Interview with OUTLAWS Creators

In the midst of last week’s Festival I sat down with Alexander Sage Oyen (music and lyrics) and James Presson (book), creators of OUTLAWS. I was able to interview this team on Saturdayevening at the Festival – right after performing their song about a Trader named Joe which was written on the spot at the Festival Symposium.

Karma: My first question is about how you two met and started writing together – I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times!

Alex: [To James] Me or you?

James: Alex had an idea for a musical and he was looking for a book writer. A director recommended that he look into me. So he came to a play that I had written that was running at the time in New York – it had nothing to do with the civil war – but afterwards, we talked.  Alex got in touch a while later and pitched me the idea for the show, I though it was very cool and the music sounded cool. I spent a bit of time watching videos of him on Youtube, and then we started working on it. We we’re actually applying for a fellowship on deadline from the first day we started working.

Alex: I think we had a week and a half. But we got the fellowship!

James: And then we had to write the show… I wrote the first 40 pages, the “whole” first act, none of which is still in it, and Alex did about 10 songs. We had the ability to keep working on it and a few months later we did our first staged reading and the ASCAP workshop shortly after that. Then we did selections at Playwright’s Horizons as the culmination of the fellowship.

Alex: And then we did this! From our first reading last year, it’s been a year.

James: We started working on it maybe six months before that.

Karma: When you were both in high school, do you remember being aware of wanting to write musicals?

Alex: As a matter of fact, I got the idea [for OUTLAWS] in high school! The original opening number, I wrote when I was 17! Then it was the opening of Act Two… until we cut it. Like most songs you write when you’re 17. Anyway, I had a background in performance and then in my sophomore year, we were doing Bertolt Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN and I wrote music for the lyrics and by proxy I ended up writing the incidental music for all shows while in high school, from my Sophomore year on.

James: Did they let you carry the water at football practice too?

Alex: [laughs] Oh yeah, that too. But it made me a better creator. It made me experiment with music in a way that I don’t think a lot of people get to do. I think anyone who knows what they want to do in high school should not be stopped; they should be encouraged no matter what.

James: And this is my first musical – I’ve been mostly doing plays. I went to college for performance and then got into directing – I didn’t really like acting that much because everyone tells you what to do – so I decided to do directing and then I’LL tell everyone what to do! Then I learned that directing is an even larger system telling you what to do. So finally, I just decided, “Fine – I’ll write the thing myself!”

Karma: The great power struggle!

James: Right. Now no one will stop me! I like musicals, in general, and I grew up enjoying musicals but I don’t write music so it didn’t occur to me. This came along, and the subject drew me to it. I’ve enjoyed doing this and now we’ve got some other things planned for the future.

Karma: Fast-forward to the festival…

Alex: “The festival?” [a reference to INTO THE WOODS which was made about 1,000 times during the weekend.]

Karma: What is it like to audition all of those kids on the first Tuesday after everyone arrives?

James: I loved the auditions!

Alex: Basically everyone is in the large rehearsal studio, and all three teams sit behind desks and the actors come in and sing two songs. Then we call people back and they bounce between rooms. It’s very kinetic and frenetic and frantic.

James: You’re sitting there with this list of people who you called back, like, “I don’t even remember who that is! Where’s his headshot??” And you find it stuck behind the piano.

Alex: And you have to strategize because you know other teams need to cast people, too. And every show this year has a male lead – we have two male leads. We had to go into casting with our first, second, and third choices for roles. I think we got most of our choices…

James: Yeah, we got a ton of them.

Alex: We have an amazing cast.

James: We were super fortunate – they’re awesome and they work really hard.

Karma: I was sitting in a reheasal room for another show and you guys were next door doing your opening number, where Jordan [Ford] belts, and when he started singing the rehearsal I was in just sat and listened.

Alex: Jordan Ford is just….

James: the man. What a voice!

Alex: Yeah, and what an actor!

James: And he worked so hard.

Alex: You can tell we think he’s a big deal.

James: The whole group took it so seriously. Our cast was focused!

Karma: Has the show changed at all in the past two weeks?

Alex: Yes and no.

James: Some small changes that probably have yielded significant results, but they were small adjustments.

Alex: We came here with a big rewrite we had done from November and December. We knew we had a big deadline, December 15th – a month before we got here – and we were terrified.

James: I think we did a complete rewrite over the course of 2 weeks and that’s basically what we have here [at the Festival]. We’d been planning it for 6 months but that was when we typed it out.

Alex: There are nine new songs in the score from when we did it last.

Karma: Do you have any idea when or about what you will change in  OUTLAWS, based off the information you’ve received from this audience?

Alex: It was actually the first time this piece was in front of a live, paying audience that weren’t our friends, mentors, or colleages. We’ll absolutely be thinking about this response.

James:  We’re excitied to hear more, really. We’ve gotten so much – and we’re not complaining – but, so far most of the feedback has been that they loved it. Over the course of the weekend and at Meet the Writers we’ll probably hear more.

Alex: Though, while we want that response, we are absolutely terrified of it.

 

The three of us started talking about our experiences at the Festival, and after showering them with praise for the Trader Joe number (for those who weren’t there: Alex and James were given one hour to write a power ballad for a Trader Joe’s employee who was in a bar in 1969 watching the moon landing. We were impressed they came up with anything at all, much less the hilarious song they performed for us.), we got to talking about the questions asked at the Musical Theater Symposium.

 

Alex: Someone asked a question [at the Symposium] about where musical theater is going, and I think the only real answer is: to an incredibly exciting place. Not only are the creators getting younger, but I think the audience is too.

James: And people who would’ve never seen LES MIS in a million years are seeing it!

Alex: And there was a time when that wasn’t happening.

 

From the future of musical theater, we meandered over to their partnership:

 

Alex: James and I have an amazing relationship. We think the same way… all the time.

Karma: Here’s an idea: you guys should have a best friend themed party. Everyone will dress up as celebrity best friends.

Alex:  Matt damon and Ben Affleck?

James: Who’s who? I’m clearly Affleck.

Alex: Okay I’ll be Damon… Fine!

 

And with that, my interview with Alex (Matt) and James (Ben) concluded. Congratulations on a great weekend!

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