August 26, 2011

Play it Cool, a Hot New Musical, Brings 1950's Jazz-Inspired Tunes to Off-Broadway

By Rob Bellon

Phillip Swann and Mark Winkler

Pictured (l-r) are Phillip Swann and Mark Winkler, co-creators of Play it Cool
Photo By Craig Levine

When New York audiences first preview the new musical, Play It Cool, on Theatre Row in September, they will see a smooth performance of suave actors coolly singing an original bill of 1950s-jazz-inspired tunes.

What they won't see is a seven-year history of evolution and creative revision that underlies the wonderful work on the stage. Nor will they see the songwriters behind the songs, who in mid-August, just a month before opening night, were still rewriting parts in a relentless pursuit to perfect their opus.

Play It Cool began as a project between lyricist Mark Winkler and book writer Larry Dean Harris. The two formulated the first incarnation of Play It Cool seven years ago, when it debuted at Los Angeles' Celebration Theatre.

As the project gained momentum, Winkler approached his friend, composer Phillip Swann, a former staff writer for DreamWorks, to outfit the show with tunes that would more decidedly propel the narrative.

"They realized that to drive the story, they needed some more book driven songs, and that's when Mark called me," Swann said. "And he said, 'Hey I got this show. Why don't you come down, write a song or two with me?'"

Swann signed on to the project, and the long metamorphosis began.

"Before I knew it, half the songs had been replaced," Swann said. "And now most all of the songs have been replaced." Together, Swann and Winkler replaced 14 of the original show's songs. But, as they pointed out, that's not unusual in show business.

"You're constantly writing and rewriting. We wrote a new song for the show last week," Swann said in the second week of August.

The week before, Swann and Winkler, who both teach at UCLA extension, were in Dayton, Ohio. They were at The Human Race Theatre Company to refine the show in the latest of a long line of workshops. The workshop circuit is an essential part of the musical theatre production process. Show creators apply for an opportunity to present their work and get it critiqued. If they're accepted into the workshops, it is a chance to examine how the show might be received by an audience and to understand how it can be improved. It is the site of revision and redefinition.

When Swann and Winkler brought their show to The Human Race, "we knew we needed some information about one of the characters," Winkler said. "[The character] didn't have a song, and he needed one to tell us a little bit more about him." The result, Winkler said, brought a lighter approach to what was otherwise a very dark character. "But this opening song, the first time you hear him, it's actually much more of a song and dance kind of song - a funny song. It's actually funny."

The revision process is about crafting the music to better express the essential narrative, but occasionally, Winkler said, the music can reach out and change the story and characters themselves.

"Sometimes a song can surprise you in its tone and where it takes you, but it did further the story and tell us more about the character."

Winkler, who has written five musicals, is no stranger to the workshop process. About 10 years ago, one of his earlier shows, "Too Old for the Chorus But Not Too Old to Be a Star," was chosen to be presented at the ASCAP Foundation/Disney Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles with Stephen Schwartz, an Acadamy Award-winning composer whose works include Wicked, Prince of Egypt, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When he was accepted to the workshop, Winkler was at an earlier stage in his musical theatre career, and "Too Old for the Chorus" was the first musical revue for which he had written all the lyrics. But he said he still carries Schwartz's advice with him today.

"The things he would talk about … influenced me greatly, and so many of the things he talked about I follow," Winkler said. "He said some really smart things. And we applied them, and it went into the production."

Winkler, who has been going to the ASCAP/Disney workshops for the past ten years, said the songwriters tend to grapple with the same issues from year to year. They generally know how to write a song, he said, but the real challenge is in writing songs that advance the story.

"What it always comes down to in this workshop is book problems. Are the songs telling the story? Is the story good enough to be told? You're always dealing with that," Winkler said. "He's really fanatical about that, as he should be, because in modern musical theatre, the audience demands you to adhere to the story."

For Winkler and Swann, Play It Cool presented an appealing challenge. Their task was to capture the story of a secret Hollywood club in 1953 during an era of "film noir and smoky hot jazz," as the show's tag line reads, when "men couldn't dance with men, and women were expected to know their place in society. It's a show about five individuals, their passions, ambitions and their courage to break the rules no matter what the price."

But amid a seemingly narrow slice of history, Winkler and Swann knew they could keep the audience interested with the period's varied musical palate.

"It's my favorite time," Winkler said. "I love the music of 1953. There was cool jazz happening.There's a great sort of sophistication to the music of that period."

"Jazz" at that time, Swann said, "encompasses a lot of styles. So it's not all swing, it's not all shuffles, it's not all bossa novas, it's not all cha cha's."

Winkler and Swann will be coming to New York in September to celebrate the Off-Broadway opening of Play It Cool. But they'll also mark the dual release of their own new albums.

"Phil had been working on a CD too, and we said, 'Wouldn't it be neat if we both released our CDS at the same time that the musical opened?' And that's what we did."

Winkler's album, Sweet Spot, which debuted at number 25 on the Jazz Week charts, is his tenth release and is already his most successful to date. Swann's album, Stale Scotch and Cheap Cigars, is his latest project. Both albums are available on iTunes and CD Baby, and Sweet Spot is also available on Amazon.com.

The CDs are a fitting culmination to a seven-year journey - covers of two of the Play It Cool songs made it on to their albums. Looking back at a musical that fledged in LA, Swann can't help but be pleased at seeing it finally come to fruition in the city that never sleeps.

"You don't dare think that, but you always kind of hope that," he said. For a musical to go through the workshops and make its way to New York and Off-Broadway - "that's utopia."

Play It Cool begins in previews at The Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row on Friday, Sept. 2. The opening night performance is at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 9. A full list of showings is available at www.playitcoolmusical.com/tickets.php.