How partners-in-life Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn became partners-in-crime by bringing a campy Robin Hood to life in DTC’s world-premiere musical
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
Douglas Carter Beane smiles broadly as he walks into the rehearsal space at the Wyly Theatre, probably looking more upbeat than he has a right to. The Texas allergens are wreaking havoc with his pulmonary system and he’s just a few weeks away from premiering a new musical — this time, one he’s not only co-written — with his husband, composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn — but which he’s also directing. And today, he has to cut 20 minutes out of the first act — “That’s always a nice feeling,” he sighs.
But in many ways, this is nothing new to Beane, one of the busiest and most prolific playwrights in America today. Early in his career, he was famed for the plays As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed and the screenplay for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. But the last decade has been a spurt of creativity: Books for the big Broadway musicals Xanadu and Sister Act; re-working Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic Cinderella; even premiering another musical co-written with Flinn at the Dallas Theater Center (more on that later). He’s got three more projects on the burner after this one, which in some ways is his most personal: A musical adaptation of the Robin Hood legend called Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure.
“I was drawn to these stories while I was reading them to my son and daughter as bedtime stories,” Beane explains. “Then I noticed how Robin Hood [as a symbol] was making the rounds in pop culture — at political rallies and such. And I became intrigued that this timeless character was such a contemporary touchstone.”
This was in the fall of 2014. Beane had only a vague image of what to do with the character. He started by researching Elizabethan-era English may-dances — “arc-free, unperformable pageants,” he jokes. From there, he pulled the stories his kids loved the most and which he felt resonated in the current culture, and weaved them into a plot.
Flinn, for his part, was slightly skeptical. The young cast who first workshopped the piece had very little singing experience.
“It would be challenging to write a musical for non-singers,” Flinn deadpans. But then he got inspired. “I approached it as a musical for the everyman — like the way you could sing some songs in a pub or a bar. In that way, there’s an ease to it — all the songs are melodic with easy hooks.”
“Lewis said if everybody’s singing in a bar, it creates a joyful sound. So we wrote songs that sounded like contemporary folk songs like Mumford and Sons,” Beane adds.
The project really began to take off when Beane, Flinn and their kids moved to England for a year for the London open of Xanadu. As fate would have it, they were able to visit Nottingham and Sherwood Forest, and walk around old sites where the historical events are alleged to have taken place.
“We found Little John and Will Scarlet’s graves, as legend says they were,” Beane says. They also teamed up with the Royal Academy of Music, where the students really could sing. “Beyond what we started as sing-along songs, we saw there was a possibility with real singers to go to town on the material.”
Confident he had something, he called Kevin Moriarty, DTC’s artistic director, to pitch the idea. Beane and Flinn had debuted their updated Greek musical-comedy Lysistrata Jones (then called Give It Up!) at the Wyly in 2010, and had a great experience.
“Whenever a show [I wrote] plays Dallas, I get these reports, like ‘Dallas really gets you!’ So I always wanted to come back to Dallas. We had a truly wonderful time in shaping [Lysistrata] to a future life.”
He offered the chance to debut Hood — which was still in its earliest stages — at DTC. “I said, ‘I think Dallas will get a kick out of this. It feels like a DTC show.’ Then within 48 hours, Kevin said, ‘You’re in the season!’ I knew he would love it — he loves iconic figures,” says Beane.
That lit a fire under Beane and Flinn to ready the show for its world premiere (it begins previews at the Wyly on June 27) — a process informed not only by them being a couple, but also because Beane is directing it as well.
This is, as noted, not their first teaming for musical theater — they previously collaborated on Give It Up!, eventually taking the show to Broadway. But that was more than seven years ago. Their kids are older now, with the demands that come with parenting. And getting a new musical off the ground is a monstrous undertaking in the best of circumstances. Now imagine coming home every night with your collaborator.
As it turns out, for this pair at least, that’s not as daunting as it may sound — though Flinn quips that if he says anything wrong during the interview, “I’m sure I’ll hear about it in the bedroom.
“We try to keep the work and the life separate so it isn’t as if we are hashing ideas out over dinner.” Flinn says. The beginning of the process was the toughest, since they were trying to integrate their ideas and make sure the tone is consistent.
“We bumped our way through it — Doug would write [scenes] and send me an email saying, ‘Let’s put a song here’ and I’d email it back [with music and lyrics]. The awkward part in any collaboration is that first response. You’re trying something new and waiting for the collaborator to say, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard!’ … and that’s not always the response you get.”
It helps that both are perfectionists who obsess over details.
“Lewis is very facile and quick on his feet. He does all his own orchestrations and vocal arrangements — he complains about it, but I don’t think he’d be quite as happy if someone else did it,” Beane says. “And he got to write in a folk vein and that’s a different set of chops than the pop music he’s been doing lately — madrigals, choral work… he gets to write a good, saucy, double-entendre-laden madrigal.”
While Beane hammers out the actual staging of the show, Flinn is busy fine-tuning the score.
“This is the first time as a major production with a full band,” Flinn says. “For this version, I’ve added harmony parts and we have real singers. Last week, we cut a song and put in new stuff. We really do have a shorthand, so we can revise very quickly. I’ll say, ‘How about we extend a dance break here?’ Then we get the kids fed and I have about 30 minutes before I turn into a pumpkin. At this point we’re feeling pretty good about the show.”
One thing that amazes even Beane is how, without employing any direct, contemporary references, his script manages to comment on the current culture. There are no modern references, although it is “in a language we have come to expect as Middle-Ages-speak from our Game of Thrones experience. But there are ways we can comment on today’s world through that,” he says.
Since he wrote it, Brexit happened, the presidential election happened and everything, it seems, has more meaning. “There’s a scene where Prince John becomes King John and someone says, ‘He’s not my king!’ I wrote that two-and-a-half years ago!”
He also enjoys executing the very specific concept he had for Hood.
“This had a very definite concept so it helps the writing. It should feel like the actors wrote it themselves in the room,” Beane says. Among the cast of 12, half are from Dallas, half New York; half are people of color, most are in their early to mid 20s… All very intentional. “We have 12 people telling a story that if Cameron McIntosh or Andrew Lloyd Webber or Harold Prince had done it would be a cast of 40,” Beane says. “I like to remind audiences that they are in this event of seeing theater. And I am constantly reminding them of [the artifice]. Contemporary young people come in to tell the story by any means that they can — props that they find or make out of garbage; the costumes are all Etsy-like and handmade; we use a lot of puppets that are so peculiar and interesting-looking.”
It might seem like a pared-down, small-cast, one-set, improv-like musical goes against the modern trend of technological whiz-bangery. But for Flinn and Beane, that’s kind of the point.
“As the world gets more and more intel and computerized and metallic, we crave wooden things: Things that are ancient and tribal, like live theater. We want to celebrate that. The most important piece of stagecraft you can have is an actor playing an instrument and becoming a different person. There is nothing more exciting than a sword fight onstage,” Beane observes.
“It’s about getting back to truthful stories. These are old stories with moral twists in them. Imagine the day I turned the page and my kids found out Will Scarlet was Robin Hood’s gay nephew. He’s a fop, and he refuses to wear green in the forest — as he says, ‘How will people notice me?’ But he’s a great fist-fighter. You can be a sissy and still beat the crap out of someone.”
That’s a vital message to convey in today’s America, and one that has been around for centuries, if we only opened ourselves up to seeing it. The first line of the first song, Flinn states, Welcome to the story we’re about to tell / It’s been told before and we hope we do it well.
And nothing would delight them more than doing just that.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 16, 2017.