first time that you are on that stage.”

“God’s Country” will be presented at The Pershing Square Signature Center Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at 480 West 42nd Street.  It opens up at NYMF on Thursday, July 18th and plays through Wednesday, July 24th.

The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) exists to revitalize musical theatre culture by discovering and promoting new musical theatre artists, producers, and projects.  Now in its tenth year, the Festival is the largest musical theatre event in America.  Tickets are available by calling 212.352.3101. On line, visit the Events page of www.nymf.org.