The Legacy of Donny Johns
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Tuesday, February 25, 2020
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
Musicals aren’t born overnight.
In 2014, Professors Gina Kaufmann and Harley Erdman reimagined The Trickster of Seville, a classic Spanish play that launched the legend of Don Juan (and served as the basis for Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni), as a musical that examined toxic male behavior and privilege on a college campus today. They brought composer Aaron Jones on board to write the Indie rock music for the piece, then dubbed Donny Johns, with actors from the student body and the community portraying the characters in a workshop production that ran in the Curtain Theater in November 2015.
More than five years later, Donny Johns has been retitled Legacy Boy. Characters and scenes have grown and changed, while others have disappeared. The original creators have found additional team members in local theater-maker Kyle Boatwright — who music-directed a demo recording of the piece this past January — and producer Laura Lundy, who has been advising and coaching them as they develop the piece and consider potential next steps.
Adding, subtracting, sharpening
Revisions to Legacy Boy began during its UMass Theater production and continued through a 2017 reading with full orchestration and through this past fall, until the version recorded this past January.
From the start, Erdman and Kaufmann have been concerned with centering the journeys of Anne, Donny’s girlfriend, and the other two women he pursues with his predatory wooing, Teresa and Isabel, as well as Cat-Eye, the young gay man he forces into helping him.
“More and more, the victims of Donny’s abusive behavior — mostly the women, but also Cat-Eye — are the drivers of the second half of the story,” said Kaufmann. “It is them that we follow as they awaken and shift.”
“I think that was always our intention,” Erdman said, “but a big jump forward in the last six months has been figuring out how to tell their story so that there’s more agency and more focus on their situations.”
He added that two external factors have affected the piece: the MeToo movement and Trump’s election. “There’s still a lot of material even now that’s similar if not the same... (due to current events) there’s been a sense of the piece’s relevance and urgency.”
Ann progresses from privileged white girl who doesn’t question the establishment to taking political action and rejecting Donny’s privilege. Kaufmann is friends with Urinetown creator Mark Hollman, who offered important advice. “One of his notes, to give a concrete example was that Ann’s song was not finished. She’s not just sad; the song needs to take her in a new direction, it’s fury and drive,” Hollman told them, pushing her to become politically active.
Other changes include to the love story between Isabel and Olivia, the professor, which now has more depth, and to Cat-Eye’s identity — once more ambiguous, he is now explicitly Latinx and gay.
Teresa is no longer a “simple naïve dupe, but a very ambitious, driven young woman,” in Kaufmann’s words. Teresa’s story has also shifted locations. Before, Donny encountered her at an off-campus diner, but it is no more, and Teresa now works at the dining hall. “The entire story of the diner didn’t work with the tone of the rest of the play,” Kaufmann said.
Also gone, although he was an engaging character, is Dick Duke, the head of the college’s board.
“It took us a while to come to it, but with him out of the way we were able to focus more on the character of Loretta Lord, the college president. There’s much dimensionality to her and her world,” Erdman explained.
For this change, Erdman credits Boatwright. She joined the team in revising the musical and helped Jones finish some of the songs by adding harmonies and arrangements. She also co-wrote an important new song about Loretta and her motivation. “She’s been a fantastic addition,” he said.
The fifth member of the team is Laura Lundy, head of Blue Panther Productions, who is based in New York and has become the musical’s producer. Erdman described her role on Legacy Boy as “coaching, helping, asking questions, helping to shape it for the future.”
“She’s focusing us on things we might’ve missed,” Kaufmann said. Without Lundy, she noted, they might not have done the demo recording in January, laying down 12 songs. It was an intense few days — seven hours of rehearsal followed by two days of recording.
Kaufmann attended the 2019 National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) Festival while on sabbatical in the fall, where she saw eight shows and scouted for possible singers she thought might work for the piece.
“The singers that we got, good god!” she said admiringly. “These are singers who work on Broadway.”
The NAMT Festival in 2020 is a current goal; however, with 260 musicals vying for a performance slot in the festival, the Legacy Boy team is applying for other opportunities too. The eventual step: find a theater or partner to carry on what began at UMass five years ago, and mount a full production.
Click here to listen to The Girl Who Sits Alone from Legacy Boy.