Producing a musical in any environment has its challenges, but if you decide to do an original, prepare yourself for a situation I can only describe as Sisyphean — except you’re often pushing several boulders up that hill. The bottom line is nobody knows the show. No matter how good you think it is, you still have to sell it to every single person you come in contact with. And if your show happens to be about a group of volunteers at a crisis hotline center, you have an even steeper hill to climb.
I got involved with this project, Stay On The Line, back in 2004 when I produced it at the Stella Adler in Hollywood under the title 24 Hours.Â I thought Rob Hartmann‘s music was great and the story quite distinctive — a 19-year-old named Brian spends 24 hours at a crisis hotline center, trying to prove he has the will and strength to become a phone counselor.
When I took the project on again several years ago, we decided the script would need to be updated.Â Original author Bruce Goodrich was not available, so I reached out to several other writers. None of them were very passionate about the subject matter, so I did the unthinkable and hired myself to do the rewrite, knowing exactly what the risks would be.Â Musicals take years to get right and include many rewrites and productions before hitting their stride. If we did launch the show again, it was going to be a very expensive test drive.
Although many of the characters needed to be fleshed out and the central storyline needed a pulse, the biggest challenge in the rewrite was finding the show’s emotional core. Our protagonist, Brian, quickly finds himself manning phones at the center, encountering folks dealing with all types of crisis. What I didn’t want to happen is for one particular crisis to stand out over the others. This is a show about human connection, not societal issues. I felt it was important to include the modern-day problems gay teens and war vets are facing, but they couldn’t be the focal point of the show.
In the original version, Brian counsels a middle-aged woman, and I thought that was something that should be embellished. A 19-year-old aiding someone two generations ahead of him was the perfect scenario to encapsulate the show’s theme.Â It just had to be broadened. How these two connect with one another was that emotional core I had been looking for.
There are seven other main characters and quite a large ensemble, so I found myself trying to create a tapestry of story lines that somehow related to Brian’s new journey. I felt everyone who came in contact with him needed to take part in his arc and vice versa. As a whole the show became a bit darker, but I tried balancing that with as much levity as possible. I felt the show needed to go the distance emotionally, but we had a plan to ensure everyone still left the theater smiling.
We dropped a total of five songs from the original, but Rob Hartmann wrote several new ones that worked perfectly with the new material. This was my first creative endeavor on a musical, so there was much to learn, particularly about music. Â Rob was so great to work with. Even though it was tough being 3,000 miles away from each other, we were always on the same page with the new direction.
When the first draft was finally done in the summer of 2012, we decided to move forward. We thought it was a great start, and I was lucky enough to assemble an amazing team that included co-director Crystal Craft, musical director Wayne Moore and producers Derek Wan and Ronnie Marmo — the artistic director of the company at Theatre 68, where Stay on the Line is taking place.
In November 2012, the casting began. Judging from my experience producing both versions of this show, musicals are not something many actors in Los Angeles come out for, particularly if it’s something unknown. So we struggled for a bit but eventually found that perfect fit of triple threats to morph into these roles. Twenty talented, dedicated performers were cast in total. We began rehearsing right after the New Year and opened six weeks later on February 22.
Our jobs now are to be spies. We stand around the theater and watch both the show and the audience. We scrutinize every breath the audience takes trying to determine what is working and what isn’t. Who is crying at what moments, what lines are getting laughs, who is verbally commenting or even gasping when one of the many plot twists unfold in the second act. Yes, someone gasped during opening weekend.
Every night we’re in that lobby talking with as many audience members as possible, and so far the responses have been extremely positive. I know we’re going to take our hits and we’re ready for them, but I feel we are in a really good place for the first time out with this new script. It’s been a long bumpy ride and what lies ahead should scare me but it doesn’t.Â I’m ready to continue on with what has been the most productive and creative journey of my life.
Stay On The Line: A Rock Musical, Theatre 68, 5419 West Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood 90026. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Tickets: $30 general admission. www.stayonthelinethemusical.com.
**All Stay on the Line production photos by Matt Baume.
Scott Mlodzinksi is the producer, book writer and co-director of Stay On The Line. He directed two versions of the critically acclaimed play The Knights of Mary Phagan for Theatre 68 in 2002 and 2005, which received 9 NAACP theater award nominations including one for Scott for best director. In 2004, he was nominated for an Ovation Award for producing the previous incarnation of Stay On The Line, titled 24 Hours, which received a nod for best musical in a smaller theater. Aside from working as a producer in television (Master Chef, The Taste, My Life on the D List, Joan Knows Best), he is currently developing Stay On The Line as a made for TV movie/series.