Talkin' BroadwayV.J.

An Interview with
John DeBlass and Meg Belviso

by Matthew Murray

Beginning October 20 and running through November 17, Glass Slipper Theatricals and Joria Productions, in association with Wings Theatre, present The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at the Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets. This is a revival of the musical, which premiered last year. Matthew Murray spoke with the director, John DeBlass, and the book writer/lyricist, Meg Belviso.

The Director

Matthew Murray: What approach did you take in staging The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?

John DeBlass: My approach was to keep it a very naturalistic show. The people are characters; there are character roles and they've all got some eccentricities, they are real people. So my approach to staging it was to keep the direction of it very naturalistic, but maintain the quirkiness of each character.

MM: How did you go about maintaining that quirkiness?

JDB: It's built into the characters--they're written that way. Some of it is seeing what's quirky about them, where the comedy is in the writing, etc., and making sure I keep it in that light. The hard part about that is keeping it from going from quirky into caricature. In a sense, it's not hard to keep it there, it's hard to keep it from going beyond there. That's what I keep my eye on.

MM: What challenges did you face in maintaining the tone of the original source material, while still allowing the stage version to be a new creation?

JDB: From my standpoint of a director, it had to do with maintaining the integrity of what the playwright did. Right from the word go when we started working on the show years ago, the idea was we would do Washington Irving's Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, we wouldn't change it, we would stay as close to that as we could. With what the playwright and composer did, I just had to stay true to what they wrote. If I stumbled on something in the script that I felt was not true to the period, I would say, did you mean this or mean this? My job is really maintaining their integrity, which they did to begin with. In terms of the general production, there are a number of aspects. That it's set in 1795, which puts very specific period restrictions on it. If it's a musical, it has to have singing and dancing, but you have to keep in mind that dancing in 1795 was very different from what it is now. The types of dances people were doing at the time were very specific, they were very specific restrictions. For instance, two people never danced together. Today you'll dance with someone, that wasn't done at the time. It was basically done in groups of four. It was a social situation where certain things weren't acceptable as they are today. So that integrity also has to be maintained.

MM: Do you consider the play oriented more towards adults or children?

JDB: Right from the word go, we decided, again in keeping with Washington. Irving's work, which is a work that is completely accessible to children, but not necessarily a children's story, when we sat down and said, "Let's create this show," we wanted to keep that in mind. We wanted to have equal appeal to both. So, it's got to be a clean family show in the sense of no sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and yet have an interesting, intriguing, as sophisticated-as-it-can-be story the adults will be attracted by. Sure, they won't be happy with the mushy stuff between Katrina and Ichabod, but they'll get the idea there is a love triangle going on, but as long as we keep a balance with the spooky stuff, we're not stuck on the love story for so long we lose the kids. And yet we keep the love story going, we keep the interest from that end with the adults.

MM: Was that difficult?

JDB: It is. Because it involves every aspect of the show. It involves the writing, it involves the composition, the tone of the music, staging aspects, and it involves the technical aspects of the production to an enormous extent, getting the technical special effects, how can we get better effects with no more money... You have to start with balancing it out in the book, we have these scenes and can go back and forth very nicely. Obviously, the story with the love interest is staged very straight until something in that scene suggests a problem in the supernatural, in which case I, as a director, need to make sure I'm leading that into the next scene where something is going to happen. So, when we get into a scene about the Headless Horseman or a chase, the whole manner of the staging and what happens from a tech standpoint is very different.

MM: What was the most challenging part of the show?

JDB: Truthfully, the most challenging part is doing it on this level, in the sense that the show would be much more simple to do with a whole lot more money behind it. That's the nature of Off-Off-Broadway. You say this would be easier with a lot more money and you'd all sit there, and that's what you're doing for eight hours a day. On a certain level, the piece has a wonderful story, a story I've loved since I was a kid, and the more I work on it, the more people who say I love this, I want to be involved. Casting it well makes the work a lot easier. There is a saying that 80% of directing a show is casting it right, and that's really true. Having a cast that fits what I see and can do technically the work I need them to do and can get along with everyone else instead of fighting everyone else.

MM: How has the show changed in the year since its first production?

JDB: One of the things is we've added more of the Headless Horseman, more chases, more spooky stuff. That's what everyone wanted, more spooky stuff. We've added a little more depth to all the characters, and in doing so, it added a little more supsense, a little more tension in terms of what's going on in the competiton for Katrina, in terms of what's going on with the spooks in the forest, the Headless Horseman and the possibility of his existence. One of the things we always tried to do was set it up so that, at the end of the show, we don't know what happened to Ichabod Crane. That's the way it should be, if four people go to see a show and they go out to dinner afterwards, there should be four different opinions. And we're still trying to refine that a little more. if it's too obvious in any one direction, everyone walks out and says, "So what?" But if they go home and argue about it, it's great, because it keeps them thinking about it, and might get them to read what Washington Irving had to say about it. And that's one of the things I've always liked about it. Some people think the Horseman got him, some people think Braham got him... The changes we've made were to add more spooky stuff, to tighten stuff up, to add more depth to the characters, and to make sure it's as ambiguous as we can get it at the end.

MM: Did you approach this production differently than the first one?

JDB: It's the same basic idea with basically more meat to work with. I'm approaching it pretty much exactly the same. Where things get different is in specific scenes, pulling out more depth of character, the character is still doing this, but the character still has to be funny at this point. And then, when it comes to the technical end, seeing what we can get in there and make work and really scare the audience, for lack of a better phrase. We should scare the audience.

MM: Had audiences been scared?

JDB: Not scared. They liked it, they thought it was spooky at certain points, but, other than the kids--it's too easy to scare kids, you can't get that--I want to be able to scare adults, I want them to be able to get a little nervous.

MM: How do you go about collaborating with the other members of the creative team?

JDB: That's something I've been doing for so long, it's almost hard to say how it works. As director, I have an overall view of what I want the show to do, and in the end have an overall say. The view is based on what I've read from the playwright and heard from the composer, and it's a back and forth with them. It's the same with the choreographer. They're composing something brand new the same as the composer, so when they're basically composing a piece of dance, they are going back and forth with the composer of the music and saying, "This is where I'm heading dance-wise, can we add eight measures here and swell and get a feeling and I can do this movement wise to get this effect?" Or, if this is a social dance, I want it to be very square, because it's that type of dance. And I look at that and say that fits into my overall view, and from the technical end of it, I have to say what will all of this look like physically. So I'll go to the set designer and say what I have in mind and say, "That looks cool, can we add this over here or try this here, or try something different?" and basically it's that same principle all throughout, the lighting designer, the costume designer, it's not a matter of me collaborating with any one of them, it's all of them collaborating with each other. Everyone's view has to gel with everyone else's. In order to be a true collaboration, it means everyone has to be willing to give and take. Everyone has to have an idea and be willing to give and take with everyone else. We all have to come to the table willing to give on each other's side and/or take so it all becomes one idea. And my job is orchestrating all those ideas into one. So, when I go into work with the actors, I have a very specific idea of what each character should be doing or saying or how. But when I go to the first reading, I put the script down, I walk around, and I listen. Each of them brings something new to the character. It opens up a whole new way of thinking. What each person brings to it adds to it, if you allow it, and that's the nature of collaboration. Basically, it's like conducting a symphony--everyone has a very important input and it's my job to make sure all the best of each person's input gets in there, and they're playing the same symphony - you don't have four playing Beethoven and one playing Mozart.

MM: What do you want people to take away from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?

JDB: To me, a good piece of theatre starts with, "Am I entertained?" Were there interesting stories? Did it move me in a number of different ways? And do I go away contemplating the piece more, maybe considering, in this case, rereading the book? I like to stimulate peoples' minds, especially in this type of piece, based on American literature. Some people may only know it from the Johnny Depp movie which has little to do with Washington Irving. That's kind of what I'd like people to walk away with. I want them to be stimulated, to feel they've been entertained, they were scared, they were happy, they were sad, and they're interested in the story, the people, interested in Washing Irving and his works and if we do a piece by somebody else, I'll do the same for them.

The Book Writer/Lyricist

MM: What did you hope to bring to your stage version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that you felt was missing in other adaptations?

Meg Belviso: Well one thing actually that was great, just right from the beginning, when John, Maria, Eric, and I started talking about it, we were all sort of on the same page in what we saw in it. I think a lot of people see it as sort of a children's story, but we could see there are a lot of things in it that children like, but it also really appeals to adults, because a lot of characters are driven by adult concerns: love, jealousy, pride, and so on. Something that surprised us when we did it is that people don't know how funny it is. They know about the horse, but they don't know about the town or the love triangle, so that was our goal that we think we achieved.

MM: How did you go about working toward that goal?

MB: We started from the original book, and the interesting thing about that, I realized on reading it again, is that up until the chase at the end through Sleepy Hollow, if it was a movie, it would sort of be filmed as a master shot. It's sort of an overview of things, Washington Irving sort of encourages people to imagine things and fill in the blanks in the characters, so we were free to create the characters as we saw them. And they naturally lend themselves to that, there's a lot of things kids can understand, and there's a lot of subtle things that really came out, especially when the actors started working on it. I think the reason that the story has lasted so long is because it has appeal to all people. One of the biggest questions dealt with in any adaptation is what actually happens. When I was a kid, I thought the Headless Horseman always got Ichabod in the end, but when you read the book as an adult, it's more clear it was all a joke. We wanted to keep it ambiguous, so there's a strong case for either version. Anyone who wants it to be a ghost story can walk away with that, but they can see it the other way, too. That's a big part of keeping it fun for all ages.

MM: What difficulties did you face adapating the original story into a musical?

MB: The characters are very broad in the original, and there are no actual "scenes." Because they're broad, it was almost up to us to make them more human. We found with all of them, more things started coming out--they all became much more likable. What we're doing in this production, which is different from last year, the characters all have more depth. In the original, the love triangle is more like a game, but in this version, we really started bringing out that there are a lot of real feelings involved, you can see both men really care about the girl, she really cares about both of them, and she really cares about what they see in her. There was a lot there.

MM: Have there been any changes to the musical in the year since it was first presented? How did they come about?

MB: One of the main things is the balance of scary versus funny. Last time it was much more funny. So, what we really tried to do is hit more of a balance. In the original, there's the story and the chase at the end, but we tried to make it clear the Headless Horseman is sort of a constant presence. He does take an interest in what's going on, he's more of a spectre lurking outside, watching everything that's going on.

MM: How do you make it scarier?

MB: I would say, actually, this is one of the good times where it's good to have a small budget. The Horseman doesn't just ride out to the middle of the stage. What you don't see is always scarier than what you do see, and all the characters in the town are caught up--everyone knows pieces of the story, has heard rumors, and enjoy scaring each other, so it's more of a sense of them having fun telling these scary stories. It isn't like a real horror story, I think the stories are always told the way children would naturally tell each other or adults would tell each other. There's a sense that the characters and the audience are in it together, so they're all kind of enjoying the scariness together.

MM: How much influence did the actors have over your work?

MB: I would say a lot. You know, you type something and you have something in your head. But once you see someone doing it, they bring a thousand things to it you hadn't originally thought of. The more the actors worked on it, the more they brought it their own. There were actors who would add things on their own that would be brought out in the character, and in every case it made the character funnier or more human. One of the things you were impressed by is that, really, everybody gave their character their own story. You could probably follow any character in the play and find an arc, that's sort of suggested in the play, but not in the way the actors have brought to it. You got a sense of the town... In a group scene, you could look at anybody onstage, and there would be something going on there.

MM: What sort of research did you have to do?

MB: In some ways, it's a really modern story; it's not like anything in it has changed. We also had a lot of fun with the setting--it's soon after the Revolutionary War, so we have a lot of references to things that have happened, and all the characters refer to the Revolutionary War and the people in it as contemporary people, they're sort of their celebrities. We sort of tried to get into the season. There's one song, "Men of Reason," where they talk about the mindset of the time. It's not like a history lesson, so if it came down to making it something the audience would understand or a history lesson, we went with the audience. Everyone seems sort of like you or me, they just have different points of reference, they just don't know the same things we know.

MM: What sort of research did you have to do on the Horseman?

MB: He was a real person. A lot of the things we made up, there's Washington Irving who has his own take on him. I found on the Internet that there was a real spectre in Sleepy Hollow that they think he was based on. He was a Hessian soldier, and he was chasing an American courier through Sleepy Hollow, and sort of ended up chasing him into an American camp. They shot something called a chain--two cannonballs tied together with a chain--and that's how he lost his head. That's a fun fact and a story that needed to be told. It's a legend, so you can do your own things with it. But I think Irving probably was using that local legend as the basis for what he was doing.

MM: What sort of collaboration existed while working on the score?

MB: The whole thing, throughout, has been a big collaboration between people. We sat down with the director and choreographer and with each scene we talked about songs that would come naturally. We had opportunities to do a period dance for the choreographer. Eric and I would always talk about the kind of song, the flavor he was thinking of doing musically, and we would always talk about that beforehand. I would do lyrics, he would work on it in the style he wanted, and we would work back and forth until it worked. It's very eclectic, the music is.

MM: In what ways would you consider it eclectic?

MB: I guess you would have to use "post-modern." Some songs lend themselves to a sort of more period sound, and some of them are more... Everything is very standard, there's no rap in it or anything, so I don't think anything sticks out that way. Eric went with the songs that went, "I think it wants to be this," so some of them naturally were more traditional sounding.

MM: Do you use book songs?

MB: It's funny, because those are favorite songs, the ones that really drive the plot. Sometimes, I think the best songs are the ones that reveal character and drive the plot. There's one song in it called "Guest of Honor," where everyone is sort of getting ready for a party. It started out as a duet and ended up as a trio. We said, this isn't a trio, and it obviously should be. I think that song is a good example. You have three people getting ready for a party. On one hand they're revealing some character things, but when the song is over, you know what the person is expecting to get out of the party and what they're going into it with. What's left is to see how it plays out, and all of them can't go home happy. We decided from the beginning that the whole chase through Sleepy Hollow was going to be sung, "so here's what happened when he walked home." In this version we have even more... One of the thing Irving makes clear is this is a community of storytellers--they don't have TV so they tell stories all the time, so we've woven in more stories about the Horseman, more background at the spirit and what he's done, people saying, "Let me tell you this story that I heard." I think they're going to be really good.

MM: How do you handle the transition from a book scene into a song?

MB: That's always the big moment. What I've always heard is when the emotions get so strong, talking doesn't do it. When we originally started, I did the book first, and a lot of things that were originally in dialogue came naturally into the songs. A lot of it was sort of, we would have the scene and we would say INSERT SONG HERE. When we heard people reading it, there would be no reason for the dialogue, "I told you this, and now I'm going to sing it to you." It's strange how natural it seems once you get it right. The only way you can do it is to hear people doing it, and realizing that it doesn't sound like it came out of nowhere. A lot of that is the actors... Once they have the hold on their characters, they know why they're starting to sing. Technically, we started the scene and knew you were going to have a song and saw what dialogue we didn't need and worked on that transitional moment, saving the big information for the song.

MM: What do you want people to take away from this production?

MB: I hope that everyone ends up loving the characters as much as we do. I've mentioned some of the main characters, but I love all the characters, so I think that's a big thing. I think it gives you a lot to think about, the way we've done it. I'd like people to go out wondering what really happened, thinking about who the girl should have chosen. It's a lot about human nature, there's a lot of things there, but the best I would like people to take away from it is I would like people to have been scared at some point, and it would be nice if they would go out humming some of the music.


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
October 20 through November 17
Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 563-3756 or online at Glass Slipper Theatricals

Photos by Deborah R. Rosen
First photo Jessica Grant and Daniel Elborne. Second photo Brian Eric Stivale and Kelly Jeanne Grant. Third photo Beth Covell and Emily Johnson.

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