The 2016 New York Musical Festival, which runs July 11 through August 7, will bring audiences four full weeks of new musicals, concerts, readings, and panel discussions. We spoke with Lisa and Leonardo lyricist/co-writer Ed McNamee about the mysteries surrounding the Mona Lisa.
What was the first musical that made you want to make musicals?
The first time I heard "Trouble in River City," from The Music Man, I made it my business to know every word and to study its form. After that, I began a disciplined approach to unlocking the hidden structure of internal rhymes, finally graduating to Sondheim's big works from the 70's, and marking out every stress and vowel identification. By the time I was done with that, I was onto Sunday in the Park with George as the piece to aspire to. Anyway, that was the path.
Describe the sound of your musical.
It's like A Little Night Music meets Camelot.
What are some of your favorite conspiracy theories about the Mona Lisa?
It's now historical record that Lisa's painting was to be a simple wedding portrait commissioned by her husband, shortly after Lisa had lost a child and yet, the finished work portrays Lisa without her wedding jewelry and – according to expert physiologists – she appears newly pregnant. This, together with some extremely intimate sketches of the female form, which Leonardo began shortly after meeting Lisa, led us to believe that there was much, much more to their relationship. So I guess, my favorite conspiracy theory about the Mona Lisa is the one that Donya and I tell in our story, that they became lovers.
Why do you think the identity of the woman remains so fascinating?
Well, it's not merely a famous painting. It's an exquisite painting. Dozens of tiny layers, each set in a layer of glaze so thin that the light passes right through to the reflective surface below, making it appear to come to life! Who on earth would deserve to have this amount of painstaking attention paid to them by the world's greatest genius? So the question in our minds, wasn't just "Who is this person?" but "Who was this person to him?" That's certainly the fascination that carried us through the process of creating their story.
Your play touches on Leonardo's queerness, living in an era when the private lives of artists often determine how their work is perceived and the kind of work they're allowed to do, what have you learned about the difference in how art was perceived then and now?
As an artist, Leonardo was “a modern,” in two key senses. He lived in the first location and time when artists might be thought of as famous figures, as opposed to merely anonymous craftsmen. And secondly, he created and experimented much more to satisfy his own curiosity then he ever did to satisfy any of his patrons (much less the church). All of this, of course, to his own peril. Both of these aspects are very much part of Leonardo’s story - his downfall and his redemption. As far as his “queerness,” these mores are historically cyclical and thankfully we’re entering a time again when we can bring forward whatever part of our sexuality suits us. Elton John was married to a woman; now he’s married to a man and we’re fine with that. And Leonardo was living with a man when he fell in love with Lisa, that’s what makes this story so interesting.
Why is it important to bring your show to NYMF?
NYMF is a proving ground. The pressure of the format forces you to shake loose what’s unessential. At the same time, it’s a completely supportive community. The staff is wonderful and the artists have a beautiful camaraderie. So the fact that it works, makes it a pond where producers want to go fishing. Baseball has its farm system; musical theatre has NYMF!
What's next for the show?
Donya and I have always believed that our subject matter is right for commercial theater. There’s a universal and perennial appeal to all things da Vinci, especially the Mona Lisa. We’re hopeful that we either find a producer or they find us.
"Lisa and Leonardo" plays July 21-28 at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street.