Conference Call: Ben Bonnema & Amanda Ryan Paige: "The Apple Boys: A Barbershop Quartet Musical"
It’s been 15 years since I’ve had the chance to see Amanda Ryan Paige on stage and three years since I’ve spoken with Ben Bonnema and THAT is just way too long! I’m so excited to be getting to do this joint interview with Ben & Amanda about their new musical The Apple Boys: A Barbershop Quartet Musical.
Ben wrote the music and lyrics for the show while Amanda is one of the featured actors in the show. It was great to learn their viewpoints on the creation of this show. Amanda gave us the actor’s view while Ben goes behind the music.
I also got to spend some time with Amanda and Ben separately talking about some of their other projects. Amanda & I reminisce about Zanna, Don’t while Ben & I talk about Boys Who Trick Me.
Set in Coney Island at the turn of the 20th century, The Apple Boys features four actors playing over forty characters. The story centers on “Jack Chapman III” (Johnny Appleseed’s grandson) who sets out to save his family apple orchard by enlisting the help of “Nathan Handwerker” (founder of Nathan’s Hot Dogs), “Warren Lincoln Travis” (“The World’s Strongest Man”), and “Lina ‘Hank’ Beecher'“ (designer of the first looping roller coaster). Together, this very different group of friends discover the magic of a new kind of music: barbershop harmony.
The Apple Boys: A Barbershop Quartet Musical will play at HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas) from November 30-December 23. Click here for tickets and follow the show on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
Amanda Ryan Paige:
1. This November/December you are in the original new musical The Apple Boys: A Barbershop Quartet Musical. What made you want to be part of this show? I've known David Alpert, our director, for many years. We've never had the opportunity to work together on a project in the city.
2. In addition to "Hank" you play many, many, many other characters. What are some of the challenges to playing so many characters? How do you keep them all in order? Our book writer, Jonothon Lyons, has done such a great job writing characters that pop off the page. The only challenge IS keeping them in order!
3. Your character in the show is the designer of the first looping roller coaster. When have you felt like your life was a looping roller coaster? I'm an actor. So...today...yesterday...Wednesday of last week...
4. Since the premise of the show is "Jack Chapman III" trying to save his family's apple orchard, what is your favorite kind of apple? Honeycrisp!
5. What is something from your family you'd fight tooth & nail to save? My grandmother's recipes.
6. Since it's the 15th Anniversary of Zanna, Don't and that was the show we met in, I have to ask you about that show. When you think back now to your time in that show, what goes through your head? Actually, the one thing that always boggles my mind when I think back is “How did we have the energy to do that?”
7. Do you remember any stories you haven't shared that you can now reveal? Every night at half hour the men's dressing room would blast Shoshana Bean singing “Bless the Lord My Soul” from the York's production of Godspell to warm up.
8. Do you think this show will have another life in NYC? I would love to see Zanna come back to NYC! It would be a hoot to sit back and watch the next generation sprint their way through the show.
9. For this last question, we are going to combine Zanna, Don't and The Apple Boys. If "Candi" from Zanna, Don't met "Hank" from The Apple Boys, what do you think their interaction would be like? “Candi” would assign “Hank” "ice sculpture" for the prom.
1. This November/December The Apple Boys: A Barbershop Quartet Musical, a new original musical for which you wrote the music/lyrics for, is being mounted at HERE Arts Center. How did you get involved with this show? A few years ago I worked at Sleep No More with the book writer Jonothon Lyons. He was in the show, I was in the coat check (good times). We got coffee one day and he asked me to write the songs for this weird musical idea he had. I was flattered, then found out that I was the only composer he knew. Still, I loved barbershop music, so I immediately signed on.
2. In this show, the group of friends discover the magic of a new kind of music. What magic did you discover in writing the music/lyrics for this show? There's something so special about this style of music. It's immediately recognizable, evocative, beautiful, and nostalgic. And because the style requires four voices to sing different notes but blend as one, we were able to take that idea of unity and fuse it into the script, and even how the team now works together. The essence of barbershop is collaboration.
3. Which song was the easiest to write? Which one gave you the most trouble? The easiest and most fun was probably the "Competition Medley." We knew we needed a song near the end of the show where we hear a whole bunch of quartets singing right after the other. It gave me a chance to cycle through a bunch of barbershop styles without the pressure of writing a full song in each. In this number alone, our four actors cycle through 36 different characters, so that was a lot of fun to play with.
There are two scenes in the show - one near the top, one near the end - that are entirely underscored with a few bits of singing. Those were the most challenging to write, because the scenes needed to accomplish so much, the music had to support the scene, match the emotional beats, and also not overpower or distract from the storytelling.
4. What was your process for writing the music/lyrics for this show? For example, did you write the music first, then the lyrics, or vice versa? Jonothon shared a playlist with me that had some of his favorite barbershop recordings from the time period. I used those as a jumping off point, occasionally modeling an Apple Boys song off the style or feel from something in the playlist.
I'd often write music & lyrics at the same time, section by section. Jonothon and I song-spotted together, going through his script and figuring out the best moments to musicalize. The first version of the show was a lot more "play with songs," and we slowly found a way to make it a full-fledged musical.
5. While there are the four main characters, the actors play over 40 characters together. Did you ever get mixed up as to who you were writing for? I didn't, but Jonothon definitely had a job keeping track of which main actor was playing which auxiliary character.
6. What was it like to go back in time to this kind of music, but writing it in 2018? I loved it. The challenge was not to use harmony that would have been too "adventurous" for the time period. I mean, if you study the barbershop scores from the early 20th century, they do some funky chords every once in a while, but super sparingly. So I tried to do the same.
7. Since Amanda is part of this interview, I'm going to ask you the same question I asked her. Her character "Hank" is the designer of the first looping roller coaster. When have you felt like your life was a looping roller coaster? Grad school was a bit of a roller coaster. It was an amazing two-year program, but I was new to the city, fresh out of undergrad, and the workload was intense.
And then I rode on "Kingda Ka" for the first time, but that's a literal Six Flags roller coaster.
8. You recently received the Jonathan Larsen Grant. How do you feel this grant will help you in your career? What went through your head right after you found out you won? The year before, Nikko Benson and I were roommates and both finalists. We made an agreement that whoever won would buy the other a fifth of their favorite liquor. I came home one night to a bottle of Bombay Sapphire on my desk. So the next year, when I got the email saying I was chosen, my first thought (after "HOLY SHIT THIS IS AMAZING") was, "I need to buy Nikko Maker's Mark."
And after the Grant, I had a great meeting with the lovely Jason Eagan, which led to The Apple Boys getting a One Night Stand at ARS NOVA.
9. Since we met during the run of your show Boys Who Tricked Me, let's play with that show title but within the confines of The Apple Boys. So, I ask, which of these boys would trick you and which one would you want to trick? In our show, “Nathan” (of Nathan's Hot Dogs) would definitely trick me because he's that perfect amount of friendly and oblivious and so would end up leading on his gay friends. And who would I want to trick? I think I've learned my lesson, so NO ONE.
10. Since the premise of the show is "Jack Chapman III" trying to save his family's apple orchard, what is your favorite kind of apple? I like Red Delicious, which I recently learned is an unpopular choice. Someone actually said to me, "Red Delicious are the apples you eat as a kid and then grow out of." I really didn't know how to respond to that, other than taking a large bite of the Red Delicious apple I was eating at the time.
More on Ben:
Ben Bonnema is a composer-lyricist and recipient of a 2017 Jonathan Larson Grant by the American Theatre Wing. He wrote book, music & lyrics to Adult Swim's Peter Panic, a musical video game that's been played by over a million people (developed by James Marion). His slumber party musical, Boys Who Tricked Me, was called “heart-healing musical theatre” by Joshua Barone in The New York Times. Other full-length: One Way, with Christopher Staskel (2018 Johnny Mercer Colony at Goodspeed, 2017 Yale Institute finalist Rhinebeck Writers Retreat 2017, reading at Playwrights Horizons,), The Apple Boys with Jonothon Lyons (Dixon Place, Ars Nova), and The Lost Girl with Arianna Rose (Buck Hill Skytop Music Festival). He contributed additional sound design and composition to Punchdrunk's award-winning show Sleep No More. Ben holds an M.F.A. from NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program and is currently Marc Shaiman's music associate.
More on Amanda:
Off-Broadway: Zanna Don’t! (Houseman); Charlie Brown, Henry and Mudge (Lortel). Other NYC Credits: Trailer Park the Musical (NYMF); Awesome 80’s Prom (workshop/co-writer); Lucky Stiff (APAC); Dreams This Way/Raw Impressions (TADA!); Babes In Toyland (Avery Fisher). National Tour: Fiddler, Water Coolers. Regional: Sister Act, Ring of Fire, Arsenic and Old Lace, Rumors, Shout!, Unnecessary Farce, Nunsense, Boeing Boeing, Marvelous Wonderettes, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Perfect/Change (St. Michael’s Playhouse); Spitfire Grill, Nunsense, Boeing Boeing, Spelling Bee (Northern Stage); Into The Woods (Ocean State Theatre); Pump Boys and Dinettes, Ring of Fire (Fireside); Ring of Fire (Alhambra); Boeing Boeing, Pump Boys and Dinettes, Trailer Park the Musical (Mason Street); Pump Boys and Dinettes, Trailer Park the Musical (Willows); Pump Boys and Dinettes, Stand By Your Man (Mtn. Playhouse); Noises Off!, Brighton Beach Memoirs (Leatherstocking); Urinetown (Carousel); Das Barbecü (Arvada); No, No Nanette (Goodspeed); Carousel, Over Here! (Conn. Rep).