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SAN DIEGO -- America's Finest City is known as a theater town, thus we are often blessed with the world premieres of new works. Same goes to the Diversionary Theatre, one of the nation's leading producers of LGBT-themed shows. Now through July 22, the Diversionary is presenting a brand new American musical, "Harmony, Kansas."
Judging by the raves from theater critics and patrons alike, the Diversionary has a popular hit on its hands.
"Harmony, Kansas" tells the story of a group of farmers from rural Kansas who meet in secret on Monday nights for food and fellowship and to sing together. The plot centers around the very private Heath, born and bred on a farm, who dreams of adding 500 acres to his holdings. His partner, Julian, gave up the lights of the big city and his gregarious lifestyle for the love of his life, but is itching to make new friends. Julian convinces Heath to join the small amateur chorus, but their life together turns upside down when the group decides to "come out of the closet" and perform publicly. Everything Health loves in his life -- his farm and the man he loves -- could be lost as a result of his decision to turn his back on the harmony group.
San Diego Gay & Lesbian News spoke with the creators of "Harmony, Kansas" -- Anna K. Jacobs, who wrote the music, and Bill Nelson, who wrote the book and lyrics.
Jacobs is best-known for "POP!" and "Stella And The Moon Man." She was a 2011-12 Dramatists Guild Fellow and holds a master's degree in fine arts from NYU's Musical Theatre Writing Program. Her music and lyrics have been featured in concert at Lincoln Center, Ars Nova, Cutting-Edge Composers and other venues.
Nelson wrote and performed in "Bill Nelson's All-Male Revue." He, too, holds a master's degree in fine arts from NYU's Musical Theatre Writing Program.
SDGLN: Congratulations on the world premiere of “Harmony, Kansas” and the excellent reviews. What are your thoughts, now that the show has debuted?
JACOBS: Well from our perspective, there's always more work to be done, and with a brand new musical that's especially the case, but right now it feels great to be able to sit back and watch the show succeed at doing what we've always hoped it would do: create community through song.
NELSON: I’m really excited that audiences are embracing these characters and their story. Audience members keep talking to me about the characters as if they’re actual people they know. That warms my heart because I’ve felt that way about them for a while now.
SDGLN: Explain the genesis of the musical? How autobiographical is it? It seems based on Bill’s Midwestern roots.
JACOBS: Bill has experience with the gay chorus movement, and he can speak more to that. I am a classically trained composer whose roots are in choral music; back in Sydney, Australia, I sang, conducted, arranged and composed for choirs. The experience of finding a chosen family through participating in a choir is something both Bill and I had in common. Back when we were still in grad school at the NYU Musical Theatre Writing Program, he had mentioned wanting to write a show about a gay men's chorus. I said I wanted to write that show with him. But I was also very keen on composing a non-urban score -- something inspired by space and nature -- so I suggested we set it in the country, and since Bill is from the Midwest and understands that culture well, we chose rural western Kansas as the setting. Then we did a ton of research into farm-life in general, as well as the experiences of gay men and women living in remote, rural areas. One sentiment we were particularly intrigued by, early on in our research, can be summed up in a quote made by a farmer named David Campbell, who was interviewed for the book “Farmboys”: "I’m not somebody who goes flitting in public, advertising the fact that I’m gay… For the most part, I just live my life day-to-day, and the gay part never enters into it." This sentiment inspired a lot of the conflict in “Harmony, Kansas,” particularly the inner conflict that plays out with Heath.
NELSON: Rather than writing about what I know, I prefer to write about what I want to know. I am a Midwesterner, having grown up in Tulsa, Okla., and lived in Kansas City, Mo., for nine years. But I’m definitely a city boy. When Anna wanted to set the show in the country, I really had to research to see what small town/rural life is like. I suggested setting it in the Midwest because I at least knew the layout. And I chose western Kansas because it was far enough away from any city with a real-life gay men’s chorus that our characters wouldn’t just drive to one of those, rather than form their own group. Many of the characters and the group dynamics were originally inspired by guys from the Heartland Men’s Chorus of Kansas City with whom I sang for nine years. But it was important to us that each of our characters’ personalities grew out of their specific rural environment. Heath, for example, was initially inspired by an ex-farmer I dated in Kansas City who was so miserable in city life that he finally moved to the edge of the city where he could at least keep chickens. But his character took on its own life, as they all did. When I sang with the big Kansas City chorus, there were guys like my ex-farmer who would come to rehearsal from way out in the suburbs — guys you’d never guess were gay. They didn’t like gay bars or cute clothes, but they liked to sing and feel part of a community. I was always curious about them and that got me excited about writing about gay men who chose to stay in the country.
SDGLN: Interesting themes throughout: the self-imposed closet, the fear of the unknown, the self-loathing of gay men trying to pass in the straight world of a farming community. Plus the temptation of the lonely partner in a relationship that clearly isn’t working. How are audiences reacting to all this?
JACOBS: I think a lot of these themes are universal, and so people are connecting to them on a very human level. I am obviously not a man, nor a farmer, nor am I gay, yet I still find the story deeply personal. Especially the idea of embracing your true self, no matter the consequences.
NELSON: From the beginning, we set out to write a show that anyone could relate to. It was important to us to write a story in which the straight community is not villainized and the gay characters are not victims. Our show says to love yourself, love each other, and take risks. It speaks to people because we’re not reminded to do those things often enough.
SDGLN: How does one partner up to do a musical? How did you two find each other, how long did the creative process take, and will you work together again?
JACOBS: It's like being married. You have to adore each other, and fortunately, we do. We were classmates and friends before we were collaborators. We knew what made each other tick and how to bring out the best in each other. We began conceiving the idea in spring 2008 and took a road trip to Kansas that summer too, but it wasn't until the winter of 2010/2011 that we really began to figure out how to tell the story we wanted to tell.
NELSON: We met in 2006 in NYU’s graduate musical theatre writing program. During that time, we fell in love with each other’s work and became good friends. We both tend to focus on the job at hand and we enjoy working with other talented people as well. But I look forward to talking about ideas for another show together.
SDGLN: How did the Diversionary Theatre get involved? And director James Vasquez and music director Adam Wachter? Why San Diego – and not Kansas City – for the world premiere?
JACOBS: John Alexander, the executive director of Diversionary Theatre, had heard about “Harmony, Kansas” and reached out to us directly. John then played matchmaker and set us up with James Vasquez. Adam joined the team following the show's workshop at Goodspeed Musicals in January of this year; we were searching for somebody especially gifted at working with singers since there is so much a cappella singing in "Harmony, Kansas," and Adam came highly recommended.
SDGLN: What changes do you plan with the show? Any kinks to iron out?
JACOBS: We are definitely excited to continue working on “Harmony, Kansas.” This production has helped us tremendously in understanding the piece better, and seeing ways in which we can take the script and score to the next level. There are some moments in the show where we'd feel the audience's energy wane or hear programs rustle, but at a certain point you just have to say to yourself, "Oh well, we'll get that next time!"
SDGLN: Where does the show go from here?
JACOBS: Hopefully there will be more opportunities for us to work on the show and see it brought to life by talented theatre artists like the folk at Diversionary Theatre!
SDGLN: What are your future projects?
JACOBS: I am currently in the beginning stages of writing a musical adaptation of the cult horror film, “Teeth.” My collaborator on that project, Michael R. Jackson, is also a former NYU alumni. I am also busily planning a concert of my music, featuring songs from “Harmony, Kansas” and “POP!” the Andy Warhol-inspired musical that I wrote with bookwriter-lyricist Maggie-Kate Coleman. The concert will take place at Ars Nova in NYC on Aug. 27.
NELSON: I’m working on a couple of new plays, a new original musical with fellow NYU alumnus composer Will Aronson, and developing my NYU thesis musical, “Savannah: A Jazz Fable.”
“Harmony, Kansas” plays through July 22 at 4545 Park Blvd., No. 101.
Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinee Sunday at 2 pm.
For tickets, call 619-220-0097 or visit HERE.