Jonathan McVay and Kaytha Coker in John DeMers DEEP IN THE HEART
John DeMers, in addition to being my beloved editor (in chief) at ArtsHouston, is also the host of – Delicious Mischief, (FM Newschannel 97.5) He is the author of five produced one-person dramas and 31 published books, including BIG EASY COCKTAILS, which is due out in January. And if that’s not enough, his Houston-set musical, DEEP IN THE HEART, premieres at the Hobby Center Jan. 12, 13 and 14. He brought me up to date on the nitty-gritty process of birthing a musical.
How did this musical come into the world? Did a song just pop into your head and you figured it needed a bunch more, a band, and full cast. How do musicals grow?
JD: For the first 18 or 20 months of my musical’s growth, the No. 1 thing I did was deny to myself it really was a musical. After all, then I might have to do something with it. It started with one song and then, a week or two later, another. Unrelated songs, I thought, and potentially meaningless. But then the two songs kind of met on the sly and figured out a way to tell me one was for a man and the other was for a woman, and that those two people were in love. I mean, a lot – with all the joy and sadness and fear and courage. And that there were other people around that I couldn’t even see yet – and they were looking forward to getting songs of their own.
It sounds like the characters developed a life of their own. Did they write their own songs too?
JD: Not exactly, though that’s how it felt sometime. It seemed they at least participated – after all, it was their lives and emotions that fueled the fire. In a musical like this, it seems characters carry the songs inside them and it’s my job to listen and write it all down. Maybe it’s not the characters but the scene that gives me the inspiration, the moment and the emotional content. Either way, I find I can’t just order myself to write a certain song. I let the scene roll around for a day or a week or forever, and then if I’m lucky I wake up with a melody going through my head. And THAT’S the melody I need!
Tell me about your jump from page to stage. I understand you have a few one man shows under your thespian belt already?
JD: Well, I actually wrote five one-person dramas – including a one-woman show about Henriette DeLille, a “colored nun” in New Orleans in the 1850s – and starred in only two of them. NOT as Henriette, by the way. The plays were pretty simple, as they had to be for me to act in them. The first was called “I, Paul,” about the apostle of that name, and I’m amazed to report playing 135 churches in five states, plus the historic Orpheum Theater in New Orleans, plus national TV. The second was “Mr. Jefferson’s Garden,” an intense and rather sad look at Thomas Jefferson about to die at age 83 – on America’s 50th Independence Day, no less. I did that in theaters until I got scooped up into schools, performing variations for grades 2 through 12. Now, those are some tough audiences! Still, news flash – I’m not really an actor. I’m just a guy who wants his words out there. Happily real actors have taken over all five of my one-person shows.
You are a Louisiana boy what do you know about the heart of Texas? What’s the same or different about the heart of Texas?
JD: As my musical is set entirely in Houston, I know quite a lot about this city I love and have fought to stay in, good times and bad. And Houston and New Orleans have more links than anybody can name. This isn’t about cowboys yelling Yee-haw all the time, and it sure doesn’t have any mechanical bulls like in “Urban Cowboy.” It’s about the people many of us meet every day and know oh-so-well: professionals with educations and careers, with pressures of jobs and families, yet with the same rather primal needs we all have – to love and be loved.
What lurks at the heart of DEEP IN THE HEART?
JD: I believe that every human being carries into this world a longing for absolute romance, a profound need for a single great love who teaches us who we are, points us where we need to be, emboldens us enough to get there, and tells us why we’re here. DEEP IN THE HEART is, quite simply, the story of such a love.
However did you get to this point while writing for Artshouston and doing a weekly radio show? Give us your secret. Did you quit sleeping?
JD: Yes, in a very real sense, I did quit sleeping. Specifically, all the songs came to me in the night, haunting me till I got up and played them on my guitar and sometimes even recorded them on cassette so I’d remember them in the morning. No, those tapes are not on the Internet, and I hope they never will be. Whole scenes emerged from my dreams, which increasingly were taken over by the lovers I came to call “David” and “Julie,” plus the other four characters – speaking to each other, singing to each other, making each other laugh or cry, miserable or sublimely happy. I’m hoping this musical will let me sleep again someday, because it sure hasn’t yet.
As an editor you get to be hands-on. Most directors like their authors to remain hands off. How is that production process going?
JD: Yes, every director needs considerable autonomy to get his job done, to make his vision real and to make his authority evident to and for the actors. But most directors, including our Darin Garrett, consider it something of a blessing when directing a new work to have the playwright at their elbow. There’s definitely a chain of command in a rehearsal, and it doesn’t start with me. But you have to know what Darin knows – I’m still the only person who’s ever seen this whole show, even if it IS in my head. I’m a resource to him and the actors, and I hope a valuable one.
Word has it you have an incredible cast. Are they the people you always imagined?
JD: I am so proud of these men and women, because they are so terrific. Darin and I auditioned dozens of talented people in several settings and picked out the 6 we really wanted. To be specific, Darin chose them – and I loved each of his choices. This group has impressive resumes full of Theater Under The Stars, Stages, the Alley, Main Street, Theatre LaB and on and on, but what impressed me about the process was what makes you hire them. They may be doing some audition with nothing in common with DEEP IN THE HEART, and suddenly you look up and say “That’s our Julie!” or “That’s our Trent!” It could be the voice, the look, some momentary passing impression. There’s alchemy in those moments, to be sure, something you can’t quite ever count or measure or describe. Kaytha Coker and Jonathan McVay are our Julie and David, with Sean Greene and Amy Vorpahl as our manipulative Trent and Meredith, and Brooke Wilson and Eric Skiles as not-always-helpful best friends Cindy and Jeremy.
Hey, this is a dance blog, any dancin’ in your show?
JD: Well, my dancer daughters are not happy with me, but right now, no. The show came together as a mixture of spoken and sung word – probably because I know how to speak and I know how to sing. I don’t know how to dance. Maybe once we have a successful world premiere, I’ll turn it over to my daughters to fill in all the dancing that I’m just not seeing there.
What’s the next step? I mean after you stick the dancing in?
JD: For the moment, the Hobby Center is THE step, but I have no interest in stopping there. I’d like to produce a Texas tour of DEEP IN THE HEART, and we already have invites from Galveston and Beaumont. Add on Austin, San Antonio and even Dallas, and there – you’ve got a Texas tour. At some point, though, this “tomorrow ze vorld” personal vision will need new partners. I have more than enough passion, but there’s a lifetime of theater expertise that I don’t have.
Putting on a show like this is like auditioning, like doing a screen test in old Hollywood – you hope something catches someone’s eye and the project passes GO. Who knows, if I’m really lucky, I might even collect $200. I would love more than anything to see this show in New York, on or off Broadway – but it will get there only if it touches enough people’s hearts every time it’s performed. That’s what’s so intriguing about theater— you can’t exactly make it live forever, but you have to make it live right now.
DEEP IN THE HEART premieres on January 12-14 at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center. Call 713-315-2525 or visit http://www.thehobbycenter.org/.