‘Independents’ takes Fringe Festival

“Independents,” which premiered at Yale last fall, has had a successful showing at the New York Fringe Festival.
“Independents,” which premiered at Yale last fall, has had a successful showing at the New York Fringe Festival. Photo by Lee Wexler.

NEW YORK — For the team behind the ongoing production of “Independents,” this summer has posed challenges even more daunting than preparing an original student musical for its New York debut, following the death of the show’s playwright, Marina Keegan ’12, in late May.

In April, the New York International Fringe Festival informed the show’s creative team that “Independents” had been selected to be part of the Fringe season, an annual showcase for the work of young artists in the theater. Keegan had planned to meet with lyricist Mark Sonnenblick ’12, composer Stephen Feigenbaum ’12 MUS ’13 and director Charlie Polinger ’13 to work on revisions to the show before the Fringe Festival began in August. After her death, the three spoke with Keegan’s parents and decided to continue with the production process, working to make “Independents” the strongest musical it could be, as Keegan would have wanted, they said.

On Wednesday, Fringe announced that the musical would be one of 12 chosen out of the nearly 200 productions at the festival to be presented again throughout September as part of the FringeNYC Encore Series. The show was sold out for all five performances in its initial Fringe run.

Darren Lee Cole, the head of the Encore Series’ curatorial team and the artistic director of the off-Broadway venue SoHo Playhouse, said “Independents” was chosen as part of the encore series due to its artistic excellence and strong future production prospects. The show will be staged at SoHo Playhouse for six shows beginning Sept. 7.

Polinger said Fringe’s decision to ask that “Independents” be staged six more times was a development those involved with the musical had been hoping for. He added that the September shows will be presented at a larger venue, exposing the musical to a larger audience and the greater theater industry.

Already, though, the show has garnered positive attention. Huffington Post theater reviewer Michael Giltz said in a Wednesday review that the musical was the best show he had seen at this year’s Fringe, and Olivia Jane Smith, a reviewer for the New York Theatre Review blog, noted the success of the show’s songs despite the fact that “a two-hour original musical is an ambitious undertaking for artists regardless of age or experience.”

“Independents” has evolved a great deal since its debut at Yale last December, the musical’s team said. In addition to the changes incorporated directly after that first run under Keegan’s direction, the team said they were involved in a months-long editing process made even more difficult by her death.

“We felt that what should happen was that the show shouldn’t just be a tribute or a memorial, in a way that people watching it would be conscious that it was unfinished — that’s not what Marina would have wanted,” said lyricist Sonnenblick, who wrote two shows that starred Keegan and acted in her original play “Utility Monster.” “The fact that we’re in a position to be selling out shows and getting good press — that is exactly what she would have wanted.”

Feigenbaum, the show’s composer, said the final drafts of musicals like “Independents” are very different from the first incarnations that are presented to audiences. He added that the Fringe version of the show is 45 minutes shorter than the original and that edits have focused on clarity in how the story moves and how characters are developed.

In Keegan’s absence, Sonnenblick said, edits to the show’s book were almost like “guesswork.” But, he added, the team benefitted from their familiarity with Keegan’s clear vision of the world and goals for the show.

“She isn’t here, and we have to just go forward and trust ourselves and trust that what we’re doing is honoring her vision … starting from the point of figuring out what the show was about and what she was trying to say,” Polinger said, adding that this effort was made easier by the fact that the team had already discussed problematic aspects of the show and their possible solutions with Keegan.

Sonnenblick said his role in editing the script involved largely cosmetic changes to the spoken lines in the play.

“The thread of it and the heart of it and the core of it was what Marina had already written,” he said.

Prior to the Yale debut of “Independents,” Keegan told the News in a November 2011 interview that she believed part of the appeal of student-written works lies in the opportunity to develop the script in consultation with writers, actors and directors as multiple versions of scenes emerge and the best is selected.

Julie Shain ’13, who acted in the musical at Yale, said she recalls Keegan’s emailing the show’s team asking for recommendations about changes, even as she retained her own firm opinions.

While the creative team of “Independents” had to continue in the playwright’s stead, Shain added that she felt certain Keegan’s opinions and voice were clear to her three collaborators.

“Mark and Stephen knew her really well, and she probably mentioned a lot before,” Shain said. “There’s a lot of personal emotion attached to whatever she put in the show, like her opinions about love and about what friendship means.”

Tom Sanchez ’12, the only “Independents” cast member to act in both iterations of the musical, said he believes the show is now “tighter” but that Keegan’s presence and words remain a strong part of the production.

Keegan also spoke in November about her desire to deal with topics relevant to her peers’ concerns in “Independents,” referencing the iconic musical “RENT” as an example of a show that now felt “dated.”

“Marina would say this all the time: ‘RENT’ would explore these themes but for a generation ago; [“Independents”] is exploring things that are really relevant to our generation: apathy, doing nothing,” Polinger said.

He added that the musical, which focuses on nine youths ostensibly commandeering a vessel in order to run a historical reenactment business, subtly juxtaposes the indifference of the current generation with the energy of 18th century revolutionaries.

“Now, if you turn 18, you go to college, and just sort of chill for five to 10 years,” Feigenbaum said. “It’s very easy to lapse into this easy sort of lifestyle, and the boat is the most abstracted version of that.”

The composer said that the creative team’s friends at Yale, a number of whom were members of campus bands Tangled Up in Blue and Jamestown: the First Town in America, partly inspired the motif of friends gathering to sing around a guitar, which helped to tie music to the story in an effective, demonstrative way.

Still, Sonnenblick said he is wary of projecting one particular message to audiences.

“We want to put a show out there, and for different people, different aspects will resonate with their lives,” he said.

To strengthen new cast members’ understandings of the show’s vision, the creative team said they made an effort to acquaint the non-Yalies with Keegan’s perspective and role.

“What we did was… let them know about the situation,” Sonnenblick said. “We sent them a lot of things to read if they were interested, but told them that this is not a memorial, this is not something that is morose and frozen. This is something that is going to, in some ways, be a celebration of things that she said.”

Polinger said hearing about Keegan’s talent seems to have inspired the cast, allowing them to share in the sense that the New York production of “Independents” was a way to honor her work.

The theme of doing Keegan’s vision justice has been on the minds of a number of those involved in “Independents.”

Sanchez said he was excited to do the production at first but, after Keegan’s death, worried about whether he was emotionally prepared to take on his role again. But, the actor said, he eventually came to believe that the best way he could honor his classmate was to “do the part that she’d written so well.”

For Sonnenblick, working on “Independents” enabled him to come to terms with the loss.

“I was around her and thinking about her more or less constantly all summer, but … those tremendous feelings of loss and sadness were coupled with this idea that something was still being created,” he said. “I was still collaborating with her to make something that she had felt so passionately about — being in that constructive, active space as opposed to an empty space or inactive mourning was definitely emotional, but also something I think that was helpful.”

“Independents’” Fringe run will end August 25, and the show will be staged six more times over the course of the next month.

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