The collaborators Sean Grennan (book and lyrics) and Leah Okimoto (music) have been listening to the crowds, and fine-tuning their new show with director Paul Hough, who is AHT's artistic director.
"We've cut a few lines and rewritten a few jokes that seemed funnier in the rehearsal room," Grennan told Playbill.com March 7, the day of the press opening. "We've adjusted some of the tempos and dynamics of the songs and the staging of certain scenes to accommodate this thrust setting. Basically we learn everything from the audience's reactions and have let them teach us what to do next."
Performances for the new musical that charts the rise of a canine named Jack from puppyhood to adulthood play to April 22 in Missouri.
The musical is an AHT commission by the creators of the locally popular four-actor musical Married Alive! that premiered as part of AHT's 2005-06 season and has since been picked up for independent productions at theatres around the country. A Dog's Life features Kansas City actors Jessalyn Kincaid as Little Dog and John-Michael Zuerlein as Jack, the hero of the show; and New Yorkers Kurt Robbins (tours of Les Miz and Thoroughly Modern Millie) as Joel (Jack's owner) and Nicholas Ward (national tour of Show Boat) as Big Dog.
Grennan previously told Playbill.com, "A Dog's Life charts the life of Jack the dog and his accidental master, Joel, from the adoption to its inevitable conclusion. It differs, I think, from other canine-themed shows in that it tracks one dog's life and all the stages he and his owner go through along the way."
In October 2006, American Heartland Theatre sponsored a week-long A Dog's Life workshop that culminated in a staged reading for 400 AHT subscribers. This is the second project for the writing team. They are currently also at work on a new holiday show (Another Night Before Christmas).
A Dog's Life is directed by AHT's artistic director Paul Hough and music directed and accompanied by Anthony Edwards. Hough directed the world premiere of Married Alive!.
Lilli Zarda, Rick Brown and Jeff Fegley round out the producing team.
Grennan — who also has a dog named Jack — told Playbill.com, "The title is a bit of a misnomer in that the journey, the change that takes place happens with the human owner. In fact, there is one scene at the end of the show that happens in the aftermath of the dog's passing. It has an uplift for the audience — we hope — in the owner has learned something very valuable from the dog about how short life is and what is important in our time here. However, much of the evening is spent focused on how a dog sees things and having fun with those moments. I know that this makes it sound like homework or unyielding sadness. It's actually a comedy. Really!"
Grennan added, "When we started out to work on this show, we considered doing a straight revue that featured lots of unconnected sketches about dogs. That's a very valid, enjoyable way to go. However, that chronic desire to have you care cropped up, and we find that easier to accomplish in a more linear story telling format. Therefore, instead of following dogs we decided to focus on one dog, Jack."
What attracted composer Okimoto to the idea of A Dog's Life?
"Watching Sean and his dog Jack over the past few years absolutely sold me on this idea," she told Playbill.com. "Their relationship and the way they take care of each other in different ways has truly amazed me and in turn has led me to pay more attention to other people and how devoted they are to their dogs as well. There is something unique about the unconditional love and affection that animals offer their owners, and it's no wonder that our country has become even more passionate about pets in our day and age. I generally gravitate towards show ideas that I feel will speak to people and be relevant in some way to their lives, and also to ideas that explore one specific aspect of life in order to provoke some thought in other areas — all the while making them laugh and cry."
The collaborators have tackled rewrites in recent weeks.
Okimoto said on Feb. 28, "I wrote a new song last week because the song that we had in that scene felt like it was actually an intro to a different song. In addition, we've trimmed and expanded songs, changed keys, changed harmonies, reassigned lyrics, rewritten lyrics, tweaked melodies, you name it."
How do Grennan and Okimoto approach songwriting?
"We're both hermits when it comes to writing," she said. "It's lucky that we live in the internet age! He'll write a draft of a scene and sketch out the lyrics to a song and email it to me. Then I'll walk around town or drive in my car with the lyrics in my pocket for a few days and try to work out a draft melody. When I have a melody that I'm happy with, it usually requires some lyric tweaks, either structurally or adding another syllable to a line, etc. I'll send him back the version of the lyrics that I'm building my melody off of, and we'll go back and forth a few times, the song becoming more solidified with each round. Then I'll sit at the piano and figure out the piano accompaniment and create a piano/vocal score on my laptop. The last step is singing the song for Sean and getting his reaction, and if he likes it, after that the work is just polishing."
The creative team includes assistant director of movement Steven Eubank, set designer Del Unruh, stage managers William J. Christie and Terre Winstead, sound designer Roger Stoddard, lighting designer Shane Rowse and costume designer Ron Megee.
During the run, local animal shelters will offer pet adoption opportunities.
For more information about A Dog's Life, visit www.AmericanHeartlandTheatre.com or www.adogslifethemusical.net.
Grennan and Okimoto's Married Alive! will make its Chicago premiere in summer 2007 at Marriot Theatre in Lincolnshire, IL. The Barter Theatre in Virginia will also produce a version of it. Visit www.marriedalive.net.
Musicals about dogs appear to be mini-trend lately. At least two other canine-themed projects have appeared in recent seasons — Tails (at www.tailsthemusical.com) and Bark! The Musical (at www.barkthemusical.com).