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October 26, 2016
Q&A: Kirsten Guenther, Nolan Gasser, and Mindi Dickstein on NAMT and Their New Musical “Benny & Joon”
Kirsten Guenther
Kirsten Guenther

The National Alliance for Musical Theatre will hold its 28th annual Festival of New Musicals on October 27 and 28 at New World Stages. Benny & Joon, by Kirsten Guenther (book), Mindi Dickstein (lyrics), and Nolan Gasser (music), is one of eight new musicals this year.

What was the first musical that made you want to make musicals?

Mindi Dickstein: I wish there were one definitive or short answer.  As a child I wore out recordings of A Jungle Book and The Wizard of Oz, memorized and performed (for any who would listen) the entire score of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown at the age of 7, all of which made me want to perform.  As an aspiring actress in my teens I was taken by A Chorus Line and Cabaret.  Discovered March of the Falsettos when I was an aspiring playwright in my early 20s and was blown away by the way it was, to my ears, both a play and a musical (something with a real story).  Later, when I was actually studying musical theater writing at the NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, the musicals that thrilled me were Pacific Overtures, Candide and Guys and Dolls.

Kirsten Guenther: Before I owned a CD player I used to take my tape recorder and hold it up to the movie musicals I would watch. I would record the songs in Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Easter Parade, My Fair Lady, Meet Me in Saint Louis, High Society, any of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. I would make my own cast album. When I got a little older, around 10, my friend Joanne and I would take these songs and then write our own plots to them. We didn’t realize it then, but we were writing books to musicals.

Nolan Gasser: My first hands-on experience with musicals was as the rehearsal pianist for a production of Oliver! when I was 13. I’d never experienced that kind of joyful camaraderie and collaboration in an artistic experience before, and it left a big impression on me as I grew as a musician and composer. In truth, although I've always loved musicals (favorites being Guys and DollsFiddlerFollies, West Side Story…),  I never thought I’d write my own musical until Benny & Joon – and yet, since this opportunity arose, I’ve embraced it as if it were a long-lost friend: it has been nothing but joyful and inspiring!

Mindi Dickstein
Mindi Dickstein

Pitch the show in 3 sentences:

Dickstein: Benny & Joon explores something unique in musical theater: a brother-sister relationship.  The plot involves the arrival of a "cousin" of a friend of theirs, Sam, whose entrance into their lives changes everything.  The musical revolves around questions of how to accept change and bridge what is broken, how to make sense of and move on.

Describe the sound of your musical, it's like  _____ meets _____.

Dickstein: For me it's like nothing else I know.  It's a little offbeat, fresh musical theater that is appealingly melodic.  I'm not sure it's anything meets anything!

Who is your favorite classic musical theater composer/writer? And your favorite composer /writer working today?

Dickstein: Classic: Frank Loesser and Dorothy Fields.  Living: Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Guenther: There are too many: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Hugh Wheeler, Abe Burrows. And for today: Sheldon Harnick, Sally Wainwright.

Gasser: Classic: Loesser, Kander, Sondheim; Today: Shaiman, Lopez, Schwartz.

Nolan Gasser
Nolan Gasser

What's one thing you would change about the current state of musical theater?

Dickstein: More opportunities for women and people of color.

Guenther: That it takes so long. That it costs so much money to produce them. That it was easier to put them up, so we could all dare to fail more.

Why is it important to bring your show to NAMT?

Dickstein: I can't think of a single other event that gathers so many who are critical to the life of contemporary musical theater in America.

What's next for the show?

Dickstein: What we seek is a production.  We've had readings and a developmental lab.  We are ready to put the show on its feet.

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