Call Answered: 54 Below Conference Call: Ashley Griffin and Ilana Gabrielle: Girl + Friend

"Call Me Adam" chats with Forever Deadward creator Ashley Griffin and actress Ilana Gabrielle about Girl + Friend, their first collaboration together. Girl + Friend explores the complexity of female relationships and will premiere at 54 Below on Saturday, June 13 at 11:30pm! Click here for tickets!

Frenemies. Besties. Best bitches. BFF’s. Female friendships run deep and intense. They have all the closeness and drama of something in between romance and family, and yet their complexities are frequently overlooked. Ilana Gabrielle and Ashley Griffin explore the dualities of these profound relationships through the reclaiming of beloved songs and by showcasing new material. Music direction by Drew Wutke.

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1. On June 13, you are presenting Girl + Friend, your new show that shows the complexity of female relationships. What made you want to write a show like this?

Ashley Griffin: The fact that very few people are actually, honestly exploring female friendships – at least in popular art. And female friendships are some of the most important relationships women will ever have – with just as much complexity as any other relationship be it familial or romantic. We wanted to at once draw attention to the beautiful, often unmanned artistic potential of these relationships, and have the opportunity to explore them ourselves. It’s so rare that two women really get to share the stage together, especially in musical theater, in the same way that two men often get to. And it’s a joy to get to work with Ilana.

Ilana Gabrielle: There was a psychological study that found that men's happiness in life is directly correlated to his relationship with his spouse while women's happiness is directly correlated to her relationships with her close girlfriends. I found this fascinating and worth a closer look! Not to discount men's friendships of course...

When we were discussing possible themes I was going through some turmoil in a close friendship and we were talking about it and about how interesting and layered our close friendships are. I was really inspired by the idea of exploring this through song and story. 

Ashley Griffin and Ilana Gabrielle, Photos Credit: Ted D'Ottavio2. How did you first come to work together?

Ashley Griffin: Ilana and I first met through readings of my newest musical Lyra: A Dark Faerie Tale (for which I wrote the book and lyrics with music by Evan Jay Newman). We were subsequently both cast in a production of As You Like It (I'm playing "Rosalind" and Ilana is "Jaques"). We quickly hit it off, and were very excited about the idea of collaborating together.

Ilana Gabrielle: I was brought on to be a part of a reading of Ashley's new musical, Lyra, which is a dark circus-themed re-telling of the original Little Mermaid story. I was really impressed with the show and the people involved. I was asked back for a second reading and from that night on, Ashley and I became fast friends! We were having sushi one afternoon and decided to do a concert.

3. What has been the best part about writing this show and what challenges have you faced?

Ashley Griffin: Getting to collaborate with a fantastic female artist has been a great joy – as well as getting to work on and present some awesome material that is very near and dear to my heart has by far been the best thing. It’s also going to be a great honor to make my debut as a performer at 54 Below (my show Forever Deadward performed there, but I have yet to take to the stage myself). The most challenging is the old chestnut of time and resources. There’s never enough time in theater – especially when you're creating new arrangements, and working on new material. Also, although we have an amazing set with some really special songs, due to the nature of the concert we had to delve a little bit – there weren’t hundreds of great songs to choose from. We had to go searching for the gems.

Ilana Gabrielle: We are both in A.N.O.N. Productions premiere of As You Like It right now so definitely balancing that with creating the show was my biggest challenge. Additionally, delving into some of the darker moments of friendships and friend breakups can be emotional and tough but important to explore.

4. What made you want to premiere this show at 54 Below?

Ashley Griffin: I had a wonderful time at 54 Below when we presented a concert version of my show Forever Deadward there in December of last year, and I know Ilana also had a great experience when she brought another concert of hers there a couple months ago. 54 Below is called "Broadway’s Living room" for a reason. Not only is 54 Below so well respected, but it has a beautiful energy and it's just an absolute joy to perform there. Also, while there are a lot of wonderful concert venues in the city, 54 Below is distinctly and utterly Broadway – and our concert is exploring themes and issues through the Broadway musical medium.

Ilana Gabrielle: I premiered my show with Lindsay Lavin, It's a Man's World, at 54 Below in March and had such a wonderful experience working with everyone at the venue. I feel very honored to get to sing on the stage where so many greats have stood before!

5. If you could give people one reason as to why they should come see Girl + Friend, what would that reason be?

Ashley Griffin: It’s going to be a really beautiful, fun, hopefully moving evening of theater and music, delving into relationships that affect us all, but are rarely explored.

Ilana Gabrielle: Just one?! Oof. I think everyone can relate to the importance and depth of a close friendship and seeing how we have brought that to the stage through new spins on material, beautiful arrangements, and soul-baring stories should be an emotional and cathartic theatre experience. There that's one! One run on sentence but still one!

Ashley Griffin and Ilana Gabrielle, Photos Credit: Ted D'Ottavio6. There are so many songs about relationships, how did you decide which existing songs you wanted to include?

Ashley Griffin: Well, that’s the funny thing. There aren’t a lot of songs about female friendships (female relationships in general) in the musical theater cannon. That was one of the big things that inspired the creation of this concert. The old joke in musical theater schools is that girls who want to perform duets with each other get to choose from Side Show, Wicked, or if they’re really edgy "I Know Him So Well," and that’s about it. So it was a combination of mining existing songs (sometimes with a twist) that do deal with those kinds of relationships, and appropriating songs that are not traditionally about female friendships – but could be.

Ilana Gabrielle: We talked a lot about what aspects we wanted to explore in regards to friendships and found songs that worked through those issues. Additionally, we talked about the life cycle of a friendship and about how to tell that through song. 

7. Of the new songs you are premiering, who are some of the writers you asked to write songs? Why did you choose these specific writers?

Ashley Griffin: Well, we didn’t commission anyone to write songs for the concert – instead we carefully chose a selection of lesser known songs from up and coming shows/lesser known trunk songs that both explored the idea of female friendships in a special way, and were by songwriters who we greatly admired. I’m a huge fan of the musical Jawbreaker and we’ll be performing a great song from that, I brought in a lovely arrangement of Stephen Schwartz’s "Forgiveness’ Embrace" that was actually first done as part of my senior thesis musical at NYU, and I’m especially excited that one of my and Evan’s songs will be performed, in addition to other wonderful pieces.

Ilana Gabrielle: We are premiering a beautiful song written by Ashley and our other friend Evan Jay Newman! Not to be missed!!

We found some great well-known songs that we put a very new spin on and some lesser known material, like our song from Jawbreaker, which fit with our theme. We had a wonderful time working with our music director, Drew Wutke, to bring fresh perspectives to some beautiful songs! It was fascinating taking songs about romantic relationships and seeing how they would work exploring a female friendship.

Ashley Griffin and Ilana Gabrielle, Photos Credit: Ted D'Ottavio8. Since this show is about the complexity of female relationships, how would you define your relationship in these terms of the show?

Ashley Griffin: Ilana and I are fortunate that we have a wonderful relationship. We are great friends, and also work together artistically very well. We’ve both been through our share of both fantastic female friendships (I have some female friends who I absolutely consider my sisters), and heartbreaking ones. Sometimes friend break ups can be just as bad, if not worse then romantic ones.

Ilana Gabrielle: We are dear, dear friends and have gotten very close working on this show. It's been a great match artistically and emotionally. We are able to rely on each other to take care of different aspects of preparation and it's been a real team effort! We are both big phone talkers and we are definitely chatting on the phone at least once a day at this point!

9. If writing this show taught you one thing about relationships, what is that?

Ashley Griffin: That all relationships are complex, wonderful, and challenging, and that it’s important to see all kinds represented in art. Not seeing something so important, and so influential to your life discussed or represented (and that obviously extends to more then just female friendships) can make you feel very isolated in what you may be going through. There’s been a lot of wonderful discussion lately about the lack of female representation in Hollywood, and the arts in general and I think it’s something we need to very much look at.

Ilana Gabrielle: There are two sides to every conflict. These relationships are deeply important and need to be nurtured every bit as much a romantic relationship.

10. In the world of celebrities, who would you say has the best Girl + Friend relationship?

Ashley Griffin: I certainly don’t presume to know the true ins and outs of any relationships where I don’t personally know the people involved. But based on what the general public gets to see, I would have to vote team Tina Fey/Amy Poehler hands down. (And as we all know, Tina Fey is my spirit animal).

Ilana Gabrielle: It's so funny that Ash said Tina Fey and Amy Pohler! I just read Amy poheler's book and was so touched by the way she talks about her female friendship and how important they are. SO, I'm going to say I'm the Amy to Ashley's Tina! Which makes a lot of sense because, like Amy, I look like a tiny tot with big eyes next to miss leggy Ashley's Tina!

Ashley GriffinMore on Ashley:

Ashley is most well known as the creator of the pop culture phenomenon Forever Deadward. As a performer, Ashley recently appeared as "Elphaba" in the For Good, Wicked special event concert at the Gershwin Theater, and is currently playing "Rosalind" in A.N.O.N Productions As You Like It. Select credits include: Twelfth Night (Viola), The Five Borough Plays - NY Innovative Theater Award nomination for her performance as "Jayne," Chicago (Velma,) Cinderella (Cinderella.) As a writer, Ashley is a semi-finalist for the Eugene O'Neill Festival (Looking For Wonderland co written with Joel Jeske (Cirque du Soleil), and directed by Gabriel Barre (Amazing Grace,)) and is currently in development with Lyra (Music by Evan Jay Newman), and Trial (Director Lori Petty (The Poker House) attached.) Her work has been performed at New World Stages, The York Theatre Company, and 54 Below among others.

Ilana GabrielleMore on Ilana:

Ilana is a summa cum laude graduate of Berklee College of Music. Ilana was recently seen in Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions (Magda) at Fringe NYC, It’s a Man’s World at 54 Below, As You Like It (Jaques), Epic Fail in NYMF, and at Broadway Sessions & The Songwriter’s Salon. She is the writer, director, and star of Kissing Frogs: A Tale of Dating Misadventures in New York City, which has been performed at cabaret clubs across the city, as part of UFest, and was featured on ABC News. She is a songwriter and her first E.P. is coming out this year. Ilana can be seen as "Ariel" in Footloose at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre this summer.

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