Dan Wootton never set out to write a musical. He just wanted to write some songs for the practice of it.
"To be honest, it was a project I didn't think I'd finish," he said, sitting on a couch at Drapp Studios as he and his cast feverishly worked on finishing a cast recording of A Few Doors Down, a musical Wootton has been writing for five years. "I thought it would be an exercise in writing. The beauty of the show is that it's not 40-person cast with lots of tap-dance numbers. It was always, 'Even if I only get to perform this in my living room, we'll still get to do it.'"
But it's gone past living rooms, although that is actually where it was first performed.
"Last summer, we probably did five or six small house concerts with just me sitting at the piano," he said. "We started building the support base for this show."
The show itself is something of an oddity, to be frank. A Few Doors Down tells the stories of four strangers--they never meet in the show--and how they go through their lives. The characters are named for the streets where their houses are, and Wootton strove to evoke a sense of connectedness to our neighbors.
"It's the idea of if you walked in to any neighborhood in America and pointed to four random houses, these are the stories of those homes," he said. He then relayed a story of a photographer who was shooting photos for an article about this production and how Wootton and the photographer knew each other, but couldn't place each other.
"Finally, he said, 'Dan, I was your next-door neighbor,'" Wootton said. "I had lived next door to this guy for five years. It's a curiosity of what's going on next door. My struggles and shortfalls are really not that different from those of the stranger living down the street."
So the fact that the characters don't have actual names is actually a device to further the conceit that each character is an everyman.
How Wootton came up with this whole thing is a meandering tale, but it ends with the production of the show this week. The composer said he didn't start out to write a musical.
"It started with that first song," he said. "It's a song that briefly introduces four characters."
But he didn't just wake up one day and decided to write a song cycle (more on that term in a minute).
"Eight years ago, I heard a bootleg copy of Edges, which is a Broadway song cycle written by Pasek and Paul," he recalled.
"They were just nominated for Best Musical for the score of A Christmas Story."
That led him, eventually, to decide to try his hand at the form, though, like just about every other aspect of A Few Doors Down, his take on it was a little unusual.
"Song cycles don't usually have connected stories," he said. Normally, a song cycle has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is a complete story in and of itself. What Wootton has done is essentially presented each character with multiple stories that fit together to tell a cohesive tale.
"It's just a fun genre for a songwriter, because it's the idea that each song is a complete story in itself, and once it's put together, you're introduced to new layers."
Yes, but how has this come to be produced? Wootton lays the credit (blame?) on one ardent supporter of his, who hosted one of the living room concerts last summer.
"It's Pam Edwards. It's all her," he said. "She was our fundraiser who blew up how we were thinking about doing this. That's why we made the trip to Nashville to headhunt for cast members."
Again, Wootton had planned to write some songs, then maybe get to perform them a little, but with the support of Edwards and people like her who heard the show and loved it, A Few Doors Down got some legs and started becoming an actual production.
After looking for cast members, Wootton settled on Allison Firey, whose Tulsa ties including a four-year stint performing starring roles at Discoveryland, Cori Laemmel, who runs a children's theater in Nashville, Ryan Greenawalt, a speech and debate coach for Belmont University and professional actor and musician in Nashville, and Lloyd Holt, who runs a voice studio in Springfield, Missouri. And he couldn't be happier with them.
"There are people who audition well for a show, but they're just capable of doing, like, The Sound of Music, and they're like, 'I just have to act like Julie Andrews, and that will get me the thumbs-up from the director,'" he said. "We needed people who could do something that had never been done before and say, 'What does she sound like?' and 'How would he do this?'"
And that's what he's gotten, and maybe a little more, as the actors themselves have pushed him when it comes to their characters.
"The truth is, it's been more thought-provoking to me when one of the actors says, 'Why is she saying this?' or 'Why do you have me doing that?'" he said.
So the workshop performances will be held here in Tulsa of Tulsa Ballet's Studio K for two nights, then there's a show in Springfield and a show in Nashville. And nothing about this is unplanned.
"We've had people ask why we're not doing it for two weeks," Wootton said. "But that's not the point. The point of a workshop show is to spur on more productions. We become a better work, and then in the process, other theater companies come along to produce the work."
Just exactly what form (or even if) those future possibilities happen depends on the shows and audience reaction. And yes, the audience has been thought through, as well, partially consisting of invited guests, which Wootton calls "targeted audience members."
"They're going to be the ones who help us find the next step of the show," he said. "We wait to see who finds us and can help us take the next step. That might be festivals or new musical festivals or someone wanting to produce the show."
The scary part is that after all the fundraising and casting and rehearsing and recording and traveling, if nobody steps up to throw in some cash to keep this going, the Doors train will come to a halt.
"This could be it." But Wootton is hopeful that it won't be.
A Few Doors Down, written by Wootton, is directed by Vern Stefanic and plays in Tulsa September 25 and 26 at 7pm at Tulsa Ballet's Studio K, 1212 E. 45th Place. Tickets are $11 and available through myticketoffice.com. There will be an interactive element to the show, as a theater professional will lead a 15-minute talkback session after each performance.
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