How the Classic Play Dark of the Moon Became a New Musical Premiering on the Rubicon Theatre Company Stage
Story reprinted courtesy of TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER OF TicketHoldersLA
‘Dark of the Moon’ features an all-new dual bluegrass and rock score by multi-platinum musical hitmakers
…some of the most impressive talent on the planet!
Developing new works and creating a nurturing environment for established and aspiring playwrights has always been a fundamental part of our mission and vision at RTC.
The collaboration was instant magic.
It’s been a long and winding (country) road for Howard Richardson and William Berney’s mysterious and magical classic 1945 “play with music” Dark of the Moon, a once popular piece fallen into obscurity over the years despite many previous well-intentioned efforts to grab the rights and transform it into a full musical.
Among the successful artists who had been turned down through the years by the playwrights’ estate have included Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Marvin Hamlisch, but they believed no one pitching an adaptation had ever found the heart and strange, gossamer beauty of the tale.
Based on the centuries-old European folk song “The Ballad of Barbara Allen” and set in a small backwoods town deep in the American Appalachians, Dark of the Moon is the story of a “witch-boy” from the Smoky Mountains who descends from the fog to become hopelessly enamored by a beautiful, feisty village girl desperately looking to find herself in the outside world she has never known.
John makes a pact with the spooky “Conjur Woman,” potentially trading his immortality to join his earthbound love on good ol’ terra firma, but it’s a deal that will only become permanent if the lovers can work through the prejudice and fear that haunts their relationship and stay faithful to one another for a year.
It is a poetic, soulful “Twilight” meets Romeo & Juliet-esque tale which originally included the song upon which it is based, as well as a few authentic old folk songs such as “Down in the Valley” and “Give Me That Old Time Religion.”
Surely, in a world where The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz could become major contemporary Broadway warhorses, Dark of the Moon seemed to be the quintessential project to adapt into musical theatre, but if Jerry, Bob, and Marvin couldn’t make the grade, it seemed unlikely the play would ever again to be produced professionally.
The fog began to lift on the fictitious village of Buck Creek, however, when noted screenwriter and film producer Jonathan Prince had the inspiration as to how the play could be adapted without losing its heart or watering down its message of the destructive nature of narrow-mindedness and intolerance. The result is the staggeringly ambitious developmental world premiere of Dark of the Moon, A New Musical, now debuting at the celebrated Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura and playing through April 16, RTC’s 46th world premiere (of 165 mainstage productions) presented in their ongoing commitment to the creation of new works.
The production is being directed by Rubicon Founder and co-Artistic Director James O’Neil, who has shepherded many world premieres at the theatre since its inception in 1998 and is himself author of Lonesome Traveler, which debuted at RTC before landing off-Broadway and touring extensively featuring such folk giants as Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and George Grove, among others
Dark of the Moon features an all-new dual bluegrass and rock score by multi-platinum musical hitmakers Lindy Robbins, Dave Bassett, and Steve Robson, and a cast and artistic team of some of the most impressive talent on the planet, including choreography by Christopher Gattelli (Tony winner for Newsies), musical supervision by Brad Haak (conductor of An American in Paris and Mary Poppins on Broadway), musical direction by Brent Crayon, and arrangements by Carole King’s grandson, renowned guitarist-composer Dillon Kondor.
What broke the resolve of the play’s estate? Explains O’Neil: “Elliott Blair, the attorney who represents the estate, was waiting for someone to solve the problems for a contemporary audience. Michael Jackowitz of WitzEnd Productions, Jonathan, and Lindy flew to New York at various times to present their ideas and he has really gotten behind this production and believes in what they are hoping to accomplish.
“The story is timeless… it’s about loving the other,” O’Neil continues. “The original writer was a gay man in the 1940s who felt he couldn’t give voice his own truth and his own story, but he could tell the story of a witch boy falling in love with a rebellious mortal girl, both experiencing different levels of hate and disapproval from their communities.
“Jonathan had the idea for a dual score—folk and bluegrass performed by the townspeople of Buck Creek—and rock and soul performed by the witches. The challenge in telling the story today is that some plot elements had to be changed. In this story, the writers found a way for Barbara to have agency in the choices and sacrifices she makes. I think Jonathan has done that in an ingenious way.”
“It’s a big undertaking,” adds Rubicon’s Producing Artistic Director Karyl Lynn Burns. “We are so grateful to get to share this beautiful musical story with our audiences and to work with an amazing team. The writers are extraordinary. It’s been a life lesson to see how Jonathan, Lindy, Dave, and Steve work together. They are incredible collaborators. No stepping on eggshells but so much respect and love between them. And they’re facile and fast and so keenly intelligent and tuned in to each other. It’s an honor to be in the room as they finish each other’s sentences and lyrics and musical phrases.
“Going back to big, it’s a cast of 29 and, including our onstage bluegrass band and another live rock-and-roll band downstairs, it’s a company of 34 in our intimate 185-seat space. It’s a rare opportunity.
“Developing new works and creating a nurturing environment for established and aspiring playwrights has always been a fundamental part of our mission and vision at RTC but this is definitely the largest and most ambitious undertaking in Rubicon’s history. We have been involved with the show for over four years through our Plays-in-Progress program and have been working dramaturgically with the team.
“The project came to us through our Director of New Works Michael Jackowitz, who has been with us since 2006 and was the recipient of Rubicon’s first Innovation Award during our 20th anniversary season. He has brought us many amazing projects and has also become a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer himself. He and his partners at WitzEnd Productions, especially Jeffrey Grove, have provided generous support so we are able to produce a story of this scope for our audiences.”
Bookwriter Jonathan Prince is the guy to thank for the idea of turning the play into a musical. Prince, who once turned a serendipitous meeting with George Burns into writing the film “18 Again,” has written and produced over 200 hours of television on network, cable, and streamers. Many of his projects have had strong musical themes, including his Emmy-winning NBC series “American Dreams,” his film “1660 Vine,” and music also played a vital role in his multi-year B.E.T. series “American Soul,” his HBO series “Off the Record,: and pilots developed with Mick Fleetwood, Stewart Copeland, and Broadway producer Andrew Lippa, with whom he is also developing another stage musical.
His personal connection to Dark of the Moon started “decades ago,” he says, when he played a small role in the play at his high school. There are those traditional folk songs and hymns in Richardson and Berney’s original script and Prince loved the idea of the music helping the story unfold.
“Since then,” he admits, “I haven’t been able to get that show out of my head. It’s the story of a star-crossed romance with a twist. It’s not the woman who has given up everything to be with her male object of adoration—think The Little Mermaid—but instead the genders are reversed.
“Then life got in the way for me. That is, I had to go make a living.” But after his many years writing, producing, and directing for film and television, he was “emboldened” to take the concept to Jackowitz and Grove.
“The idea was to let the music of the show reflect the opposing communities, that is humans and witches standing in for the Capulet and the Montagues. The humans would sing in bluegrass songs and the witches would sing in rock, two distinct sounds that must somehow be melded when the lovers are alone.”
Who could deliver such a score, “songs that were the kind of ‘earworms’” that would inspire the audience to go home singing the melodies? “We invited Lindy, Steve, and Dave to bring their talents to the show and they have taken that great notion planted in the brain of a high school student in the late ‘70s and they have delivered.”
Still, the rights needed to be obtained and the fact that brilliant Broadway minds such as Robbins, Fosse, and Hamlisch had tried and failed was in danger of taking the wind out of the team’s sails. “How could we dare think that we might succeed where those geniuses of the theatre had failed?” Prince continues. “But we pitched the vision with all the story changes proposed and with the unique notion of a dual bluegrass-rock score. We were elated when Elliott Blair said, ‘Go ahead’ and he continues to be an enthusiastic supporter of the musical.”
There had been significant issues with the original script, especially in the current #METOO era. It made Barbara Allen a victim rather than a proactive heroine and it also demonized the church and people of faith, not to mention Prince felt the characters of the witches were underdeveloped. Luckily, he had those ideas of how to make it work and when the team pitched them to Blair, he was thrilled with the profound changes they proposed. “They would make the show much more friendly to contemporary high schools, colleges, and professional companies who have been less inclined to do the play over the last few years because of the issues baked into the original.”
The creation of the piece was also something one could call unique. “Many people during the pandemic learned to bake sourdough bread,” quips Prince. “Many planted herb gardens, some took Zoom yoga classes. Lindy, Dave, and I basically Zoom-created an original musical.
“I wrote an outline with suggestions for song placement and themes, but often the songwriters went ahead and wrote songs before the actual scenes from the book existed. Sometimes songs were written after the scripted preface was ready. And always, always, the team wrote and rewrote. Rewrote scenes and dialogue. Rewrote lyrics and melodies. Rewrote characters. It’s been an incredibly collaborative process that’s been sort of amazing, really.”
One of the most compelling things for me about this project has been hearing about how it was unfolding along the journey from Lindy, a prolific five-time ASCAP Pop Award-honored songwriter credited with over 300 major releases, including Jason Derulo’s worldwide smash “Want to Want Me” and chart-toppers for Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, Backstreet Boys, Nick Lachey, MKTO, David Guetta, Morgan Evans, Hot Chelle Rae, and the 2006 Disney Song of the Year “Cinderella” from the Cheetah Girls.
Lindy and Jonathan had been friends for many years, meeting as performers in the west coast premiere of Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways. They shared a love of musical theatre and unbeknownst to him, aside from her successful career writing pop songs, she had always dreamed of writing an original musical.
“Way back when I was in the group The Tonics and writing cabaret songs in New York in the 90s,” she recalls, “Michael Jackowitz said to me, ‘One day I’m going to find the right musical for you to do.’ I laughed it off then but little did I know.
“I spent the next 20 years back in LA fulfilling my dream to be a songwriter for mainstream radio and against all odds I succeeded, but I never lost my love for musical theatre, something that dated back to a childhood raised by a father who lived for musicals and the ‘Great American Songbook.’ So when out of the blue I got a call from Michael and Jonathan asking if I wanted to hear about a musical, I was ready for a new challenge. I met Jonathan at the Beverly Glen Deli, he filled me in, and I was instantly intrigued. Something felt right!
“Still, in my world of pop songwriting, it’s always collaborative—two people in a room writing together. I knew I needed a partner who could play instruments since I write lyrics and melody but only play a little piano. This led me to my first collaborator Steve Robson, a well-known and very talented writer-producer who lives in London. We wrote songs for what was Act One at the time, but it’s changed so much since then. Some of those songs remain in some form or another and are integral to the show to this day. Unfortunately, due to some health issues and the difficulty of collaborating across the Pond when the pandemic started, Steve amicably withdrew.
“After much deliberation, the solution hit me like a bunch of magical bricks: Dave Bassett! He and I had worked on pop songs on and off for 20 years and I just knew he was the perfect person to take this to the distance with me. Happily, he said yes. He’s incredibly busy and successful so boy, was I lucky to get him.”
The Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum songwriter and producer Bassett, a guy with more than a dozen #1 hits to his name, could not have been a better choice and he agrees that teaming up has been an exciting process. Both veteran songwriters were used to working in many different musical genres, so the choices they made together and the direction in which they took the score, as Lindy puts it, “happened song by song.”
The collaboration was instant magic. “We would get on Zoom or meet at Dave’s studio and just follow the story and let it be our inspiration. It was new and challenging and so much fun to have a story to tell. It helped a lot that Dave plays every musical instrument and is a producer, so he made instrumental tracks—as did Steve—and we sang most of the parts ourselves. The demos were super helpful throughout the process. We knew we wanted bluegrass and rock but there are many songs that fall somewhere in between.”
Bassett agrees wholeheartedly. “I’ve always prided myself on being a stylistically diverse collaborator able to wear many hats,” he says. “This process has given Lindy and me an opportunity to do just that as the styles are so varied throughout the piece.
“Between the bluegrass and the rock and the singer-songwriter style,” Bassett continues, “we have tried not to stray from the instincts that came natural to us. We knew we had to cater to the story, but we didn’t want to follow musical theatre formulas with our songs but rather approach them as we would work within the pop and rock genres. We truly wanted to write songs that could stand alone.”
“What I didn’t realize,” Lindy adds, “is how much of a collaboration it is between the whole creative team. The producers, the theatre, the director, the choreographer, and for Dave and me, our music supervisor Brad Haak has been a big part of all this for us. I mean, we didn’t even know what a music supervisor was and now I can’t imagine us creating this show without him.
“And reiterating what Jonathan said, I was not used to so much rewriting! Sometimes that has been very difficult but the show gets better and better. Now we need the x-factor of an audience to know where we go from here.”
Like Jonathan Prince, my own enthusiasm about this new journey back into Dark of the Moon also goes back to my own personal—though ancient—connection, having strummed a ukulele and warbled “Down in the Valley” myself playing Barbara Allen’s younger hayseed brother Floyd in Chicago in the early ‘60s when I was 14 or 15 under the direction of the Second City’s celebrated director, the lategreat Ted Liss.
The lingering memory of playing Floyd Allen as a teen is an experience I also share with the Rubicon’s longtime resident company member Joseph Fuqua, with whom I worked there and then again at Santa Monica’s BroadStage Theatre as Cheswick and Harding in Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest under the direction of Jenny Sullivan.
Time, of course, marches on and Joseph, who has also appeared in 110 in the Shade and Brighton Beach Memoirs at Lincoln Center and received universal praise playing the title role in Hamlet at Rubicon, is now cast as Barbara and Floyd’s father Thomas Allen in this new production, a gift for which he is over the moon—you know, the Dark one.
His thrill being part of this brave new undertaking is palpable. “After 23 years as a RTC company member,” gushes Joseph as only he can gush, “this show feels the most… what? Epic. I’m doing a small, small role that I wanted as badly as I’ve ever wanted any role in my life. I just wanted to be a part of this. Everyone is so gifted. The young cast is amazingly talented and it’s also a marvelous intergenerational company to be part of. This is big league and Jonathan Prince is a genius. What he has solved in presenting the witch-human connection is extraordinary and Jim is doing a superb job as director handling such a huge vehicle.
“And may I say I adore your friend Lindy Robbins and I’m so honored to be working with her,” he continues. “Her song ‘Day Drunk’ has been one of my favorites for a long time. The music in this show is truly exciting. Hit after hit, I predict. It will be the kind of cast album that yung’uns will be using as a “Corner of the Sky”-style audition piece for decades to come. I think we’ve got two prom theme tunes that kids would call “sick” and two or three other songs that will be sung at weddings—gay and straight—for years.
He is also over the Moon (another pun intended) about working with the glorious Jennifer Leigh Warren, a ginormous Los Angeles stage presence who created the role of Crystal in Little Shop of Horrors, as well as appearing in the original Broadway casts of Marie Christine and Big River.
In this production she was playing his wife before an injury in the cast moved her into the pivotal role of the Conjur Woman. “There she was, already in the company and let me just say JLW is as fierce as fx!@k.”
The Fierce Ms. Warren also says she is “thrilled to be part of the birthing process creating a new musical again.”
This remarkably talented group of artists, linked together to spark this bold new take on Dark of the Moon into life by tapping into the sheer wonder of their communal energy and devotion to the material, all seem to have one thing in common: a passionate appreciation for the adventure. This phenomenon is obviously foremost of the minds of everyone involved.
“I agree it takes a collaboration of artists working diligently with no rest,” Jennifer Warren quips, tongue firmly in cheek. “It can be exhilarating and frustrating and scary, but in the end it’s incredibly rewarding. I look forward to where this new show goes… hopefully with me included!”
Accompanied onstage by the Ventura County bluegrass band Whole Hog and that rock-and-roll pit band, the massive cast stars newcomer Ava Delaney, a recent graduate of The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and Jake David Smith (Frozen on Broadway) as the star-crossed lovers Barbara Allen and her witch-boy John.
Other veteran performers include Timothy Warmen (Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Jekyll and Hyde, and Steel Pier), Olivier Award-winner Lesli Margherita (Zorro the Musical in the West End, Matilda the Musical and Dames at Sea on Broadway),
Juliette Redden (Anne of Green Gables at Goodspeed), Dylan Goike (Anne Frank off-Broadway), Teri Bibb (seven years as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and on tour), Jane Macfie (Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ah Wilderness! on Broadway), and Phillip Attmore (Hello, Dolly!, Shuffle Along…, On the 20th Century and After Midnight on Broadway).
The ensemble also features CJ Cruz, Anna Demaria, Heather Youmans, Trevor Wheetmam, Sylvie Davidson, Marc Cardiff, Michael Allen Deni, Michael Stone Forrest, Ximena Valentina Alvear, Madeline Marquis, Lauralyn McClelland, Mark C. Reis, Spencer Ty, and the youngest member of the cast, 12-year-old Anastacia Noelle Jones, daughter of renowned singer Stacy Francis. All I can think of is how our cast half this size squeezed into the Rubicon’s three small dressing rooms during Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ll bet this production will make a lot of close friends.
“In our small space,” Jim O’Neil adds, “those 29 performances by some of today’s best musical theatre artists will be magical—and we also have some fantastical projections and lighting design by Andrew Schmedake, a great set by Mike Billings, sound by Jonathan Burke, and Pamela Shaw’s costumes.”
Still, the magic inherent in the show will require some suspension of disbelief,” he admits. “Not only is the musical itself a huge undertaking but the magical elements of the production have been a challenge as well. We won’t have witches flying, for example, which might be the case in subsequent productions. For us in this developmental process, it has been about discovering what the magic might be for future productions.
“It has been an enormous privilege and the dream of a lifetime to work on this piece. I have always had a great love of bluegrass and folk music and I’ve always been deeply interested in mythology. This musical is very elemental and steeped in mythology. Our cast and the entire creative team have come up with some surprises and the score is thrilling. I think audiences will jump out of their chairs. We can’t wait to see how they will respond.”
The World Premiere of Dark of the Moon, a New Musical plays through Apr. 16 at the Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St. in Ventura. For the complete schedule or to purchase tickets, visit www.rubicontheatre.org or call 805.667.2900.