The new show — actually, an early show that pre-dates 2004-05's Little Women by a decade — is a serio-comic take on "Alice in Wonderland," refracted through the world of animated films.
Beasts and Saints will be presented at the Frederick Loewe Theater at New York University 3 PM Oct. 28. The cast includes Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jim Stanek, Lisa Howard, John Jellison, Michael Winther, Courtney Balan and Jessica Snow-Wilson.
"Dan and I started writing together when we were students in the MFA program at NYU — the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program," lyricist-librettist Dickstein told Playbill.com. "We began working on Beasts and Saints while we were students there. It was our thesis project. It was subsequently selected for the ASCAP workshop in 1998 and was developed at Musical Theater Works as part of the Fresh Voices series. In June 2000 it was workshopped by the Boston Music Theater Project, directed by Nick Corley."
Dickstein said Beasts and Saints "is basically inspired by what I was reading at the time that Dan and I began writing it." At that time, she had done a lot of reading about early cartoons, comic strips (especially Winsor McCay's "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend") and the origins of animated film.
"Among other things, I read that Walt Disney's first movie was a version of 'Alice in Wonderland' in which he featured a 'real girl' in a 'cartoon world' — and something about that image inspired both Dan and I," Dickstein said. The story she conceived is set in the present and very loosely based on "Alice in Wonderland." Alice is "an aspiring essayist living in Manhattan who, because of her lack of faith, falls down a rabbit-hole of misfortune into the seamy underbelly of a surreal city."
The "lack of faith" part came from an exercise Dickstein and Messé had done in their first year at school "in which we'd been asked to create a musical adaptation of Anouilh's The Lark, about Joan of Arc," Dickstein explained. "My reaction at the time was panic — I didn't really feel compelled to write about saints and didn't know how I would. But then I realized I could just make it a Jewish woman who is approached by saints...and it became comedy and I could relate to that."
So the two ideas were put together: the Winsor McCay-like "Alice in Wonderland" world as well a Jewish "Joan" encountering "saints" — or, possibly, beasts disguised as saints.
(To help prepare, the collaborators also listened to the music of Warner Bros. cartoon composer Carl Stalling.)
Celia Keenan-Bolger plays Alice; Jim Stanek plays Felix, her live-in boyfriend; Lisa Howard plays Saint Margaret of Metuchen, who says she is a messenger from God; John Jellison plays the spirit of Harry Houdini.
The presentation is directed by John Simpkins and musical directed by Greg Pliska.
Messé has a band called Hem, which released two CDs, "Rabbit Songs" and "Eveningland." In summer 2005 Hem toured with and opened for Elvis Costello. Hem will also be performing in the American Songbook series at Lincoln Center in the coming season.
Dickstein and Messé are currently working on a new musical (with the working title Strange Vacation, inspired by "Rip Van Winkle") for Playwrights Horizons.
The reading of Beasts and Saints is made possible by a grant from the Frederick Loewe Foundation and is part of a series of readings of "important new works" by NYU alumnae.
The Frederick Loewe Theater is at 35 West Fourth Street between Greene and Washington Square East. The reading is open to the public, but reservations are required and can be made by calling Karen Henderson at (212) 992-9322.