Interview – Composer Brett Steinberg on the process of creating Absolute the musical

The following is an interview with writer/composer Brett Steinberg, who is nearing the end of production on his original musical, Absolute. The result of a two-year process, Absolute is set to open on June 26th in Westport, Connecticut. In this interview, Steinberg recounts the process and challenges of staging a new, original musical with modest means. 

  • THEATERIFIC: What is your background in regard to theater and music? How long have you been involved in the arts?

BRETT STEINBERG: I’ve been in around 10 different musical theater productions including RENT, Godspell, Pippin, etc. I’ve had experience directing short vignette scenes and have learned the ins and outs of being in an ensemble and the lead in shows. I’ve learned both perspectives and all of the cast has as well. I’ve been consistently involved in music and theater for around 7 to 8 years now and have recorded over 4 records and played over 100 shows. Many cast members are going to schools such as NYU, Northwestern, Emerson, etc. for theater and have been in even more productions than me – for some, many more.

  • Give us a brief synopsis of the show.

The show is about community. It’s about 5 people, who are all distinctly different and come from different backgrounds, but live in NYC together. These unconventional souls ultimately come together in Brooklyn to learn something different from each other and themselves. What many of the characters thought they wanted in order to be fulfilled is challenged by the separation from each other and their home that they endure. It’s a coming of age story about what matters most and what we need to stop denying and depriving ourselves of.

  • What inspired you to write this musical? You’ve spent a great deal of time working on this show. When was the exact moment that you knew you had to write it?

I was in RENT a couple years back and it changed my life. I am in love with rock and alternative music and I am fascinated by the idea of a musical – showing/telling a story of characters you care about. The songs mean more because there is greater context given to the audience. You care about the characters and thus the songs mean that much more. The fusion of modern rock and a modern context within the model of a musical is extraordinary when it works. I needed to create something of my own, with my own voice, that met that criterion.

v81bwyhgmjyvkndzfuh7
Cameron Riolo (L) and Brett Steinberg
  • Take us through the process of casting the show. How did you find the actors? What was the audition process like?

It’s really a cast of friends whose one true love is theater. Only my talented friends would be crazy enough to join a show in which there initially was no production team/company backing us, no built in audience, no guaranteed funding. Now we have an entire team working with us and funding for a legitimate set. It’s a cast of the most talented creatives I know who believe in theater, believe the vision of the show and love performing. They’re friends I’ve met through theater and have shown me first hand how dedicated and passionate they are. I’m honored to have every single cast member of the roughly 25 person cast.

  • Do you find rehearsals more or less challenging with completely new material? How do you help the actors find their characters?

Definitely more challenging, but we have studio recordings and instrumentals of every song that I recorded in my home studio setup. We have a very intuitive cast and a director who specializes in creating characters with depth and three-dimensional qualities.

  • How collaborative is your process?

Very. Something like a musical such as “Absolute” requires more than one person working on it. It simply must be a collaborative process, or the show will suffer and maybe not even get off the ground. We have choreographers, a director, producer, vocals leader, live band, stage managers, a set designer, lights/sound person, costumes designer, etc. Every person has a role that is imperative to the show and specific to their knowledge and ability. Communication is key – we all are interconnected within this complicated and rewarding process.

11063225_10203663198680910_2017531679_n
From left: Brett Steinberg, Axel Mark and Barry Stein
  • It’s difficult to produce any show. How challenging is it to find funding for a completely new show, as opposed to a well-known play or musical? How successful have you been and how close to your goal are you?

It’s never easy to have people invest their own money into something pretty unprecedented and unfamiliar. We have reached out to our friends, family and fans (acquired through various other projects I’ve been involved with). The funding campaign has been so successful and such a humbling experience. It’s inspired us to go above and beyond any expectations and really put on the best musical we can.

  • What are some of the creative ways you’ve come up with to promote the show? How do you get people’s attention?

We’re looking into performing at high schools in and around the neighborhoods surrounding Toquet Hall in Westport (the venue we are performing it at). We are also utilizing social media (twitter, instagram, facebook, tumblr) to get the word out. It such a simple/easy way to let anyone and everyone know about the show.

  • Then, how do you convert that attention into ticket sales?

It’s all about giving the people a taste of what we’re about (a couple songs to listen to, a promo video, promo pictures/updates, etc.) so that it’s enough for them to know about the show and be intrigued, but little enough so that they feel inclined to check it out. Also, this is a new musical – people who come to the shows June 26-28 can say they saw it first. There are only a couple opportunities right now to see this entire production live for only $5.

IMG_8565
The venue: Toquet Hall in Westport, CT
  • What are some of the most significant challenges that you’ve faced and continue to face from the show’s inception until now?

Everything haha. It’s all very hard, because we are doing EVERYTHING ourselves – budgeting, blocking, choreographing, conducting, ticket sales, etc., but the biggest challenge right now is making sure that every logistical challenge is met within the next couple weeks. We are working tirelessly day in and day out to meet our goals and have every intention of achieving them.

  • How have you dealt with those challenges?

Collaboration and communication. We frequently have Skype calls in which every member of the production team voices questions/comments/concerns/updates about our progress. We give ideas and work through each logistical barrier with forwardthinking.

  • What do you hope to come away with when the performances are over? What is your ultimate goal for this show?

Besides three shows that we are all extremely proud of and gained experience and knowledge, we are planning on recording the show to put it online, inviting industry reps, and pushing the show to bigger stages and opportunities. This is the creation of the show and the beginning of hopefully a bright future for it.

  • What else have you written and composed?

I have created music through a solo project under my name (Brett Steinberg) for three years and have released three full-length records under that. I was in a band called Run On The Sun, in which we released an EP. I also am in a new band called Kalimur, which just released our debut full-length record entitled “Ghosts We Used To Know,” which I am extremely excited about!

  • Show information and details:

The shows will be on June 26, 27, 28 at Toquet Hall in Westport, CT at 7pm. Tickets are $5 (TIX link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/absolute-a-new-musical-by-brett-steinberg-tickets-16303002720) and they are selling fast, so get them while you can. Spread the word. We can’t wait to see you there!

IMG_5369
From left: Sarah Zygmont, Zach Dobryn and Brett Steinberg

The undervalued, overlooked influence of a brilliant mentor

I’ve been doing theater for 20 years. That sounds impressive, but it’s not. I don’t do it professionally – never have – and there were a few years in there that I hardly did anything. So, 20 years, on and off. I didn’t go to school for theater, as in, I don’t have a degree in that discipline. I learned from observing, reading, and from doing it.

My interest in theater goes all the way back to early high school, when most people discover the stage for the first time in the form of a high school musical (Little Shop of Horrors, in my case. I played the dentist, Orin). The reason that I continue to do it now is because of the motivation, knowledge, and inspiration that I received from my high school play director. Who, like all good teachers (in my opinion), continue to mentor and inspire long after graduation. My mentor/teacher, Sal, passed away in 2013. Strangely enough, he died the same day that one of my shows closed. A passing of the torch, maybe? I’m probably just reading too much into this. Second to my parents, he’s most responsible for helping to shape who I am.

He had a teaching career that lasted decades. I don’t know the exact number of years. He was well known – some may say infamous – within the school and throughout the community. I’m certain there are a few of his former students that grit their teeth at the mere mention of his name. This was his reputation, and that reputation was what I was expecting to meet upon starting high school in 1995. Sal taught Global Studies, a social studies class that explored the world and its people. As a 13 year old, I was convinced this guy knew everything. I’m still convinced he knew everything; he was a walking almanac and depository of theatrical knowledge and history. But, his reputation certainly preceded him, and for a kid like me – short, skinny, shy – having a guy like Sal was scary.

As a teacher, Sal had a rough exterior. He was an intense man. You didn’t mess with him. He had a huge personality, but one of his easiest lessons was learning that his compassion matched. He was intense because he cared. There’s no question I learned a lot about the world from his Global Studies class – most of the information I’ve retained, believe it or not, despite a poor grade on the final – but there was little in that curriculum that taught me how to be a part of the world and engage life (I don’t think the curriculum has changed much to that effect).

However, his greatest lesson came when he stuck me in the middle of an empty stage and shined a spotlight in my face.

In November of 1995, I approached him about wanting to be a part of that year’s show. I had seen the high school’s play the year before and felt inspired to be a part of something like that. I can’t explain exactly how I felt, or knew, but I just did. I asked about stage crew, run crew, and stage managing. Not acting. Following an informational meeting, he asked me to stay late with the guy who was cast as Seymour (the lead). He stuck a script in my hand and say “go”. I had no idea what I was doing. My “audition” was awkward and lacking any and all knowledge of how to create a character. To top it off, every other member of the cast and crew was standing outside the room listening. I found out afterward that some of these people were making comments about how I wouldn’t be able to handle the part. Of course, this is hearsay, but it motivated me nonetheless. Somehow, I got the part. I still don’t know how. Somehow, he saw something in me that I didn’t see. His talent was seeing talent. And it was at that point that I reluctantly agreed to appear on stage in Little Shop of Horrors. 

As I said earlier, I had no idea what I was doing. Acting was something totally foreign to me, though it felt natural. I was always a creative kid, and I enjoyed playing different characters around my house. Anytime we had company over, I would put on shows: magic shows, musical performances – even scene by scene recaps of famous movies (famous to an 8 year old) in which I played all of the characters. Even with babysitters I can remember using my entire house as the stage for The Wizard of Oz. I would assign parts to everyone, including myself, and “direct” the action. And believe it or not, this is the first time that I’ve ever made that connection.

It took a guy like Sal to see that I had it in me and take the chance to hone my talent into something that could be used in an actual play. Until that point, I was just a shy kid with an imagination. Shy being the key word. No one thought I’d be able to transform from that person into a sadomasochistic, drug-addicted, chauvinistic dentist. I was my biggest critic. He was my biggest advocate.

Fast forward. No need to get into the details about how it felt, because anyone reading this knows that feeling. We’ve all been there: the coughing of the crowd, the adrenaline rush, the spotlight hitting you for the first time, ever. Either it makes you or breaks you.

Following that show, I realized a few things: suddenly, I wasn’t as shy anymore. In fact, I bordered on arrogant (talk about zero to sixty). I had a new group of friends. And, most importantly, I had a new way to express myself. Theater became less of a new school activity, and more of a craft. I began to see it as something worth studying. I wanted to get better and challenge myself. It was less about the school and social aspect, and more about the art. The stage and the audience were all that mattered for the next 3 years of high school. My grades may have suffered a bit. But, my true education happened on that stage. Without the experience of standing in a spotlight, exposed, with nowhere to hide, I’d still be that shy kid who never had the foresight to realize his own potential. As a teacher and director, Sal taught me self-confidence. He taught me the value of self-expression. He taught me public speaking. He correlated theater to life, and through theater and his direction, I learned how to live in the real world while playing in the fantasy world of the stage. Without real life, there is no theater. I learned the true value of art at a young age.

Any performer that I’ve helped in the past and every performer I help in the future owes Sal a thank you. Without his help, I wouldn’t be able to help them.

And with that, his legacy lives on.