In the middle of “Breathe”, a new musical created by bestselling writer Jodi Picoult and veteran playwright Timothy Allen McDonald, a fed up, caged father of three, sums up the challenges of the pandemic in two words : “It’s brutal!”
Adam, played by Colin Donnell, laments the challenge of pursuing virtual kindergarten alongside two demanding careers – Donnell’s exhausted partner is his real wife, Patti Murin – but he speaks for all of us who have been crowded and alone. angry and robbed, at various points this year.
Before we get to the logistics of writing, staging and filming a musical in the midst of a pandemic, let’s address the elephant in the zoom: Why would someone want to see a 90-minute theater production about Covid-19 – especially one with scenes? named for symptoms many of us have experienced firsthand? (They are: fever, pain, swelling and irritation, tiredness and shortness of breath.)
“I know there will be people who are not ready for this and maybe never will,” said Picoult in a telephone interview from her New Hampshire home. “Still, I think there are some very funny moments in ‘Breathe’. You laugh more than you might expect. “
The prolific writer, who published the novel “Wish You Were Here” on Nov. 30, said she was inspired to create “Breathe” because she was unwilling to tackle Covid-19 between the covers of a book. Fiction writing can be a lonely slog, and Picoult enjoys the collaborative spirit that comes with writing for the stage that has long played a part in their lives.
“You don’t want to hear me sing,” she laughed. “But my children were involved in the theater and I lead a youth theater group in my free time.” (The Trumbull Hall Troupe was founded in 2004 and donates its net proceeds to local charities.)
Picoult and McDonald have already worked together, starting with a stage adaptation of “Between the Lines”, the novel for young adults that she wrote with her daughter Samantha van Leer. The musical was due to open on Broadway in April 2020. But of course the spirit of Thespis had other plans and production was postponed to the 2021-22 season.
On the weekend of March 7, 2020, the couple, who referred to themselves as “the other half of my brain” in separate conversations, attended the wedding of actor “Between the Lines”, Arielle Jacobs, in Tulum, Mexico. “When we got back everyone at our table got Covid except me,” Picoult recalled.
“I got a sore throat and knew something was wrong,” said McDonald. “What I felt first was shame. I was 13 when the AIDS crisis started; I knew I was gay and I remember people saying the epidemic was God’s way of correcting an injustice. If you experience something like this at such a young age, it stays with you. “
Inspired by Jonathan Larson’s commemoration of the AIDS epidemic in Rent – as well as the networking of characters in Love Actually – Picoult and McDonald worked on a series of stories about the impact of the pandemic on the lives of four couples of people : Strangers meeting at a wedding, a gay couple at an intersection, the above overwhelmed parents, and a married couple who have stopped communicating.
Then George Floyd was murdered. “Tim and I both felt the protests were closely related to the pandemic and we knew we weren’t the right people to write about since we’re two white writers,” Picoult said. “So we called Douglas Lyons, who is an incredibly talented writer, copywriter and actor. We said, “This is what we do and we would love you to be part of our family.” I think he said yes within 10 seconds. “
Lyons wrote “Fatigue” with Ethan Pakchar, about a black police officer whose son is arrested during a protest and severely abused by his father’s colleague. “I didn’t put my own face in the gravel. He did it, ”says the son, played by Daniel Yearwood.
The “Breathe” team consists of five songwriting teams (one for each vignette), four directors plus lead director Jeff Calhoun and a fleet of actors including Tony Award winners Kelli O’Hara and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Denée Benton. Matt Doyle and Max Clayton, among others. Some of its members never met in person.
“It felt like the zoom doubled exponentially every two weeks when we met,” Picoult said.
McDonald and Picoult funded the project. “It was a few hundred thousand to have it filmed. That was the biggest cost, ”said Picoult.
“We don’t expect that will make us filthy rich,” she added. “The point was, it’s our job to record stories, and this is one that needs to be told.”
In March 2021, the cast and crew met in New York at the Kaufmann Concert Hall on Y 92th Street to record over a period of three days. There was no audience or set; The actors wore lockdown-appropriate clothing (fluffy slippers, a waffle shirt) and were accompanied by a lonely piano. The orchestra was later recorded in separate rooms in Nashville.
“The whole thing has been reverse engineered,” said Picoult.
She joined from afar, watching the action from a “very strange camera angle on the side of the stage” and listening to the music director’s feed.
McDonald had the pleasure of greeting the participants when they arrived at the Y: “To see them in three dimensions! To see them in pants and shoes! That was just so cool. “The 54-year-old has been involved in dramatic productions since he was eleven. The pandemic brought a bittersweet milestone: the longest he has ever been away from a stage.
“When we walked into this beautiful theater in the middle of a technical rehearsal, with all the buzz and chaos we all love as theater people, everyone burst into tears,” said McDonald, who lost his father-in-law to Covid-19 in July. “But we were smiling with chills all over our bodies at the same time. I don’t know what that emotion is, but it was really a feeling of magic. “
“Breathe” premieres on May 14th on Overture +, a streaming performing arts service, and the original line-up will be released by Broadway Records. The show will be available until July 2nd.
Behind the actors, the audience sees rows of empty green seats, whose scripts and music stands lend an intimacy behind the scenes. In a special way, these folded up seats are more noticeable than the backdrops and the dazzling that you can expect from a personal production in normal time.
This also applies to the typewritten interstitials at the beginning of each chapter announcing the ever-increasing number of Covid-19 deaths worldwide between March and June 2020. 11, “Breathing” aims to connect the dots between people who live in isolation.
“When you go to a show, you sit in your own chair and feel a single emotion whether you’re on the balcony or in the front row,” said Picoult. “For me it was a metaphor for what was going on during the lockdown. We were all in our isolated pods and we all felt the same. There was something transformative about it that made me think. We should try to understand this through musical theater. “