POSTED ON JULY 4, 2012:
Last-minute decisions lead to an original musical
Most artists, when presented with a sudden opening in Tulsa's SummerStage festival, might put together a cabaret. Or they might say, "No, thanks." But Rebecca Ungerman is not most artists.
When one of the SummerStage acts for this year's festival had to cancel, representatives of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust, which oversees the annual festival, approached Ungerman, looking to fill the spot.
"They said, 'There's a slot open, do you want it?' I was like, 'God, I just need the money,'" Ungerman said. "About 10 minutes later, they asked me what the show was, and I was like, 'I don't know, what was the last show gonna do?'"
Shirley Elliott and Nancy Hermann, both of the PAC, talked to Ungerman about the act formerly in the abandoned slot. After hearing what they had to say, Ungerman started work. Right then and there, in the office.
"I said I'd give them acoustic and I'd give them original, but beyond that, I'd have to think about it," she said.
She thought about it, made a couple of calls, and really pretty quickly she had come up with an original musical -- the story and the music.
"It is 100 percent original. I wrote or had a hand in writing every single song," she said. "There are a couple of past collaborations with Steve Elmore, my Blue Combo mate back in those days, there's a song I wrote with Frank Brown, and the big finale I just wrote about three weeks ago with my new writing and business partner Lisa Cole. Everything else is me, from 1987 to about two nights ago."
What she's come up with is a not-so-traditional love story, but she's quick to downplay anything out of the ordinary.
"I don't care if I blow the plot," she said. "If you can't see a happy ending coming from a mile away, I haven't done my job."
Out of the Blue. Rebecca Ungerman and Spinning Plates Productions presents The Unwitting Wife: a series of unfortunate affairs at the SummerStage Festival.
As for the non-traditional, it's a love story involving lesbians. However, Ungerman stressed that sexual orientation isn't the point.
"It's a three-woman lesbian love story," she said. "But I need a better way to say that, because it sounds like it's between the three women, and it's not. It's just a love story."
She expressed mild concern that such use of the "L" word might scare people off, but said it's not any sort of political show, nor is there any agenda.
"I don't want people to be scared or intimidated by this being a GLBT show. I'm the only GLBT in the room," she said.
The nickel-tour version of the story is this: Two childhood friends help each other find true love in their adult lives through a series of modern dating techniques.
Sounds like an innocent rom-com, and Ungerman does nothing to dispel such a notion.
"There's a third character from their high school days who's like the Puck and makes sure that the lovers are right in the end," she said.
Joining Ungerman are actors Lisa Cole and Shannon Shirley Boston. While Boston and Ungerman were childhood friends, Cole was a surprise discovery for Ungerman.
The pair met late last year when Ungerman played the Sour Kangaroo and Cole was a chorus member in Tulsa Project Theatre's production of Seussical! The Musical.
After that, Ungerman invited her to be a part of this year's Tulsa Gridiron.
"About two weeks into that, she opened her mouth to sing, and I was like, "What the hell, girl?' Lisa was like this undiscovered country for me," she said.
Behind the trio of actors is a live band helmed by TU graduate Ryan Tedder. The show is brand new, and so is the band -- drummer Nicolas Foster and bassist Calvin Knowles are current TU students, and Tedder is making his debut as music director. He's doing so with a much bigger task than most music directors face. Joining him is pianist Steven Schrag, and both musicians are drawing on their past experiences with TU music productions.
"I got accustomed to how the music works, the starts and stops," Tedder said. "I kind of got accustomed to that. Now it's really cool to see all the work Steven and I did come to fruition."
The work he refers to is taking Ungerman's songs and updating them. However, he and Schrag didn't have a lot of traditional printed sheet music to work from, instead using chord charts and sometimes just recordings Ungerman made over the years.
"We are basically trying to modernize these tracks that are -- some of them -- 20 years old," he said. "We're just rearranging them and putting them together for a new group with a more modern sound."
And Ungerman couldn't be happier with what her band is doing behind her and her show.
"Taking these old tunes and doing them with these TU kids, oh man, it's through the roof," she said. "They've created something amazing for me. I'm so jazzed about what they're doing with my stuff."
As for how that process has gone, Tedder said Ungerman generally gave the musicians a direction in which she might want a particular tune to go, and Tedder and Schrag set off on their own journey.
"She leaves a lot of the personal touch stuff to us," he said. "Steven and I put our own spin on them. They're becoming better thought-out, better-organized tunes."
The show will be performed in the Robert J. LaFortune Studio, a space heretofore practically untouched by SummerStage in past years. And it's a studio that Ungerman and her cast and bandmates are enjoying.
"They finally got a real cabaret space," she said. "It's got an elevated proscenium, and there are several tables throughout."
Granted, there are limitations, as Ungerman admits that due to the presence of the band, no one can enter or exit stage left. Still, there's nothing to dampen her enthusiasm.
"I love this space. I haven't been this excited about a performance space since I went to Studio K with a concert a couple of years ago. I love new spaces," she said.
No matter the size of the stage, Ungerman found a way to make lemonade.
"The stage is small," she said. "It's been a challenge, but it's also given us a gift, because we can take this show anywhere. We could do it in a closet."
And that portability may come in handy on an international level, she said.
"It's a teeny bit premature, but I've been asked to submit this to the Tiberias International Theater Festival in Israel," Ungerman said. "The theme this year is women, so I'm gonna."
Premature or not, this turns out to be kind of a big deal.
"It's a legit theater festival. There are about 20 countries represented," she said.
Tedder has enjoyed the process, but admits to a little discomfort with the compressed nature of time associated with a show kind of conceived on-the-fly.
"It's really, really fun," Tedder said. "But it's stressful because we're on a tight schedule, but Steven and I are dedicated enough to produce what we need to, even if there's not as much time as we would have liked."
He, like Ungerman, finds a bright side to the stress, however.
"I think if you get too comfortable, you can get stifled creatively," he said -- and that's a musician's kryptonite. "We're in a position where my brain is in work mode 24 hours a day -- you know, how can I make this a little cooler than it was even just yesterday? I'm not nervous, just anxious and excited."
All of this, remember, has come out of a seat-of-the-pants decision based on an opening in SummerStage that fell into Ungerman's lap.
"It was such a last-minute, out-of--the blue thing," she said. "At the time, we thought it was going to be a concert with a theme, and now I've written my first musical. And I've found the best collaborator I've ever had in Lisa Cole. I'm just getting so lucky."
The Unwitting Wife: A Series of Unfortunate Affairs is presented by Rebecca Ungerman's Spinning Plates Productions on Friday, July 6 at 8pm in the PAC's Robert J. LaFortune Studio as a part of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's SummerStage Festival. Tickets range from $20 to $30 and are available via myticketoffice.com or by calling the PAC box office at 918-596-7111.
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