In a word — or, more accurately, in a clever logo graphically designed as iOW@ — the title of Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz’s new musical now at Playwrights Horizons is a computer-age rendering of our 29th state, the land of cornfields and caucuses. This is where Sandy discovers — via Facebook — where her old prom date has settled. It’s a romantic connection, and, without a second thought, she uproots herself and her more rational teenage daughter, Becca, and hightails it to the Midwest for a wildly misjudged, better-late-than-never happily-ever-after.
That's the gist that drives this amiably eccentric antic to Iowa, marking the first musical pairing of six-foot-six Almond and the relatively life-size Schwartz. He is 38 and from Nebraska; she is (like the title of one of her earlier opuses) 41-derful and from New York, but they hit it off creatively and have been harmonizing ever since.
Ordinarily Schwartz's plays (God's Ear, Cause for Alarm, and the recent Something Fun) are so language-led there's little room for music, and, while there's no truth to the rumor the scripts are so heavy that porters have to deliver them to actors, they are a challenge to memorize and execute at a rapid-fire pace. Here, director Ken Rus Schmoll paces the play at 78rpm and gets it all in, in a head-swimming 105 minutes.
iow@ is a cautionary comedy about spending too much time at the computer, an increasingly common failing to which Schwartz readily pleads guilty. "Initially I didn't know if I wanted it to be a musical," she admits. "When I did decide I wanted it to be a musical, I specifically wanted Todd to write the music. I didn't just want anyone. I wanted Todd because there is something about his music that would really fit — the beauty and emotion of it. His music just goes straight to the heart. "This was our personal, passionate project. No one was asking for it. We didn't have a commission or anything. We just wanted to do it. That made it really special."
"It made it special because we kept following our own impulses," Almond chimes in. "I think the magic ingredient of our writing musicals is that we never knew what we were writing — ever. We just knew if it felt right or not. We'd sit in a room with actors and have them read, [and] then come up with ideas. We knew instantly. 'Let's be brave and try this wild idea. If it doesn't work, let's figure out how to make it work.'"
Workshops were their modus operandi. Schwartz figures they did "about a million," but Almond puts the figure closer to ten. "When you're involved in the process with Jenny," he says, "what you see is an idea appearing in a rewrite. Then that idea starts to develop. You can see it in workshops, every day more and more."
"That's something I can do when I start the script from the beginning every time," injects Schwartz, who brings new meaning to the process of rewriting. "At some point, I thought, 'Why on earth am I doing this?' But it really does get the play very much in my body. It helps me to create a palette of words to bring into the tapestry. I set up themes and see them through and integrate them. I'll suddenly see someone and say, 'Oh, he's important to the play. Okay, I gotta go back and develop him.'"
Jenny Schwartz-Todd Almond Musical Iowa Opens Off-Broadway
"When we started," says Almond, "all the text was Jenny's and all the songs were mine. There was the play, and I'd come with songs. Then, at a certain point toward the end of the play, some of the actual text became sung lyrics. It was the first time where I wrote the music to Jenny's text. We thought it was successful so we found other moments where the text could become lyrics, and we started collaborating."
Particularly striking and unconventional was the orchestra of three that Almond assembled. "I knew I had a limited number of musicians just on a budgetary level. I wanted piano and a bass — that was the groundwork I needed — but I struggled over what the third instrument should be. A fellow composer and I were talking about the families of instruments and how it's exciting to have the families of instruments speak to each other, so I thought it'd be good to have two strings instead of a wind. I wanted a sound that felt like a family of instruments so I chose a third string."
Inevitably the piano carries the melodic load. "I'm a pianist, and I write at the piano, so anything you see of mine will have a lot of piano. I tend to start there. I wanted to give it a little more color, but I didn't want to give it that general orchestra color. I wanted it to have a specific musical stamp. I mean, I'm just exploring, just playing. What do you have for instruments? You got to figure out what colors you can get. I just like the way those strings talk to each other. They sound mournful and odd." And that's not an inappropriate sound for people misplaced in the Midwest.