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Issue 1 Feb. 23, 2021
Welcome to the inaugural issue of Rooster Revue—a newsletter written by and for movie musical lovers. In our featured section this week, we interview Brett Ryback and Jeff Lupito-Esposito, two of the creators of the hit musical podcast, In Strange Woods.
• Jon M. Chu will direct Universal's Wicked. [Deadline]
Come From Away to be made into filmed theater presentation. [Variety]
• Andrew Feldman to appear in HSMTMTS, Season 2! [Playbill]
• Three songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s upcoming Cinderella movie musical released. [Spotify]
• Averno -  A “Marvel universe” for musicals created mostly by teenagers. [NYT]
Some of our favorite recent releases now streaming.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist [Hulu]
Jane Levy’s endearing performance and Mandy Moore’s choreography make this jukebox musical a must-see. Catch up now, season 2 continues 3/28.

Julie and the Phantoms [Netflix]
Kenny Ortega is back! 

Prom [Netflix]
So you can work on your lip sync for "It's Not About Me."

Cinderella [Disney+]
Whitney Houston 1997 version, now on Disney+ !!

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar [Lionsgate]
Not a musical, but there are two wonderful musical sequences. Currently you have to rent it. We'll update you if/when it's free to stream.

Been So Long [Netflix]
ICYMI (cause we did!) this original British musical stars the wonderful Michaela Coel of I May Destroy You.

Love Songs (Les Chansons d'Amour), a French neo-New Wave film that follows loosely in the footsteps of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. 

Written and Directed by: Christophe Honoré

Music and Lyrics by: Alex Beaupain

Love Songs is a brave piece about a complicated set of relationships between multiple sets of lovers—a deep dive into the mixed up and sometimes messed up feelings you have while trying to find yourself and how you fit with a lover (or two). There’s an effortless lack of pretension that draws you in. I found myself completely engrossed by these characters, particularly the lead (Louis Garrel).

I will say that the movie was made in 2008 and it shows. Some of the perspectives on queer life are dated, but it never felt cringy. In fact, as a gay man in my thirties the angst and confusion resonated with feelings I had back then. And if I had only been cultured enough in 2008 to know about this movie it would have felt right at home with my obsession of Once and Hedwig.

Regarding the music, don’t go into the movie expecting a catchy Broadway score. It’s a low key jazz-like style of French pop that’s both meandering and poetic. The lyrics don’t always translate well (which is always a problem with subtitled musicals, but particularly true here when trying to translate the vernacular slang of ‘08 from a language that has many more words to describe sex and love than English). It wasn’t really my style but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the storytelling within the lyrics or the tone and emotion within the music. I highly recommend Love Songs

—Jeffrey Simon 

A Musical Podcast from Atypical Artists.

Created by Jeff Luppino-Esposito, Brett Ryback & Matt Sav 

Directed by Jeff Luppino-Esposito

In Strange Woods is a new fiction folk-pop documentary musical podcast that follows 18-year-old Peregrine Wells as she seeks out survivalist skills from an enigmatic old recluse, after a tragedy in the Whitetail National Forest.

Friends of The Barn, Brett Ryback and Jeff Luppino-Esposito were kind enough to share a little bit about their incredible new podcast.

What challenges did you face in creating a musical with no visual accompaniment?

Brett: I think the biggest challenge was trying to strike the right balance of what to describe and how much, particularly when it came to the characters. We had to craft the right kinds of details that would evoke an image in the audience’s mind, while still leaving room for their imagination. In this way, character description felt more like writing a novel. Beyond that, our sound design team did a lot of creating behavior through sound that sometimes we didn’t even direct. For example, in the final episode, there’s a moment where one of the characters pats the top of his snowmobile. It’s such a specific sound, and creates a vivid image of behavior — that sort of stuff was all our sound designers. 

Jeff: On the flip side, one advantage of a musical without visuals, is that the stories our characters told in song could become fully-realized images in the minds of our listeners without any limitations. Especially in our “documentary” format, we could have a seated character suddenly transport you to their memory of a day at the beach, or their experience in a war zone, in a collage-like way that we’re used to in popular music but that could seem erratic if literally executed as visuals.

How do you decide what should be sung and what should be dialogue?

Brett: Musical stories are built around songs or musical moments. So in the outline stage, you have a sense that every big story beat needs to be carried by music. Once you have this general sense of where the songs go and what those songs will be about, you then begin to make decisions about emotion and structure. Music is inherently emotional, so you try to identify where the scene begins to lift into whatever that more emotional space is. Music and songs are also necessarily structured, so you have to consider what are the structured ideas in this scene, or how can I add structure in such a way that feels organic and true. As Sondheim always says, “Content dictates form.” 

Jeff: And as our friends and family always say, “Stop talking about Sondheim so much.” 

How did you manage such fabulous performances that seem so unified during a lockdown?

Brett: We were blessed with incredible actors, that’s the first thing. The second thing is that the three of us had a largely uniform idea of the kinds of reads we needed in order to achieve the verisimilitude we were going for. We also had in our heads the larger picture of how everything would ultimately flow within narrative and music, which allowed Jeff to give very specific direction. With a few exceptions, everything fit together pretty seamlessly.

Jeff: The actors had done their homework, remained totally flexible while recording, and were willing to trust that we would provide the context in post to support their performance. And our access to the caliber of talent we had was, in part, a result of the lockdown. I’m sure that some of our cast members wouldn’t have been available if they were putting up eight shows a week in NY, or filming in LA. Also, I’m sure I was a better director over Zoom than I am in real life because I could mute myself to avoid rambling.

Do you feel like the process was closer to developing a musical for stage or screen? 

Brett: Far closer to developing a musical for the screen. Podcasting is actually a very visual medium in a way that stage is not, at least not on the page. I’m rarely thinking very specifically about the set or the choreography or the costumes when I write for the stage, unless it’s somehow integral to the plot or it gets mentioned in dialogue. But with In Strange Woods we had to constantly consider where we were, where is the microphone, what’s the action of the scene. The big difference, of course, is that audio (and documentary in particular) allows you to justify verbalizing much more than you would in a truly visual medium, and musicals tend to be very language-dependent.

How much did you edit in the cutting room after you’d recorded the performances?

Brett: Not very much, and also a whole lot. Of what was originally in the scripts, I’d estimate maybe 8-12% was either cut or rearranged once we heard an edit. A few cut songs, and some minor transpositions of dialogue and/or narration. But there was a LOT of line comping within both music and dialogue. And furthermore, we recorded a good deal of additional dialogue to use as “under narration.” We probably used 60% of what we recorded specifically for that.

Jeff: The use of “under-narration” was definitely a unique part of the recording and editing process -- we’re referring to the continuation of dialogue or sound design that plays quietly while our host is narrating directly to the audience. It’s a subtle thing, but it was something we knew we couldn’t fake in post. And I’m glad we captured it -- in the editing room it always helped to cushion a scene. Hearing even the slightest idea of the beginning or end of a conversation while our narrator is speaking manages to really trick your brain to think that it’s hearing an actual recording of people talking, as opposed to scripted scenes.

What is most exciting to you about the podcast format for musical development? Do you want to continue working in this space?

Brett: I would love to return to this space at some point. I think the podcast format just opens up worlds of possibility. Podcasting is like animation in that you really can do anything. And while anytime you add a musical component to something it immediately becomes more expensive and more complicated, it’s far LESS expensive to make a musical podcast than to make a film or put it on stage. I know some people are interested in how podcasts can be cheap ways to develop musicals for the stage...I don’t know that I agree. The stage has very practical limitations, and writing for those limitations is what makes a good show work in the theater. But if you put those limitations on a podcast it might end up being rather boring. And vice versa if you really embrace the gestures intrinsic to audio, those can be very difficult to translate to stage. But screen on the other hand...

Jeff: I agree, as a development tool, a podcast is more likely a useful first step for a musical film or TV series than for a stage musical. But it’s also a substantial amount of time and money to invest in something that you think would be better suited in a different form. I can imagine a concept album maybe being an in-between step that could work more flexibly as a development tool for a variety of formats. 

And I definitely would love to return to podcasts, though it would inevitably be a whole new process. Most audio dramas operate more like films, with scenes you’re dropped right into without comment. Since our show, on the other hand, uses the “true crime” format with a narrator and strict rules of what could be captured, it would likely be a totally different approach to making a podcast musical.

What’s next for In Strange Woods? Is there going to be a sequel/second season?

Brett: We’re releasing an album of songs from the show on March 1st. Beyond that we’re exploring possible adaptations to TV/Film, but there’s nothing concrete yet. We don’t have any plans for subsequent seasons, but you never know!

Jeff: In the meantime, fanfic spin-offs are encouraged.

Follow Brett on Instagram and Twitter or check out his website (the blog is a treasure trove of musical knowledge).
Follow Jeff on Twitter or check out his website.

And of course, follow In Strange Woods on Twitter and stream it everywhere.
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"Rooster Review" is edited by Matt Andrews, Mary Bonney, and Jeffrey Simon with contributions from the entire team at The Barn.

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