Witches! the Musical – Writer Interview

September 7, 2012 – Mount Vernon, WA

Interview with Conrad Askland – writer of “Witches! the Musical”

Premiere Info

Why did you choose the subject of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials?

Originally I had picked a different subject. But while researching that other project I ran into a major problem with the plot that ruined the project for me. That plot problem became my new focus for a different project which I started working on, and may be my next project. During that process I realized it was just too big to attack for my first full length musical. So I started over looking specifically for an existing story, a topic I felt hadn’t been done well as musical theater in the past, and that incorporated children.

I don’t remember specifically how I ended up on the topic of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials – but it had everything I was looking for by the time I ran across it. The story existed and had some historical documentation. In looking at other musical productions on this topic I felt I could do a more engaging treatment. And the story had all those Circle Girls, so lots of girl characters and no boys. I loved that because if you’ve ever done auditions for community theater, you know that dozens of middle school girls show up for auditions and barely any boys. I remembered in the past being MD for Bye Bye Birdie and how difficult it was to get a male teen chorus together. So 1692 Salem had all the elements I was looking for.

A lot of my criteria was based on advice from Stephen Sondheim. I’ve spent a great deal of time reading his books, reading and watching his interviews. I chose him as a model because for a lot of his shows he does book, music and lyrics without a collaborator.

What is your musical and theater background?

My personal website is at http://www.ConradAskland.com which has a curriculum vitae. As a boy soprano, starting in fourth grade, I sang with the Northwest Boychoir in Seattle, WA. That led to singing with Seattle Opera in Tosca, Carmen, Boris Godunov and the lead role in Amahl in the Night Visitors. That was a powerful experience being so young and learning all the operatic, Baroque and Early Music.

As a child I was in many plays as an actor but really not that talented. I’ve spent more time on music and writing so I’m more proficient at that. In high school I played French Horn in the concert band and bass guitar in the jazz ensemble. That was a great experience for hearing orchestrations and learning chord movement.

I took music courses at Pacific Lutheran University, University of Miami, UCLA and most recently with Berklee School of Music online but never completed a degree. That’s all another story but I’ll spare you.

My first professional steady gig was playing piano at Nordstrom in Bellevue, WA at the mall. I was 18. In my early 20’s I moved to Southern California where I taught piano, ran a recording studio and worked as a freelance arranger and keyboardist. I played the country music circuit in So. Cal and Las Vegas for many years. Some of it was fun, but I played a lot of trucker bars for fifty dollars a night.

The recording studio was a great experience because I was always arranging in new styles for various clients. A good portion of the clients had me write songs for them too. I would write the songs for free if they paid for recording time. Most of the time it was collaboration. Clients would bring in songs that had lyric or melodic problems and I would improve the songs for them.

In my early twenties I did music for Little Shop of Horrors and Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. On Forum I was MD and the first rehearsal my orchestra didn’t show up, so I sequenced the entire show on an old Roland W-30 with external tone generators. This was back in like 1991. There was a full orchestra pit and just me with a 30 space rack full of gear and a little keyboard. I worked round the clock to pull that off and made like $500 for the whole run. So I focused on recording and Vegas type shows after that.

In 2006 I got a call from Theater Arts Guild of Skagit that they needed a conductor for Elton John’s AIDA. I was between gigs so I did that and then conducted Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, High School Musical, Seussical, Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror Show and sound design for Peter Pan and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In 2008 I joined Cirque Du Soleil on their show in Macau, China until the show closed in February, 2012. So from 2006-2012 I was performing solely in musical theater. It felt great, like I had come back home. It all reminded me of the feeling I had when performing as a child. I really can’t put it into words. It just feels like it’s where I’m supposed to be.

Have to throw this in. My earliest memory is listening on headphones to the albums (yes, records) of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar. My mother said I would wear the headphones thinking no one could hear me as I sang along.

Is this the first large project you’ve written?

It’s the first full length musical that I’ve written. I’ve produced a lot of audio. For example in 2003 I released over 50 CD’s of my own material, but under different pseudonyms. I have very little actually released under my own name. For 16 years I had a commercial recording studio in Southern California so most of my projects were “for hire” work for other artists. Often for my pseudonym releases I would work with a 5 hour ProTools file. So I’m used to working on large audio projects and scoring. But incorporating those elements with “the book” was a new experience for me.

Is Witches! the Musical based on the Crucible?

No. Witches! and the Crucible are both based on the events of the 1692 Salem Trials. Witches! was created from the historical documents, not from the Crucible.

How does Witches! the Musical differ from the Crucible?

I haven’t seen Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” all the way through. I purposely did not look at it while writing the script. It was only after I had a first draft of the script that I read the outline for the Crucible on Wikipedia. Since then I have seen the first few minutes of the movie and script, but I stopped there to make sure I didn’t borrow anything in my production. So that being said, here is what I THINK are the differences.

Period dialogue. The Crucible is all period dialogue. I didn’t want to use the speaking style of the 17th century all the way through the musical. Partly because it’s already been done with the Crucible and partly because I find it boring. I did start off with the intention to make it period. I even have a copy of “17th Century Slang” to use for dialog reference. In Witches! the Musical, period style speaking is used primarily for the court. The Circle Girls speak in modern American English. To me, it serves the purpose of separating the two worlds of 17th century society versus the Circle Girls. Also, by making the Circle Girls more modern in their dialogue it’s my hope that contemporary audiences will relate with them better. I think the period dialogue provides a distance where the audience can say “Oh, this was a long time ago. We’re not like that now.” But the modern dialogue makes it more immediate. That’s my intention anyway.

John Proctor and Abigail Williams. In the Crucible, Arthur Miller creates a love story and plot device to instigate the trials with 30 year old John Proctor and a late teen Abigail Williams. I can understand why Arthur Miller did this for his plot needs. But historically John Proctor was sixty years old and Abigail Williams was twelve. I had no reason to change Abigail’s age because I was very interested to ponder what would make a girl so young be such a driving force for the trials. In Witches! the Musical there are some sub plots of love relationships but it is done without changing the historical record. In Witches!, the historical character of Rev. Burroughs is mixed into John Proctor’s character.

Beginning. The Crucible begins with the afflictions of Betty Parris. I also understand why Arthur Miller did that. He wanted to start right where the action was. And I’ve read over and over that dramatic works should start with the action. This is a rule I broke. For me, one of the most fascinating elements of 1692 Salem is “How did it all come to be?” I think the possible answers to that are extremely engaging. And in Witches! I give several different motives and developments for the audience to consider. So in my story we start before anything has happened and show the gradual progression of events.

Ending. I think the Crucible ends with the sentencing of John Proctor. Is that correct? In Witches! the Musical we follow through that time and on to the end of the trials and beyond.

Thomas Putnam and Thomas Danforth do not appear in Witches! the Musical. Although Thomas Putnam is referred to many times.

Is Witches! the Musical true to the historical record?

Witches! the Musical incorporates a lot of the direct quotes from the historical record. Sometimes the quote is performed by the actual character as with Rev. Parris. And sometimes a different character says the quote. For instance, Bridget Bishop says some quotes that historically are from Sarah Good. In the script I’ve tried to make the historical quotes in bold print so cast members know which lines are historically authentic.

I’ve also taken quotes from 1620-1710 and interspersed them throughout the script. Some are from government officials before the events of 1692 and some are from publications and reflections of eyewitnesses published shortly after 1692.

It was foremost in my mind that material I added not conflict with the historical record. The elements added are things I feel “could” have happened. The most rewarding part of the whole process was taking a particular event and pondering the question: “What could have made this happen?”. And of course, because it’s musical theater, events and personalities are magnified to make them engaging and interesting.

How did you decide which quotes to use?

If it’s boring, I cut it. If it’s not interesting, doesn’t shed light or doesn’t move things along, I cut it.

How does Witches! the Musical differ from previous musical productions about Salem 1692?

The topic of 1692 Salem has been written for musical theater many times. It’s my personal feeling that it’s never been done well, or to it’s fullest potential. I don’t want to mention specific productions or disparage any other writers. Other productions I know about have used a specific music style to tell the story. But I really feel that to express the wide range of events and attitudes of the story there needs to be a wide palette of musical expressions.

For Witches! the Musical I wrote each musical piece in the way that I felt best expressed what needed to be said. In some instances it’s a four part chorale with counterpoint in the style of 1692 (Maybe 1715 – Bach was only 7 years old in 1692). For the Circle Girls, who speak in modern English, I gave them Rock and Hip Hop styles to express themselves. The Court is more traditional with a Baroque style Recitative. Sarah Good, who used to be quite well off but now a beggar, sings in a more operatic style. In my mind, the Circle Girls are young and quick to know everything so their songs are punchy. Sarah Good has been around the block, has known the full spectrum of joy and sadness in life, so she sings with more depth and color. In general, the Chorus joins in on the mood of each scene. So sometimes they sing in a classical style and sometimes in a more contemporary style.

I have heard the comment that the music is “eclectic”. I’ve also heard the comment, “Instead of writing leit motifs for the characters, you wrote style motifs for the characters.” After opening we’ll see what audiences think. I think I can say that this musical is expressed in a way that only I could express it. And I can say that there is no one who could anticipate the range of styles in the musical before seeing it.

What were your personal guidelines for writing the musical?

Again, much gleaned from Stephen Sondheim’s advice. I had his five rules pinned above my computer monitor for a couple years while writing the script. Don’t say yes when you mean no. God is in the details. Content over form. Don’t write to please other people. Good musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten. If it’s boring, cut it. If it doesn’t move the story along or show us insight to a character or emotion, cut it. Clarity above all.

I also made the choice to not do anything that broke the historical record. I gave myself artistic license to add another layer and events to the story. But not to do things contrary to the record. I did combine some characters, but I feel that was condensing and focusing the story. The words and events remained true, just sometimes portrayed by different characters from the historical record.

What do you mean “don’t write to please other people”?

Stephen Sondheim says his number one goal is to make the story clear. Everything is about make the progression clear to the audience. And post show edits are almost entirely about making the plot clearer. He said if you write to please other people and then they don’t like it, you end up with something nobody likes. So he recommends writing the story you are compelled to write, make it as clear as possible, then it’s up to the audience to decide. He says he has no control over whether an audience likes a work or not.

I can’t say that I “like” Witches! the Musical because the story is so tragic. There are parts that are just so twisted and wrong. Not of my making, from the historical record. But I can say that Witches! the Musical is the full expression of the story I was compelled to tell. So I can stand alone with the story and feel confident in that. Will audiences like it? I have no idea. My personal feeling is they will love it or hate it. I don’t see a lot of middle ground. I’m excited to see what reactions are.

Why the PG-13 rating?

That was self imposed. During readings I would ask people the age group they felt the material was appropriate for. Many people suggested I edit the show to make it appropriate for elementary school shows. I think it’s a dangerous road to make edits in anticipation of pleasing other people. It also violates the Sondheim rule to avoid writing just to please an audience. My only fear, and agreed with by the producers, is that someone would bring their seven year old grand daughter to the show thinking it was a fun Halloween show for kids. I think the PG-13 rating makes it clear that it’s not a children’s show.

What age would be appropriate? As the PG-13 rating suggests, that would be up to the discretion of parents. Although there is comedy, fun and campiness – the story is dark. People are executed, reality is distorted, characters do disturbing and inappropriate things. Most of it based on the historical record. If I removed those elements then I’m not really telling the story.

What do you think are the most disturbing parts of the musical?

The treatment and suppression of women in the Puritan culture. The treatment of Sarah Good and her daughter Dorcas. The underlying motives of Dr. Griggs. The treatment of Tituba the slave and her daughter Violet. The fun and joy the Circle Girls enjoy during the events. The arrogance of the Court towards the evidence presented. I cannot put into words the feeling I get during these events of the Witches! story. It’s not uncommon for me to start shedding a tear during rehearsals. I don’t know if it’s because I’m close to the material or because of the presentation of the content. Audiences will let us know the truth on that.

It was very intentional to highlight the elements that offended me the most. The story as a whole, the historical story, should offend any contemporary viewer. So I’ve included everything that pulled an emotion from me.

What is the message you’re trying to say with Witches! the Musical?

The Crucible was written to make a political point during the McCarthy communism scare. I don’t have the intention to make a political or religious point with Witches. My primary goal was to tell the story in an engaging way so people are drawn into the story. There is not a lot of soap box preaching at the end to wrap everything up. The historical story doesn’t have a tidy ending. Some of those accused were not exonerated until the 20th century.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Having been asked this question many, many times I think maybe I do have an unconscious message in the musical. When I hear people talk about the Salem Trials it’s often in a context of “they were so stupid, so ridiculous” and then we feel so smart about how we’ve progressed. But I wonder if we’re so far removed from the events of 1692 Salem that we don’t have to be concerned about it happening again. You’ve heard the saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it..”

Do I have a specific political or religious message? No. Not consciously anyway. I do think Salem 1692, even though it was over 300 years ago, is still an open wound. It’s my hope that audience members see the musical, are moved to research the events on their own and then return to see the musical with a deeper understanding. I think the musical has enough depth to warrant multiple viewings that will give a deeper understanding to the viewer each time.

Any other information you’d like to add?

I’m very happy with our cast for the World Premiere. The cast is not paid, but I won’t say they aren’t professional because it’s not true. The cast has been extremely professional in their treatment of the work. We have a wide range of experience from seasoned veterans to first time performers. The story I see them telling in rehearsals is the story I had in my head. A lot of that is thanks to director Jane Skinner.

Usually the writer doesn’t attend all the rehearsals for a premiere. But since I’m doing triple duty as writer, musical director and soundtrack programmer, I have to be at most of the rehearsals. Jane Skinner, the director, has been very gracious in letting me give input during rehearsals. So I can truly say that what is put on stage is the representation of my story.

Theater Arts Guild of Skagit County was also very bold and generous to produce the premiere of Witches! the Musical. They are my friends and colleagues and I hope we have a long partnership together.

You said soundtrack, is the music live?

I am creating the soundtrack in Ableton Live which will be triggered live during shows. We also have five musicians that will play along with the tracks. So it’s very similar to how I was running shows while being MD for Cirque Du Soleil.

It became clear very early on that I wasn’t going to be able to secure the number of musicians and the amount of time needed to pull off the musical score with so many different styles. After a couple local musicians said, “Exactly how much time do we need to commit?”, I knew right then I had to create a soundtrack.

For the soundtrack I worked with several musicians online who would download tracks, record and email me their finished parts. So the soundtrack has a lot of live instruments in it.

What do you think the future for Witches! will be?

After the premiere run we will release the soundtrack and video somewhere in the first half of 2013. Then there will inevitably be another round of small edits and improvements based on audience feedback. I’m hoping a larger theater will take on the show for October 2013, maybe the Village Theater in Issaquah, WA. We haven’t talked with them yet. Will see how it goes.

I’m also imagining there may be a request to complete an orchestrated score for live performance. Then if groups want to perform Witches! they can choose between a soundtrack or live band.

Beyond that. I’m not sure. It’s like giving a bird it’s wings. After the premiere it will have it’s own life. We’ll see where it flies…

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