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“Spring Awakening’s” Steven Sater on “New York Animals” and more

July 27, 2010

Now that his Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening has been in two dozen countries, playwright Steven Sater has time to devote to other projects. Right?

Steven Sater - photo by Lars Klove for New York Times

“No one knows this but I’m writing notes on the lyrics of Spring Awakening now. When you read through them, you see all the sources I used. I also write with Burt Bacharach now.” And he maintains a close friendship and business relationship with Duncan Sheik who penned the music for Spring Awakening.

So it may not be a stretch to learn that Sater recently canceled the Los Angeles opening of his newest play New York Animals (NYA). “It’s the play that brought me to LA. I’d worked on it for years,” Sater says. “We were supposed to do it in New York. [Actor and producer] Paul Reiser read the play and loved it. He thought there could be a TV series from it, which brought me to Los Angeles. We set it up at Sony and I wrote the pilot.

NYA is four actors who play 21 characters whose lives collide over the course of this one rainy New York day. As a television show it would be very unusual. TV is so made up of the same characters every week and bringing them into your home and deepening your investment in their story. And this is a show where you’d almost never see the same person twice. You were tracking more this principle of connectedness in post 9-11 New York.

“I wrote it quickly. Sony was very happy with it. FX bought it. We shot it. It became a year and a half of my life. They ordered another six episodes which I wrote with Paul. We had a start date, but then it fell apart, I think, for the same reasons everyone was so excited about it, they were also scared because it was so distinctive in its form. That led to another potential series I did with Paul for NBC, which became the next year and a half of my life. 

“I was living in a hotel for so long I finally moved my family to LA.”
Sater says the rights to the play were tied up for a while and he and Reiser re-formulated the television show for Showtime. “Finally the rights came back to me. Caroline Aaron, an actress in the current production, was living right up the block from me near Larchmont Village. Caroline had wanted to do the play many years ago in New York, but the theatre where we were going to do it shut down. 

“When the rights became available, she said that after so many readings of it years ago, it would be great to see it on its feet. She told me about this really cool theatre she was a part of [Rogue Machine Theatre], and that they’re very much devoted to writers so the process could be very low key. I thought about for some time it because I’m so busy right now. But I thought, ‘Why not?’ and she gave it to the theatre.” 

Director John Flynn, Sater says, “loved the play and seemed to have a deep appreciation for it and its unusual achievement, I guess, and they really wanted to do it. I agreed; in fact, I was much less involved than I might have been. I’d never worked in equity theatre. I didn’t get involved in casting or production meetings, the way I usually would. I was just too busy.” 

Eventually, Sater caught up with the rehearsals and made a series of changes. “In fact, just coming back from London, I worked on three scenes that lingered with me. Again, the format is so unusual. Even when you see something you want to work on it’s not immediately clearly how to because any small thing you change has such an effect on so many other things. I think John made some bold decisions in production; they aren’t necessarily the choices I would’ve made, but they’ve been illuminating for a future incarnation of the play. It’s turned into a tremendous experience.” 

At its core, Sater explains, New York Animals seeks to represent, record, and affect people through “some sense of these characters in New York. It grew out of my life in New York. Everywhere you went in New York, there were these dramas, these stories. And before you knew it, in the most seemingly random way, you wound up becoming part of someone else’s story. In New York, everyone is so connected to one another.” 

Caroline Aaron and Burl Moseley

It works on principle, notes cast member Burl Moseley. The story is just as valid in Sioux City as it is in Los Angeles or New York. “I do believe the theme of being ‘disconnected’ to the world around us (even amidst such improvements in how we stay connected to our world — i.e. – cell phones, Internet, video chat, etc.) is universal.  Regardless of the city someone resides in, I think the scenes in the play are equally relatable.” 

Sater grew up in the Midwest but fell in love with New York upon his first visit. And through this play, he “wanted to try to capture the humanity, heart ache, range of life and character that was New York.” 

Sater referred at the outset to the sources he used as inspiration for developing Spring Awakening. “One thing I felt from [19th Century French Poet Charles] Baudelaire was that, in the city, infinity could be found in and through nature. But what I learned was the sense that infinity in the modern city comes from other people, from within one another. In some way, I wanted to open a story or a series of stories into the heart of the New York character. It was never meant to be only about New York. Much like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is about any town, this was also looking at New York as a kind of Synecdoche of urban life, urban dwelling. 

Like Duncan Sheik, Sater is a Soka Gakkai Buddhist. It’s how they met eight years ago. “And animality,” Sater says, “is one of the states of the ten worlds Buddhism talks about from hell through hunger and humanity up to a pure selflessness. Animality is a world in which everyone’s always wanting something from somebody else and the big are always looking down on the small and the small are always looking with envy at the big. 

“So it began with a range of themes and these two-handers and a desire to connect them and have a story that added up to more than its parts. I also wanted to find another way of telling a story, a way that drove us through a tale that wasn’t necessarily plot or narrative.” 

Sater believes that, if you deconstructed New York Animals, you would have a series of really well-made one-act plays, a series of themes, through which are connections. “I wanted to have a cumulative weight and effect. I wanted to a) show how the smallest causes made in the day made great effects on others; b) demonstrate our connections to one another, and c) look at thematic developments as we might in music. It’s a great, ambitious experiment.”

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater

Sater says his friendship with Duncan Sheik has not given him a stronger appreciation for music; rather, “I would say that I brought a profound appreciation of the music of words to lyric writing, which I had never anticipated, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve been so successful as a lyricist. Duncan has said for years that my words suggest melodies. When he reads the lyric, he can set it. Duncan, 98% of the time, sets my lyrics verbatim. If I were to show you the original copy I gave him of [the song] Totally Fucked, you can see that he used the same number of blah, blah, blahs.”
The same appreciation for Sater’s lyrics, he says, is shared by songwriter Burt Bacharach. “We’re very close and writing a lot together. I also give him the words first, usually, as I do with Duncan. Burt says that the words give him the verse. I was always very aware of the musicality of words.” 

Sometimes to an actor’s chagrin, Sater is exacting. “I’m actually really difficult about this with actors because I think of the script as a musical score. I want them to be word-perfect and syllable-perfect and I want them to honor their punctuation.” 

The expectations of an audience may be less rigid, but actor Moseley hopes they will “simply be an active participant in their own lives. Relish in the joy of creation and achievements, as well as confront and process the pain of loss and failure. And, if at all possible, find someone to share in all of that good stuff.” 

The ancient Greeks gave Sater his sense of metric and music to the lines that he writes. “My ears are very informed by years of reading ancient Greek texts. The ancient Greek metric system is different than ours – it’s actually a pitch system. Plus, years and years of reading the poets I love: Milton and Spencer and Sidney and Shakespeare and Keats. That’s who I go to bed reading, still. And the modern poets, Stevens, Ashbury, Whitman all had a big effect on me, as well as Emily Dickinson. Those are the great influences on my lyric writing for sure.” 

Sater believes NYA could see a full production ‘soon.’ “The problem is, my life is very busy. Professionally, I’m very booked up. But coming out of this [Rogue Machine] workshop, I would love to do a full production out of town, though not in New York at first, but some place else and then do it in New York. I can also imagine that out of this workshop I would be able to secure a production in New York sooner, rather than later. There aren’t a lot of steps left to go.” 

Even though Sater recently pulled the plug on the planned Los Angeles opening, he remains a steadfast believer in workshopping a production. “I’m always a fan of more development and I know that a lot of playwrights are not, but I am. Spring Awakening had seven workshops before we opened it. The Nightingale, which is one of my new musicals with Duncan, I don’t know how many it’s had – six, maybe? I just think you learn so much each time you do it. So I always want as many chances as I can get. That plays against the practical aspect of wanting things to happen and wanting things to get on.” 

It isn’t a stretch to imagine that Spring Awakening changed Sater’s world. “It opened it up tremendously. It affected my outlook on life, now that dreams can come true. We cared about it so much, we believed in it so much – we being [director] Michael [Mayer], Duncan and I – the whole team. It was so much in accord with our own minds with the story we wanted to tell in a way we wanted to tell it, and to see it affect as many people as it has…. It’s been in 24 countries and we’re now working on the movie. It took us 8 years to get it on. There’s hope for everything.”

Sater won the Tony Award for Best Book and Best Score, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle Award for Best Lyrics, the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album and the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Musical for Spring Awakening. He also has won the Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner Award, the Lucille Lortel, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and Drama League Awards for Best Musical.

New York Animals continues as a workshop production (in rep with FOUR PLACES) thru August 8, 2010 at The Rogue Machine. 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019 It continues .   Tickets are $25. Reservations:  (323) 960-7792. The cast includes Jennifer Riley and Kevin Brief.

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