“It’s a marriage of a different kind,” says Doug Haverty. as his blue eyes sparkle and he leans intently across the table. Adryan Russ nods and smiles agreeing, “I mean we just like each other and 98 percent of the time we are on the same page; that’s pretty amazing.”
In their second musical iGhost, with a book by Haverty, music by Russ, and lyrics by both Haverty and Russ, the innovative duo once again explores their attuned collaboration process in a different kind of love story that marries the old with the new — a classic tale and a traditional musical theater score with a contemporary hero’s fearless journey to understand the meaning of life, art and love.
iGhost puts a musical spin on Oscar Wilde’s classic story of The Canterville Ghost. This novella follows an American family who takes up residence in a haunted English castle. The lingering, melancholy British ghost who haunts the old halls attempts to frighten the family at every opportunity. Throughout a series of hilarious events, the ghost is shunned and ultimately ignored by the family, except for the young daughter Virginia who seeks to understand the ghost instead of dismiss him.
Russ grew up reading Wilde’s humorous story. When she and Haverty were commissioned by a Canadian theater called Stages to write a musical version of it, the two could not have been more excited. “I had the book as a little child and in this story, as in most Oscar Wilde pieces, he loves looking at how other cultures see Americans,” says Russ. “And that topic of how others see us has always fascinated me and really pertains to all that has been going on in the news lately.”
Although the show never made it to a Canadian stage, Russ and Haverty continued to work on the piece for the next seven years. During this time the two decided to make some fundamental changes to the original tale. “There needed to be a romance, I mean it’s a musical,” says Haverty. “So we decided to take out the family and instead have Virginia all grown up hailing from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and studying art abroad in England.”
Virginia immediately becomes the valiant heroine of the piece, when she comes upon a lonely, reserved ghost of British gentry living in the castle, and immediately chooses not to be afraid of him just because he is different and well, dead. The two end up joining forces as the ghost searches for his long lost ghostly wife (with whom his relationship was very love/hate) who also wanders the halls of the castle in limbo because of the unresolved fight they had before her gruesome death.
The two ghosts are the ultimate estranged couple who cannot see or hear each other, even in the same room. Russ and Haverty use these primeval spirits as a metaphor for our disconnected technological culture of today. “There is really no difference between their lack of contact and blue tooth technology,” says Haverty. “Think about it, there are pictures and texts, e-mails, songs, you name it, flying through the room right now and we would never know, just like the two ghosts who can be singing next to each other but never hear the other because they have not mended their relationship.”
This wireless wizardry, in a sense, is unleashed by Virginia because she is the catalyst for characters in the play to begin to conquer their fears. Her choice not to live in fear while being an American in another country is something Haverty believes is a much-needed message for today’s audiences.
“There is all kinds of backlash from Osama Bin Laden’s death, heightened security alerts, threats of attack, etc. that are tearing us apart as a country,” he says. “But Virginia is a role model for all of us living this reality today because she purposely chooses not to succumb to fear but to face this ghost head on, and thus she becomes the catalyst for him resolving his fight with his estranged ghostly wife and being able to have the courage to move on from this world.”
Haverty is known for his penchant for female protagonists in his plays so Virginia’s intellect and spunk come as no surprise. “I am all about writing great parts for women,” he says. “Virginia is fearless, organized, outspoken. This is a character young girls can see as a role model to look up to.”
Although Haverty pours great effort and ink into all his female characters, Virginia holds special meaning for him because she is based on his own daughter Hartley Haverty, who is a young actress and filmmaker.
Russ on the other hand enjoys writing about women but tends to focus more on men in her story telling. This give and take of different perspectives is perhaps why these two creators clicked in the first place.
Haverty grew up in Fresno and from the very beginning was smitten with classic musical theater. His parents had a hi-fi record player with huge speakers where he would listen to musicals like My Fair Lady and South Pacific. “I always like to joke about how when I was a little boy I went around singing “˜I’m only a cock-eyed octopus,’” he chuckles. The first big musical he saw was 1776 and he was struck by how ingeniously it took history and painted it so beautifully.
Haverty attended college not too far from home at University of the Pacific in Stockton and majored in theater with a minor in journalism. He was the entertainment editor for the school newspaper and had a clear passion for telling people’s stories. After college he went into marketing for A&M records and worked with an amazing array of people, his favorite probably being Sting. “He is just sickeningly smart and sensitive and adventurous; it was just a wonderful opportunity to be around that.”
He had always been a playwright but began to write professionally in 1974. His first professional play Hello this is the Bottom Drawer debuted in 1980 at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. “That was a big thrill; after that I just kept writing,” says Haverty.
Russ, also a consummate storyteller, grew up in Illinois and attended the University of Illinois majoring in English and minoring in music theory. She was always interested in music but says she can pinpoint the very moment she knew she wanted to be a composer.
“A college friend and I had heard about a new actress,” says Russ. “We decided we wanted to go see her and drove to New York. Â The show wasÂ Funny Girl, and the actress was Barbra Streisand. When I said to my friend, ‘I want to do that,’ my friend said, ‘Sing like Streisand?’ and I said, ‘No, I want to write those songs.'”
After college, following her love of other cultures, Russ entered the Peace Corps for two years and worked there on developing educational television in the schools. Â Over the years Russ has written for theater, film and television collaborating with Joel Evans on a song that was featured in the film Doubt with Meryl Streep. She is currently on the board of the Society of Composers and Lyricists and her original songs have received much acclaim, being showcased by performers such as Susan Egan, Sharon McNight and Jason Graae on her original album, Everyone Has a Story (www.lmlmusic.com).
Perhaps one of Russ’ greatest achievements is her original musical Inside Out, co-written with Haverty, and coincidentally the piece that began their long creative relationship. It was 1981 and Russ had just been in women’s group therapy. She found herself humming tunes during the session about these different women’s stories and knew she had all the material to write a stellar musical but just had to find the right words.
She soon enrolled in a Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop to work on the piece and began getting great feedback and criticism from none other than Haverty. “He would stop me after class and always say he loved my work but asked if I had thought about this for this scene or that for another,” says Russ. “He was always eager to give creative input to the book because that was something I was not as good at.” Eventually Haverty officially came onto the project and Inside Out opened at the Group Rep in NoHo in 1989.
Years later Haverty saw a performance of Inside Out in Zurich and sat in the middle of the audience, unannounced, watching eagerly as these actresses of different ethnic backgrounds, with all kinds of thick accents, put on a show that is inherently American in nature. “They delivered every joke and the audience got them,” says Haverty almost still in grateful disbelief. “All the way over on the other side of the world and people still connected and got it. As an artist that is pretty fulfilling.”
Both Haverty and Russ hope for that kind of success with iGhost but as seasoned creators, they know the only thing that is predictable is unpredictability when it comes to a new musical.
“It has been a while since I have been on this side and not in the audience. We are so grateful that we have such an amazing cast and director working on this piece,” says Haverty. Director Jules Aaron has worked with Haverty on many of his new plays and is what Haverty calls an “expert” at working on new material.
“Jules is fabulous,” says Russ. “On top of that I am so confident with the cast and our music director Richard Berent who has created incredible orchestrations specifically for this show.”
Russ and Haverty know that writing an original work is a continuous process. “We love to go to a performance of our show and sit right in the middle. If the audience is not getting it, then that is a message to us we are not doing something right,” says Russ.
Although iGhost goes up this weekend in front of live audiences as a part of the Fourth Festival for New American Musicals, Russ and Haverty’s work is never completely done. Like their “marriage,” it is always an exciting work in progress.
iGhost opens May 20; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., June 5 and 12, 7 pm; through June 18. Tickets: $20. Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; 626-695-8283 or brownpapertickets.com/event/169940. Also lyrictheatrela.com.