What do Kirsten Childs’s musicals have in common? They’ve almost all sprung from “some off-the-wall inspiration,” the writer/composer insists.
“I see something that sets me down a path that, perhaps, would send someone else down a different path,” says Childs, whose latest musical, Bella: An American Tall Tale, is another work that could only have come from her fertile imagination.
Bella’s path to the stage began when Childs saw a woman walking down a city street, holding the men around her “spellbound.” The woman had what Childs described as a fertility goddess figure—“full-bodied, big thighs, big bottom. This is not what we are told men find attractive in a woman!” The street scene fascinated Childs. “I’ve always known that there was this sort of attractiveness, but then you always hear, ‘Does this dress make my butt look big?’”
So in Bella, a tall tale set in the American West (now having its New York City premiere at Playwrights Horizons, May 19-July 2, after a well-received debut at Dallas Theater Center last fall), the lead is an African-American woman named Bella whose magical quality isn’t Paul Bunyan’s ax or Pecos Bill’s snake lasso but her larger-than-life derriere.
Best known for the breakout musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which had a successful Off-Broadway run in 2000 and is now making a comeback—it ran in London earlier this year and will be one of the productions in the Encores! Off-Center series in July at New York City Center—Childs has been writing consistently since she got serious about making theatre in the early 1990s. But it’s been more than 10 years since she’s had a major New York production: Her last was Miracle Brothers, about a rebellious 17th-century Brazilian slave and his slavemaster brother, which played at the Vineyard Theatre in 2005 to mixed reviews. New York audiences have since been deprived of Childs’s inimitable storytelling and optimism—a sunny outlook that nevertheless doesn’t hesitate to shine a light on some of the darker aspects of the world.
“The musical theatre form can lift you to such a wonderful place,” Childs testifies. “And it’s my personal and political goal to be uplifting, without needing to give people rose-colored glasses, without needing to let the truth be swept under the carpet, and without pretending that awful things don’t exist.”
With its backdrop of the American West, Bella achieves this uplift by shifting the focus from the usual ranchers and cowboys to overlooked people of color who were also part of the narrative.
Musical theatre, like Westerns, has left out many people of color as well, Childs points out. She is working to change that. Originally from Los Angeles, she began her career as a modern dancer. It was an audition for the national tour of Chicago in the late 1970s—after joking around with a director she had no idea was Bob Fosse, she got the role of Velma Kelly—that moved her into musicals. After several years performing on Broadway and across the country, Childs began to see that musical theatre roles for African Americans were scarce and limiting: as the one black character in an all-white show, in all-black versions of shows originally written for a white cast, or as singers in revues with more stress on vocal pyrotechnics than characterization.
It was partly to correct that situation that Childs turned to writing. At first she didn’t believe her work would be successful.
“I remember thinking that there was going to be someone who’d say, ‘I can write rings around that girl! I’ll show her what a good musical is!’ And hopefully that smart-aleck would be talented and would write a fabulous musical about people of color. I would get the competitive juices of other people flowing and great musicals would be written for black folks, and my mission would be accomplished.”
The first musical she attempted was an adaptation of the Odyssey in which a Tuskegee Airman tries to get home to his Penelope back in the States. Childs ultimately couldn’t make it work, but the impulse to keep writing prompted her to enroll in New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, where she studied with teachers such as Julie Taymor, Charles Mee, and Sheldon Harnick.
Though Bella began as a personal project for Childs, in short order it became a commission from Playwrights Horizons. Tim Sanford, the Manhattan company’s artistic director, had worked with Childs some 17 years ago on Bubbly Black Girl, and he figured he was destined to produce her work again. When he heard part of the first act of Bella, he knew this was the show.
Kent Nicholson, director of musical theatre at Playwrights, had the same reaction. “The moment we heard the first couple of songs, we were in love with the tone and the innate silliness of the piece,” he says.
Sanford and Nicholson used the Musicals in Partnership Initiative that Playwrights received from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in late 2008 to produce Bella. The granting program provided $2 million over seven years for commissioning and producing, and was then extended an additional four years. The grant requires Playwrights to find a regional-theatre partner for a show’s first production, after which it comes to Playwrights for its second mounting (with at least a few months in between runs to do any necessary rewrites/rethinks). Other Playwrights musicals to come from the program were Far From Heaven and The Burnt Part Boys, and at least two other shows are still moving through the pipeline.
The initiative helps writers develop their shows in front of audiences. “What musicals need in order to come to life are productions,” says Sanford, “but because they are so expensive, a lot of musicals get umpteen developmental workshops. Those can be misleading. You get your most reliable information when real people are watching.”
A production outside NYC also alleviates the pressure for the show to look perfect the first time out. “You can actually step back from the work and allow people to have a chance to live in the bodies and the music you’ve created,” Childs observes. “You actually get to see this piece that started as a little bit of something grow, thrive, and flourish.”
Sanford found his regional-theatre partner for Bella in Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of Dallas Theater Center (DTC), but it was Childs herself who helped bring the Dallas team on board. She first worked with DTC in 2012 as co-lyricist, with Rajiv Joseph, on Fly, a musical version of Peter Pan with a script by Joseph and music by Bill Sherman. A few years later, when Moriarty ran into Childs in New York and asked what she was working on, she sent him the script of Bella’s first act with a few songs—and the Texas company signed on without even seeing the second act.
As Bella was taking shape, Playwrights was producing Bootycandy, a new play by playwright and director Robert O’Hara. Sanford thought O’Hara and Childs would make a good team, so he invited Childs to see O’Hara’s play. “It just seemed like a match made in heaven for O’Hara to direct Bella,” Sanford says, adding that he thought the two artists shared a sensibility of big ideas, satirical elements, and surprising turns into darker areas.
O’Hara was familiar with Childs from her previous musicals, and the moment he heard Bella’s first song, “Big Booty Tupelo Gal,” he knew he wanted to sign on as director. “I was taken into an entirely new headspace,” O’Hara recalls.
They got to work preparing for upcoming readings and workshops. O’Hara helped streamline the first act so that everything took place in one location: on a train headed west. He also served as a pessimistic complement to Childs’s optimistic outlook. As Lee Trull, director of new play development at DTC, puts it, “Kirsten is: ‘The glass is half full.’ Robert is: ‘There’s something wrong with my glass!’”
The Childs-O’Hara collaboration thrives on the two artists’ valuing each other’s talent and contributions. “He pulls no punches,” Childs says of O’Hara. “He says whatever he wants to say, and a lot of those things are what I need to hear. It’s a crazy ride. But people have to be on the ride with you, and Robert is there 100 percent.”
O’Hara has a similar assessment. “When you encounter genius, you allow it to take the floor,” O’Hara declares. “So I sometimes sit back and take as much as I can from her guidance.”
And despite his professed pessimism, O’Hara still wants to see Bella have a happy ending. “For the most part, we’re used to seeing the struggle of people of color in our narratives set in the past,” he says. “We’re used to seeing historical narratives about only the victimhood of black people. But this story also examines the fuller capacity of the human condition.”
Childs and O’Hara needed a dynamite lead actor to play Bella, and they found her when they took the show to the Sundance Institute at MASS MoCA in Massachusetts in the fall of 2015. O’Hara had previously directed Ashley D. Kelley at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and asked the performer if she was interested in doing the Sundance workshop.
Kelley was instantly drawn to the piece and the character, especially to what she refers to as Bella’s joy and light. “She’s so sure of herself as a woman,” Kelley says of Bella. “She’s not bothered by what everyone else thinks of her. I gravitate toward that.”
Kelley describes the story as an example of #BlackGirlMagic, a hashtag term used to talk about the universal awesomeness of black women. “I’m a plus-size black woman,” the actor notes. “You never really see me as a leading lady in anything. This piece says, ‘You can be whatever and do whatever, as long as you own it and know where you’re coming from.’”
Dallas got involved in the Bella project in January of 2016, and since Playwrights had already scheduled its run for this spring, DTC needed to program its staging for the fall—a fast turnaround for a new musical. Even with separate productions, the dramaturgy was continuous, with both artistic teams involved in the notes sessions and conversations. The theatres also shared the cost of orchestrations and scenic elements such as costume pieces, props, and video design (created on projectors that could be used in both theatres). The general design in Dallas was sized to fit the smaller Playwrights stage.
As much as Childs’s own career represents progress, she is still one of the few female musical theatre writers of color working today, and the only one in New York this season, on Broadway or off. Moriarty doesn’t expect that disparity to last. “The more stories that get out there, the more people will say, ‘Oh, if those stories can be told, I have something I want to add,’” he says. “It would be awesome if Childs’s voice served as the clarion call to smash down some more walls and allow more voices into the musical theatre canon.”
Childs agrees, of course: “I firmly believe there need to be more stories of this kind, and that we need to support the younger generation. Women need to open doors for each other.”
Says DTC’s Trull, “Kirsten is walking the lonely road joyfully. She refuses to give in. Her protagonist in Bella does the same thing.”
Shoshana Greenberg is a musical theatre writer, playwright, and theatre journalist living in New York City.