Playhouse has fun creating musical ‘The Nightingale’


By Jessica Ordon

Ever wonder how the ideas in a writer’s head become full-blown musical productions? Or how words on a page actually become theater performances? You can get a glimpse of how it’s done at La Jolla Playhouse’s current offering, “The Nightingale,” part of its Page to Stage program for new play development.

“The Nightingale” is a promising project with big names attached to it. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik are writing and composing the musical, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of the same name.

“The Nightingale” is the story of an emperor who lives sheltered within his palace walls, until he is compelled to locate the source of the most beautiful song ever heard, a nightingale.

Sater and Sheik earned Grammy and Tony awards for their Broadway hit, “Spring Awakening.” An emotional roller coaster, “Spring Awakening” is an adaptation of a late 19th-century German play about the plight of adolescence in a society that basically denies sexuality’s existence. The now-popular music for the show ranges from the explosive, “The Bitch of Living,” to the heart-wrenching howl, “Touch Me.”

A preview of “The Nightingale’s” music, available on La Jolla Playhouse’s website, reveals the new musical features Sater’s characteristically lyrical words, matched to Sheik’s pensive and emotional compositions, befitting a story about a nightingale’s beautiful song.

As if the bright musical pair was not enough, Moisés Kaufman directs the workshop piece. Most known perhaps for his work with Tectonic Theatre Project on “The Laramie Project,” Kaufman worked with author Doug Wright on “I Am My Own Wife,” the Playhouse Page to Stage program’s inaugural play, which found its way to Broadway in 2003.

Kaufman’s own “Laramie Project,” a collaborative piece written with the ensemble members of Tectonic Theatre, is based on real interviews with Laramie, Wyo., residents about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepherd. The piece essentially kick-started the docu-drama movement in theater, which uses interviews and current events as fodder for conversation-inducing plays.

The artistic director of Tectonic Theatre Project, Kaufman was last seen at La Jolla Playhouse in 2008 as the director and playwright of ‘33 Variations,’ a play that toys with past and present through a modern day musicologist’s examination of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations.” No doubt, it’s interesting to see where Kaufman takes the budding “Nightingale.”

Already notable is the production’s use of puppetry (video available on the Playhouse’s website), designed by Chris Green. Green has worked with the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont, as well as famous puppeteer Basil Twist; he has also received grants from the Jim Henson Foundation.

Additionally, the cast contains a handful of actors familiar with the Playhouse stage, as well as fresh faces from the San Diego theater scene. Audience members will be invited to give feedback in guided post-show sessions with the creative collaborators of “The Nightingale.”

The discussions will prove a unique opportunity for theatergoers, whose reactions and input about the show may greatly influence the creative evolution of this latest developing work at La Jolla Playhouse.

— The production runs through Aug. 5 in the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

Tickets are $20-$40 at (858) 550-1010 and