Julia Meinwald & Gordon Leary on Writing the Unlikable
It’s right there in the first sentence of the first paragraph on their website, “Julia Meiniald and Gordon Leary write aggressively empathetic musicals.” Perhaps empathy is a fairly standard tool in the writer’s toolkit, but a scan of the musicals created by this team uncovers characters who, more often than not, set off on troubling journeys.
We caught up with the songwriting duo, who go by their first names professionally, Julia & Gordon, although also Gordon & Julia, to discuss what it means to write with so much empathy.
Your musical REB+VoDKa+ME covers notably heavy subject matter as it follows “fans” of one of the Columbine shooters. During the writing process did you feel like you needed to empathize with some of your characters to write them?
Empathy is central to everything we write. We have found that the stories we most enjoy telling are about people making choices that we can’t see ourselves making and using our writing to try to understand those choices. Whether it’s telling the story of teenage girls getting pregnant on purpose or a C-list celebrity turned anti-gay cultural crusader, we always aim to keep the humanity of our (admittedly challenging) characters front and center. The community we explore in REB+VoDKa+ME certainly tested the limits of our empathy when we began writing it a few years ago, but the more we read and researched and wrote, the more we saw a community centered around a shared need for belonging and connection. (In many ways, the goals of this “fandom” are the same as the goals of our writing, to work hard to find humanity in those who have been deemed inhuman.) While we approach our characters with empathy, we work hard not to make excuses or allowances for their choices. We always aim to ask questions and rarely try to give our audiences the answers.
Does working to write with this much empathy, especially for characters for whom it may be a struggle to empathize with, ever take a toll on either of you emotionally or personally? Is there empathy left over for your friends and loved ones after you complete an especially difficult scene or song?
The research process for some of our projects has certainly been emotionally draining. Any sane person can only take so many Tumblr trolls or antigay screeds before needing some quiet recuperation! And we do find ourselves sometimes reaching, or at least approaching, the limits of our empathy in the characters we explore. (The limits of empathy are just as compelling for us as writers as we recognize that some things we find our characters believing or saying or doing are indeed beyond the pale.) But the practice of actively looking for humanity is a skill that we work hard to master. Rather than something in limited supply, empathy is like a muscle that takes building and exercise and stretching. Most of the time it’s a relief to deal with those we love after living in these worlds – we never have to work hard to find their humanity! – but we think (or hope) that the empathetic worldview we’ve cultivated as writers also makes us better friends and family and collaborators.
Like REB+VoDKa+ME, your musical The Magnificent Seven, takes inspiration from relatively contemporary history. An old adage in writing courses is to write what you know. Were both of these stories central to one or both your lives growing up?
As teenagers in the late 90s, gymnast Kerri Strug’s heroic vault in the 1996 Olympic Games and the 1999 Columbine High School shootings were the ultimate examples of the best and worst of what people our age could be and do in America. At the time, the moral judgments on both events were very cut-and-dry, and it’s been refreshing (and somewhat therapeutic) to have a chance to reexamine both stories and demystify the legends baked into them.
Without getting into details that you’d rather not share yet, are there other recent events that you have your eyes on?
We’ve actually been starting to look well beyond recent history to stories that resonate with what is happening in the world today. Our newest projects have grown out of events in Colonial New England and medieval France. Both are very much grounded in their historical moments but resonate in so many ways with the social issues that interest us in contemporary America, and it’s been very fun to find a voice and a language (both in the words and the music) to create our versions of these times.
Your 10-minute musical, Blank Slate, is about a man who reinvents his own personal history. Can you share with our readers the inspiration behind this story? Did either one of you feel the same itch?
Blank Slate was part of an evening of short musicals commissioned by Prospect Theatre Company in which writers were given an address in New York City and told to visit the site and let it inspire a musical. Our location was the wonderful Pippin Vintage Home, an eclectic furniture and home goods store in a cottage tucked behind larger buildings on 17th Street in Manhattan. Since we were writing in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it seemed natural that someone who lost everything would come to this kind of shop to discover a new personal history. As we’re going through another time of great upheaval, it’s easy to remember why the story resonated with us, but we both feel lucky to have our writing (and our collaboration) to ground us!
How has the pandemic changed how you work as a team? Have you both continued writing throughout the last few months?
We’ve tried our best to be productive during the pandemic, whether that’s the creative end or the business end. We’re taking the time to catch up on a few rewrites that have long been on our list, we’re expanding into video work to keep getting our writing into the world, and we’re doing our best to keep up with our usual deadlines to hang on to any sense of normalcy we can find! Thankfully our usual creative process doesn’t involve in-the-room songwriting – we do a lot of talking about our ideas but then retreat into our separate spaces to create – so we haven’t been practically impacted, though the general anxiety of the moment can sometimes keep us from getting much creating done. We are doing our best to be kind to ourselves and each other through this, and we feel lucky to have each other to navigate this moment as artists.
Bonus question: Gordon, we must ask – how has watching every episode of the Real Housewives series influenced your work as a writer, and, Julia, does Gordon bring highlights from the show into the writing room?
GL: I’d like to say that my devotion to the Housewives has been some sort of artistic or cultural research, but mostly it’s just the basest kind of distraction. There may be some lessons to learn about the power of storytelling to turn a character from hero to villain and back again, or the benefits of having a character who can function as a sort of everyman audience stand-in, but that may also be giving the franchise too much credit!
JM: I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t gleaned much Real Housewives, despite having a collaborator who’s an expert on the franchise, but I will say that our collective fandom of America’s Next Top Model has helped us unwind after some particularly stressful rehearsals.
Is there a musical waiting to be uncovered in Real Housewives?
GL: I feel very confident in guessing that at least one already exists! I am all for musical theatre that speaks to issues of class and societal power structures, so if these stories inspire another writer then I say go for it!
You can see more of Gordon & Julia’s work at 10glo.vincentragosta.dev/user/gordonandjulia/
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